ITHACA, NY – In celebration of National Pancake Day on March 8, Ithaca College Professor Michael “Bodhi” Rogers showed off one of the college’s new pieces of a tech: a pancake printing robot.

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Roger’s lab is home to three unique 3-D printers, from the $300 PancakeBot that works strictly in the batter medium, up to the $3,000 MakerBot which prints using a plastic-like substance made from corn starch.

According to Rogers, 3-D printing technology has created a unique learning environment for his students.

“You need to think on the design side. You have to have an understanding of what the printer needs on the front end, and the PancakeBot is very similar to that,” says Rogers.

While the PancakeBot, which Rogers found and backed on Kickstarter, is the least sophisticated of the bunch, it might be the most fun.

Technically a 2-D printer, the PancakeBot allows the user to take an image — something as uncomplicated as the IC logo or as as complex as a person’s portrait — and render it in four shades of pancake.

Like a proper 3-D printer, the PancakeBot prints in layers. Each subsequent layer cooks less than the previous, making for a range of shades that can give the printed image a sense of depth.

Sadly, it doesn’t mix the batter for you. Nor does it include a syrup-delivery system. Perhaps on the next iteration.

One of the reasons Rogers likes the PancakeBot is because it’s two-dimensional, giving students and visiting journalists a clear view of how it actually works.

“I’ve actually taken this all apart, and when you see it all it’s actually pretty easy to make. I can imagine having undergraduate students try and make their own,” Rogers says.

The source image (above) and the final pancake product, along with an edible version of the IC logo. (Photo: Ithaca Voice)

Exploring possibilities

Pancakes are far from the only things being printed in Roger’s laboratory. One of his students is working with an open-source project called E-nable to 3-D print prosthetic hands. Working with E-nable, an organization could become a certified site for people to obtain prosthetic.

“Anybody in a certain area that needs a prosthetic hand can come here, and we do it all for free,” Rogers says.

While PancakeBot is straightforward enough, looking at the other 3-D printers it may not be immediately clear how they turn spools of Polylactic Acid filament — a plastic-like material made from corn starch — into three dimensional objects.

“I like to refer to it as a really fancy hot-glue gun,” Rogers says. “There’s a hot element that melts the plastic and extrudes it out … even though this is 3D, it lays down a 2D surface then changes height. It’s really just doing stacked two dimensional layers.”

The higher tier printers are incredibly precise, able to reproduce details down to one tenth of a millimeter. Small objects can take anywhere from minutes to hours depending on the level of detail and how high resolution.

Another advantage of the technology is how cheap it is. Large spools of filament cost around $45 and some of them have lasted through almost two years of use by Rogers and his students. In fact, Rogers estimated that the pancake printing robot might carry the more expensive materials cost.

The 3-D printers in Ithaca College’s lab (above) and a few 3-D printed objects (below).

Reprinting history

But Rogers and his students aren’t limiting themselves to recreating just small objects. One of the major projects they’ve been working on is creating scale replicas of real historical buildings.

Using a large laser-based scanning device, Rogers and his students have been scanning several historical buildings both local and abroad over the past two years. The laser records a three-dimensional point-map of the space that’s accurate down to two millimeters.

Locations they’ve already scanned include Ithaca’s Eight Square Schoolhouse, Abraham Lincoln’s College in Washington D.C., and Old Fort Johnson in Lake George.

This summer, they’ll take on their biggest project: Trim Castle in Ireland.

Rogers hopes to create modular replicas of the buildings where people could separate the layers and be able to look at each floor individually.

They’re also exploring the potential of creating 3D printed topographical maps of the Ithaca College campus that blind students could use to familiarize themselves with the geography of the campus.

The laser scanner used to scan buildings. (Photo: Ithaca Voice)

“We’re getting close to Star Trek”

Looking ahead, Rogers sees applications for the technology that go well beyond breakfast foods. As impressive as a fully articulated 3-D printed hand is, Rogers says that researchers have been working with 3-D printing human biological cells and have successfully printed a human ear.

“We’re getting close to Star Trek,” Rogers says.

He also mentioned that the IC Physics Club had applied for a $1,200 grant that would allow them to start using their 3-D printers to print more 3-D printers. In fact, the machinery of one of the 3-D printers in the lab was similarly crafted through 3-D printing.

Beyond the big picture, borderline sci-fi possibilities, Rogers also sees local, community-based benefits from the tech.

IC’s School of Humanities and Sciences, for example, and has laid the groundwork to create a “makerspace” like the one at Ithaca Generator.

“If you have these makerspaces set up, you can do a lot of things more local,” Rogers says.

He used the example of a problem he had himself, where a piece from his cold-frame garden had blown away during a storm and the company that made the item had gone out of businesses. Rogers was able to recreate the piece by scanning and 3D printing it at the lab.

“That’ll be a really different way of thinking,” he says. “Even if you don’t have the expertise, there might be this open-sourced, crowd-sourced place you could go and say, ‘Hey, I have this need’ and folks in the community can help.”

A 3-D printed prosthetic hand. (Photo: Ithaca College)

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.