Machine Makes Dishes on Demand

When Barbara Wheaton, culinary historian and honorary curator at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library, told Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers that she longed for durable dishes that didn’t need to be washed and could be thrown away after a meal, she was surprised when they took her seriously. MIT Media Lab’s Counter Intelligence Group, which develops innovative kitchen designs, has created a machine that makes dishes on demand and recycles them after diners have finished a meal. The dishes are made from food-grade, nontoxic acrylic wafers, which are shaped into cups, bowls and plates when heated, then resume their original wafer shape when they are reheated and pressed. Designed by MIT grad student Leonardo Bonanni, the DishMaker frees space in dish cabinets and reduces landfill trash. It also uses less energy to recycle dishes than factories use to make them. And, because the machine can produce up to 150 items, a dinner host would never be short of table settings when unexpected guests arrive: Cooks can select the number of place settings needed using a simple push-button control panel. The prototype DishMaker is the size of a standard dishwasher, and uses the heating element of a toaster oven to shape the items. To recycle the dishes, it heats them to about 300 degrees Fahrenheit to soften the acrylic, then a press restores them to wafers for easy stacking. The machine holds 150 acrylic wafers and can produce a dish every 90 seconds. The wafers produce plates that are only 6 inches in diameter, the size of an average salad or dessert plate, but the machine can be adapted to use larger wafers. Bonanni says the DishMaker would be useful in restaurants, hospitals and other institutions that use a lot of dishes. The process has a couple of glitches, though. The cups require less material than plates, but instead of cutting away the leftover acrylic, the machine currently forms it into a large, flat lip on top of the cup that makes drinking difficult. The other problem concerns cleaning the dishes. The heating process gets rid of some food and sterilizes the dishes, but doesn’t solve the problem of food grease, which tends to settle into the plastic. “We can obviously just stick a dishwasher on the machine, but we’re still investigating ways that would wash dishes without water,” Bonanni says. “That would be a real breakthrough for us.” One big advantage the DishMaker offers is the production energy it saves. “If you made and recycled one of our plates three times a day for a year, the energy that goes into that is comparable to the energy required to make one ceramic plate (in a factory) because the ceramic is fired at about 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit,” says Bonanni. Bonanni says recycling efforts often pose a trade-off between reduced waste and consumption, and the amount of energy required to achieve those aims through recycling. But his device doesn’t require people to collect and process the refuse, and uses little energy to recycle it. The trade-off, of course, is in variety, since the dishes are all uniform and simple in design. “I’d love to have (a DishMaker),” says Wheaton, who worked as a consultant to the MIT group for two-and-a-half years. “But I also very much like nice ceramic (dishes). That would be something you’d have to give up. But for normal, everyday practice it would be very nice to go into the kitchen and punch a few buttons and say, ‘I want so many soup bowls.'” The DishMaker isn’t the only clever solution from the Counter Intelligence Group, which was launched in the mid-1990s and includes a handful of mechanical and electrical engineering students led by associate professor Ted Selker. The group has designed smart countertops that display recipes in large type so chefs don’t have to flip cookbook pages or fumble with stained recipe cards. The system lights up cabinets and drawers and displays messages to indicate where ingredients and cooking tools are located. Another invention involves a kitchen sink that automatically raises or lowers to accommodate the height of the person using it. An X-ray refrigerator uses an interior camera to project the fridge’s contents onto the outside door so people can see what’s inside without opening the door and wasting energy. The camera takes a snapshot of the fridge each time the door is opened, when the contents are likely to change. Future designs would transmit the image to a cell phone or other handheld device so shoppers could see what’s in their fridges while strolling the grocery store aisles. Bonanni has also created a “living cabinet” that grows and preserves food. The prototype uses light and carbon dioxide recycled from a kitchen stove to act as a “life support” system for store-bought produce. A sprig of basil or lettuce placed in the cabinet would not only keep for months, but would grow more leaves. Bonanni says the process works even if the produce doesn’t have roots. The group works with appliance and food manufacturers as well as culinary experts to research ideas. The work is sponsored by appliance manufacturers, who are free to develop any of the group’s designs without licensing. Non-sponsors need to pay a licensing fee. Wheaton says the task of the lab is not to produce finished products, but to explore future possibilities. “You’re not going to find things that go directly from there to the neighborhood kitchen store,” she says. “Their job is to push the envelope to see how far they can go, which I think they do very effectively.” And yet a lot of the group’s designs have, in fact, become products, such as a microwave that reads the bar codes on soup cans to automatically determine how to cook the contents. Bonanni says one of the group’s Japanese sponsors, a kitchen design company called Cleanup, is turning a number of its current inventions into prototypes for high-end kitchens. Wheaton says she was delighted with the work the group did on her dish idea. “I suggested it to them and they went off running with the idea,” she says. “I was impressed that they took my idea seriously and figured out how it could be realized.”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here