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GE Additive and UC students team up with zoo to design unique, interactive feeding systems

To simulate foraging in the wild
Posted at 6:00 AM, Jun 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-19 06:01:14-04

CINCINNATI — Innovative 3D printer GE Additive is known for manufacturing aircraft parts, golf clubs, and now – live cricket feeders.

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden recently teamed up with GE Additive and students from the University of Cincinnati to design new tools for its animals to mimic natural feeding behaviors.

Design teams from both entities worked closely with the zoo to create two new devices: an insect-filled, titanium tree trunk and a durable automated giraffe feeder.

According to the zoo’s animal excellence manager, David Orban, the goal for both devices is to extend the time it takes animals to find and consume food, simulating natural foraging in the wild.

Orban said these types of devices are not meant to replace regular feedings but instead to further enrich and engage animals in their daily lives.

“This experience allows the feeding behavior to extend over hours of time as opposed to maybe a few minutes,” he said. “So it keeps the animals more occupied and allows them to investigate using their senses.”

To watch the animals engage with the feeders, click here

For the tree trunk, Orban said live crickets are placed inside of the structure, which is filled with an elaborate network of tunnels and escape holes the insects can choose to explore and emerge. He said they’ve tested the prototype with a number of zoo residents, including the meerkats, a variety of birds and small mammals.

He said it has been engaging for all species, even the crickets.

“We’ve always been focused on trying to provide diverse experiences for our animals, so this is one way we can do that,” he said.

Students Jack Buehler, Andrea Ticknor and Ben Merk designed the giraffe feeder as part of a partnership class between UC and the zoo. The class grouped students from various disciplines to work together on interactive projects for animal enrichment.

Merk, a senior in mechanical engineering, said his skill set meshed perfectly with that of Buehler and Ticknor, who are both majoring in industrial design.

“With our backgrounds, I was able to help out a little more with the technical side and make sure the parts could move together, and my teammates were a lot better at making sure it would fit in the space and meet the requirements for the giraffes,” he said.

After brainstorming with the giraffes’ care team, Merk said they decided to create a timed feeder similar to pet feeders that open automatically to reveal food. He said the challenge was to design a device durable enough to withstand the giraffes’ long, browsing tongues with a material that could be easily cleaned. He said they chose polycarbonate plastic and stainless steel fasteners to avoid cracks or corrosion.

“It’s great having industrial design teammates, because they have access to all those tools and ability to use 3D printers,” he said. “They were able to print a great big box to house our internal components so that they could keep them away from the giraffes and keep them safe from the water or the weather.”

Orban said partnerships like those between UC and GE Additive give the zoo access to cutting-edge technology and materials. He said GE Additive plans to print two more full titanium models and one cutaway model used to educate visitors on the inner workings.

“The fact that the 3D-printed vessel is one singular piece of metal is really impressive. So we want to be able to tell that story, and I think the GE Additive wants to be able to tell that story, too, because 3D printing is the way of the future,” Orban said.

GE Additive lead engineer Shannon Jagodinski said her team worked closely with the zoo on the pro bono project to come up with the optimal design and material.

“To kick things off, the zoo team showed us around and explained their goal to keep animals engaged and enriched. We were thrilled to be working with such an atypical customer and challenge that would allow us to demonstrate that, with additive technology, the sky really is the limit,” Jagodinski said.

Besides it being cool to add “giraffe feeder” to his resume, Merk said he felt working with the zoo helped him grow and broaden his background.

“Going forward, I did enjoy working on projects to help the community and I’d like to continue doing that, and I think the same can be said for Jack and Andy,” he added.

The final version of the giraffe feeder is ready for testing, but Orban said the zoo staff was waiting for the venue’s public reopening so the student design team could watch its device in action.