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Dishes on Demand

A Media Lab device creates and recycles tableware on the fly.

Two years ago, culinary historian Barbara Wheaton challenged members of Counter Intelligence, a Media Lab research initiative that creates new technologies for domestic spaces, to develop a simple way to make disposable tableware.

The multidisciplinary team of electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, and an architect has responded by developing a computer-controlled machine called the DishMaker, which produces plates, bowls, and cups on demand. And the team even went a step further: the dishes are recyclable, so they can be reproduced for the next meal using the same materials. The idea is that machines like the DishMaker could replace dishwashers–and also save space by eliminating the need to store dishes.

The DishMaker was inspired by the growing popularity of rapid prototyping, a method of “printing out” small objects based on computer designs. Leonardo Bonanni, a Media Lab grad student and member of Counter Intelligence, says the method “could one day produce everything we need locally.”

The DishMaker team has fully embraced the “cradle-to-cradle” concept of design and manufacturing. Its approach focuses on the entire life cycle of a product, which ends not in waste, but begins again as a new product. “Rethinking the product life cycle is not only good for the environment, it can lead to products that are more desirable and fulfilling,” Bonanni says.

After several prototype machines, the team constructed a microfactory the size of a dishwasher that forms, dispenses, and recycles plastic dishes. The microfactory comprises commonplace kitchen components, such as electric motors, heating coils, and microswitches, which are controlled by a computer interface with a microwave-style control panel. To recycle the old dishes, the machine heats them up, softening the plastic until the dish becomes a flat disc, ready for its next shaping. The researchers are now working on a DishMaker that will generate dishes of greater quality and variety–possibly with custom shapes and decorative touches–while reducing required energy and time. – By Jack Curtis

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