CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--MIT's latest patented invention, a kitchen appliance
that automatically dispenses dry ingredients for baking, can be credited
in part to a taste for great cookies.
It all began with a class called Designing Smart Machines. In this class
students were asked to come up with ideas for novel machines that would
incorporate a microprocessor. With a handful of the best ideas, they
then divided into groups to determine the potential market for each
machine and build prototypes.
"My dad makes great cookies," said Graduate Student Amy Smith of the
Department of Mechanical Engineering, recalling the genesis of the
appliance invention. "And I thought, `wouldn't it be great to have a
machine where you could push a button and his cookies came out?'"
Ms. Smith's idea interested Louise Jandura and Susan Rynerson, also
graduate students in mechanical engineering, and in about eight weeks--
the length of the class--the three produced a working prototype of the
machine. (Given the time constraints of the class they ruled out a full-
fledged cookie maker, opting instead for a device to dispense dry
Dubbed the Smart Cannister, the machine was so novel that the students'
instructor, Professor Will Durfee (now at the University of Minnesota),
suggested it might be patentable. "He thought it had a legitimate chance
of becoming a real product," said Ms. Jandura.
That was almost three years ago. This month the three received a patent
for their invention.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
The prototype Smart Cannister automatically dispenses sugar and flour
into a bowl placed inside the unit (sugar and flour were chosen as test
ingredients because their properties are representative of the range of
dry ingredients that the machine could be modified to include). Using a
control panel "that doesn't require a manual," Ms. Jandura said, users
can select either a specific amount of one ingredient or a pre-
programmed recipe. Final step: press the "dispense" button.
This user interface, however, is deceptively simple. It hides a unique
set of components, many of which the inventors designed--and built--from
scratch. For example, diagonal slats, or baffles, in the cannisters that
hold the ingredients are key to the efficient dispersal of the
ingredients. Other custom-made components include the scale that weighs
the ingredients and the software underlying the overall system.
Although there are other patented machines for dispensing ingredients,
the Smart Cannister is the most flexible. For example, the machines
developed for industrial applications dispense repetitive batches rather
than variable amounts. They also cost much more to produce, and are not
user-friendly. The only other dispensing product for the home market
cannot dispense more than one ingredient.
THE PATENT PROCESS
Since completing Professor Durfee's course, Ms. Smith, Ms. Jandura, and
Ms. Rynerson (who has since graduated) have had the equivalent of a
second class, this time in US patent law. Working with Alex Laats, a
licensing officer at the Technology Licensing Office, and a patent
attorney, they filed a formal patent application and revised that
document when it was initially turned down. During this process the
students "answered technical questions and did a lot of review work on
related patents," Ms. Jandura said.
All along Mr. Laats has also been working to license the Smart Cannister
technology to a company that could turn it into an actual product (for
more information, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-253-6966). "Our
purpose was to prove that this machine is feasible, and we've done that
to our satisfaction," said Ms. Jandura.
"It was a good project to work on, but it's not our lives' work," said
Ms. Smith, who expects to receive the Mechanical Engineers degree this
June. Her thesis work involved developing a grain mill for third world
countries (she did the design and field testing of this mill in
Tambacounda, Senegal). Ms. Jandura is currently working toward a PhD in
mechanical engineering. Her research involves understanding the human
sense of touch.
Nevertheless, both students view the Smart Cannister as an important
accomplishment. Said Ms. Smith: "I had absolutely no experience with
microprocessors before [that class]. So when I look at all the wiring,
programming, etc., we did, I think: wow. It's pretty cool we did that."