How NASA-level tech is being used to give people unique celebratory desserts
Fun cake decorations are a favorite tradition for all kinds of celebrations. The fancy flowers, beautiful script and layers of brightly colored frosting are a staple in birthday parties, anniversaries and more. But what if decorating a dessert could be done with a level of precision unmatched by the human hand? That’s what central Ohio’s SugarBot Bakery launched this spring, bringing NASA-level technology to the world of decorative sweets.
“SugarBot is a micro-bakery that can be launched at any location with a small footprint,” said co-founder Ben Feltner. “We take online orders to decorate cakes, cookies, cookie cakes and other products, and it’s kind of a step up in decoration that’s a little more fun. You can either submit a drawing or some sort of image or choose from one of our designs and then tell us if you want a custom message. We can handle just about anything, even when people ask for something really unique. It’s kind of like what you would see in a grocery store, but we are using robotics to make all of the decoration happen.”
Based in Columbus suburb Gahanna, SugarBot is an offshoot of BeeHex, a NASA spin-off company modernizing food preparation and personalization by creating advanced 3D printing and robotics systems for the food industry. Early this year, the company began wondering why they weren’t taking advantage of their own technology. They set up a space where they could create unique icing designs by scanning an image and replicating it onto any food surface. They quickly realized they should run with the idea.
“We design and build 3D food printers within the food industry and our top priority is bakeries,” said Feltner. “We were making decoration machines and running them so often that in our office kitchen a while back, I thought, ‘Well, it is actually pretty suited for being a licensed bakery.’ We got that license and started making things that people could eat. We just rolled a machine in there, built a website and started taking orders.”
Initially, people were mostly curious about what exactly SugarBot does. Rather than being flooded with orders, they were flooded with emails. Would-be customers asked questions about the technology, the purpose of the project and more. To capitalize on that curiosity, SugarBot orders come with a video detailing the process of making each item, allowing people to get a feel for the experience even in the era of social distancing. At first, co-founder Anjan Contractor even played delivery man, dropping off creations at people’s homes when SugarBot ran into issues with delivery services.
“At first, it was mostly just curiosity about what was going on, but suddenly we started to get a decent number of orders and they were for delivery,” said Feltner. “At the start, Anjan was making the deliveries and he had so much fun because he got to meet the customers and they thought it was so cool. They are like, ‘Whoa, it is like a NASA machine that made this?’ That novelty was fun to see and people were really excited about it. We printed one cake that said, ‘The queen makes 35 look fabulous’ and another that said, ‘you like teeth and golf’ with a tooth and a golf ball.”
The successful rollout of their own facility is a plus for SugarBot, but they’re not even taking advantage of one of their biggest selling points yet. The company plans to start forging partnerships with grocery stores and other areas where people may be walking by. That way, rather than just getting a personalized video of the printing process, people can customize their creations and watch them come to life in real-time. SugarBot leaders even teased that they have exciting partnerships they’re working on, but aren’t quite ready to share just yet.
“One big advantage we’re missing while operating remotely is that no one gets to see the machine run, other than in videos,” said Feltner. “Our next step is to install in higher foot-traffic areas like grocery stores where you get that additional novelty of someone getting to type their name or message and can see the machine in action. Exploring those in-person, consumer-facing installations is our next step and then it’s just about growing from there.”