In the wild, a meerkat like 5-year-old Mark would spend much of his day foraging with his family group, snacking on anything from insects to reptiles to small mammals. But as a resident of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, the small, burrowing mammal receives his meals at predictable times from the zoo’s animal care staff. It’s safe and reliable, but often lacking the thrill of the chase.
What’s a zoo to do? The Cincinnati animal care staff turned to the engineers at GE Additive, a GE division that manufactures 3D printers and printing powders, among other things, to design a device that would allow animals like Mark to play with their food. “We’re really focused on promoting natural feeding and foraging,” says David Orban, the zoo’s animal excellence manager. “What we try to do is provide opportunities for them to demonstrate those natural behaviors.”
Lead engineer Shannon Jagodinski was part of the GE Additive team who visited the zoo last summer to study how Mark and his meerkat family, along with other small mammals and birds, could safely add some excitement to their feeding routines. Over the next few months, the team met with Orban and others at the zoo to brainstorm and refine their additive designs. “As you can imagine, the zoo is an outside-of-the-box customer,” Jagodinski says. “We’re used to dealing with automotive or aerospace customers, so this was a new and exciting change that really shows that additive technology can benefit any industry.”
In additive manufacturing, which encompasses 3D printing and similar processes, a machine deposits material in fine layers and fuses them together to produce an object, following computer-generated patterns that can include intricate shapes that would be difficult to produce using any other method.
Additive manufacturing is more commonly used to make jet engine components or car parts, but working with the zoo, GE Additive engineers could let their imaginations run wild. With the input of Orban and other zoo staff, they came up with the idea of printing a device that mimics the exterior of a tree trunk that can be filled with crickets – a dietary staple for Mark and other small animals and birds. Inside the trunk, made from recycled titanium powder, are metal tubes of varying lengths. As crickets scurry through the tubes, they exit the trunk at different times, providing moments of serendipity for a hungry zoo creature.
Jagodinski’s team started with the dimensions of a cricket and calculated what size tube it would fit inside. They printed a prototype trunk with three different tube diameters, brought it to the zoo, stocked it with crickets and placed it in an enclosure. They watched how the insects jumped out of the tubes at unpredictable times. Zoo staff gave feedback on safety considerations, helping to refine the design to prevent a beak or tongue or claw from getting stuck as the animals reach into the additive trunk to claim their treats.
The GE Additive team delivered the first full device in February. In the final design, the outer layer of the trunk is printed to mimic tree bark, blending into the animal habitat. Some of the birds in the Wings of the World exhibit got first crack. “It was so cool to see the crickets moving in and out of the device, even moving from the outside of one tube to another in a different part of the device, and to see the birds flying around, hopping on, and investigating to see where the crickets are coming from,” Orban says.
Mark and his meerkat family – including 5-year-old Shakira and 10-year-old Santanta – were equally intrigued. They climbed all over the trunk, trying to anticipate when a cricket would emerge. “They’re investigating for a longer period of time, they’re foraging for longer,” Orban says. “That’s exactly what we wanted to see.”
Najah and Saddie, two female sand cats – small wild cats that typically live in deserts – now get to indulge their love of hunting. “Typically, when we put crickets in their habitat, they just go around and catch and consume them relatively quickly,” Orban says. “With the opportunity to have crickets living in this device, randomizing when they emerge, it uses their full hunting minds and capabilities.”
Fennec foxes Jager and Hokees – tiny foxes with enormous ears – approved of their new feeder as well. And Orban’s team has seen a pair of white-rumped shama thrushes, new parents, feeding crickets from the device to their month-old chicks when they fledged, or started to leave the nest.
For Jagodinski, one of the highlights is providing an educational demonstration piece to the zoo. Her team at GE Additive made an extra feeding device that contains a cut-away section, where the fake bark exterior is removed to reveal the complex cricket passageways on the inside. Once the public can return to the zoo, this demo piece will be used to show visitors and school groups the complex shapes that additive manufacturing can create and, Jagodinski hopes, spark interest in the technology.
“We got to demonstrate our artistic side in creating an aesthetically appealing product by using shapes we don’t get to use on an everyday basis,” says Jagodinski. “Most of the projects I work on are components inside a jet engine and will never see the light of day. This creative project was a joy to work on.”