From MIT Labs: a Breakthrough in Flapjacking

IN the age of microchips, it was only a matter of time before digital electronics would revolutionize the art of custom flapjacks. Gone are the days of drizzling batter onto a griddle to form initials, waiting for it to brown, then adding the rest of the allotment for a full-sized griddle cake. Gone are the spatulas that always seem too small for the pancake under construction. Their potential replacement is a machine that yields symmetrical hotcakes stylized with the printed word in script. The device, known as the Flip It, comes courtesy of engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, known more for probing the secrets of the atom than the patterns on a pancake. The device was developed by Ernesto Blanco, an adjunct professor of mechanical engineering, and his design partner, Albert Sesona. Assuming a three-pancake serving (perhaps never having had to feed a preteen), the device drops batter from a holding tank into three metal dishes. After cooking half the time, the machine lowers inverted dishes on top the originals. The tops have either patterns or lettering in relief to add the visuals. The machine flips the dishes, the pancakes cook on Side 2, and voila, a personalized breakfast. The operator guides the process through the use of touchpad controls, similar to those found on microwave ovens. Beta tested at MIT's senior commencement breakfast earlier this year, pancakes bearing the message ''Good Morning'' greeted graduates. Professor Blanco says that future owners of the machine could order several customized embossed plates with their own message or company symbol. ''It's very cheap to do,'' he says. Clearly not their main line of research, the device has been under development since 1960. ''We don't believe in rushing anything,'' Mr. Sesona quips. With some encouragement from studies conducted by students at MIT's Sloan School of Management, the inventors are trying to commercialize the device. Initially, the two are targeting the restaurant market, which might like to add anything from a logo to a smiley face atop a half stack. One possible customer, Professor Blanco says hopefully, might be a chain such as the International House of Pancakes or McDonald's. Ultimately, however, the scientists also are looking to work these devices into the home kitchen lineup.

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