My Adventures in a Chocolate Factory

In 2008, I was part of a team that built virtual representations of real factories. This project was lead by Dr. Maribeth Back and Dr. Don Kimber with contributions from many other research scientists. Tcho, an under construction chocolate factory, was the subject of our study. Our team traded insights gained for the right to lurk about and eat Tcho’s chocolate. If you’re interested in this research please read: The Virtual Chocolate Factory:Mixed Reality Industrial Collaboration and Control

Panorama of the factory as it existed in 2008-09

Panorama of the factory as it existed in 2008-09

It was my job to visualize our work. I sketched and 3D modeled all sorts of machines and their surroundings. This lead to the creation of an interesting set of artifacts. I’ve never had the opportunity to explore a space quite so thoroughly. I crawled up, over and into various machines. I measured and photographed everything I saw.

Sketch of  a Carle Conch

Sketch of  a Carle Conch

All of the major elements of the factory were recreated in 3D. Chocolate making isn’t new. Some of the best machinery predates CAD files by decades. Luckily, I was in the factory while much of the vintage equipment was being restored. This gave me access to the inner workings of some beautiful machinery.

Inner workings of a Macintyre Conche

Inner workings of a Macintyre Conche

Detailed rendering of chocolate making conches

Detailed rendering of chocolate making conches

All of this work enabled us to build a virtual chocolate factory. I simplified the 3D models and gave them to a developer who incorporated them into a 3D game engine. Production data from the working factory was integrated into this new virtual space.

The factory as depicted in a game engine

The factory as depicted in a game engine

One of my favorite machines in the factory was the highly articulated Carle Conch. Its a fascinating device that grinds, polishes and heats dry cocoa into liquid chocolate.

With all of its exposed moving parts, the conch is an interesting machine to watch. The 3D model I built was fully animated.

We discussed creating smaller versions of the chocolate making machinery. Something a user could hold, perhaps as a way of interacting with the VR space and vicariously the real space. I modified the conch model so that it could be 3D printed. The result was an accurate small scale replica of the original.

3D printed model

Virtual, real, virtual... it all gets a bit blurry after a while. As the project developed, the notion of what a virtual factory might be drifted. One of the more successful offshoots of the project was this simple smartphone app.

Mobile application

Mobile application