Goshen News, Goshen, IN

October 1, 2012

Goshen father and son engineer a pumpkin-carving robot


GOSHEN — Ever wish you could enjoy a beautifully carved pumpkin without all the mess and manual labor? If local inventors Brian and Alex VanDiepenbos have their way, you may just get that wish.

The VanDiepenbos father-son duo (Brian being the father, Alex the son) have been building, fixing and modifying all manor of inventions for as long as the two can remember, but it’s their newest invention, the “PunkinBoT,” that is really starting to make waves in the local invention world.

“Over the past few months my family and I have designed and built a computer controlled pumpkin-carving robot,” said Alex, a Fairfield High School graduate who currently works in Quality Control out of Mishawaka. “We come up with the artwork on the computer, and we send it to another program that generates the code to go to the computer controller that then goes to the motors which control the pumpkin-carving process.”

So what does that mean in layman’s terms? Essentially, the “face” of the pumpkin is created digitally on a computer. That digital image is then sent to another computer that controls a robotic arm holding a cutting tool that then carves that digital image into the pumpkin. The entire process takes only about five minutes, though the two are still working on getting the setup time down and making the machine more user friendly.

As for the images the system can create, Alex said it’s really only limited by the user’s imagination.

“Really whatever you can think of you can put on their, but you have to adapt each image so it can actually be cut and look decent and have clean lines,” Alex said. “The method that we’re using for our cut is actually not all the way through, it’s only part of the way through. The reason why you do that is because when you leave the surface flesh peeled back but the inner layer intact, the light actually glows brighter because it has nowhere to disperse to.”

An indication in Detroit

Originally started as just one of the many fun, crazy projects the two have worked on over the years, a recent visit to the Detroit Maker Faire this past July got them thinking that this project may be more than just an inventor’s pastime.

“The Detroit Maker Faire, which was held at the Henry Ford Museum this year, is basically where a bunch of creative, inventive people get together and exchange ideas, and they have their own booths set up where they show whatever it is they’ve made,” Alex said. “When we first set it up, surprise seemed to be the most common response from people at the show, with people just stopping and gawking and asking us what it was all about, because they’d never seen anything like it. We actually ended up winning the Editor’s Choice award, which we really didn’t expect because we had just finished it around midnight the day of the show. So everything really just came together for us.”

With that shiny new Editor’s Choice award under their arms and a renewed drive to continue to tweak and improve their product, the two inventors plan to debut the PunkinBoT at the upcoming Fort Wayne Regional Maker Faire set for Oct. 6 and 7 at the Headwaters Park East — Lincoln Pavilion.

Moving forward

Should the PunkinBoT prove as popular at the Fort Wayne show as it was at the Detroit show, the two inventors say they aren’t ruling out the possibility of trying to find some commercial applications for their new pumpkin-carving machine.

“It started out as just a fun, crazy project that the whole family got involved on. But if it goes that way, that would be nice,” Alex said. “Honestly we haven’t really thought that far ahead yet. We just built the machine, finished it, took photos and videos, and just shared it with people that we know to test how popular the idea is. There’s been a lot of interest, so right now we’re looking at maybe contacting some local pumpkin farms and things like that to see if we can get something set up that way. But right now there’s nothing set in stone, so we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”