Zoo and GE Additive are printing cricket-dispersing trees (seriously)

Thanks to a novel partnership with GE Additive, known for pushing the boundaries of industrial 3D printing (aka additive manufacturing), some animals at the Cincinnati Zoo are getting meals from a fabricated feeder that encourages natural foraging behaviors.

“Something that we often think about is how to mimic natural feeding behaviors in the animals that we care for,” said David Orban, Cincinnati Zoo’s animal excellence manager. “In the wild, animals are adapted to find, acquire, and process food – and it’s not always easy! In human care though, food is always available and of good quality and balance, and in many cases, it’s consumed quite quickly.”

A meerkat foraging for real crickets in a 3D-printed tree stump

“For example, one challenge that we often see when we offer live insects to some of our birds or small mammals is that they are captured and consumed in a matter of five to ten minutes,” said Orban. “We’ve had the idea to create a more complex feeder that will extend foraging duration, in turn, extending animals’ physical activity and mental stimulation, leading to more naturally behaving wildlife.”

Orban heads up a team that observes and documents how animals are spending their days and how they interact with their environments and with each other.  This data is used to better understand animals’ experiences at the Cincinnati Zoo and can be used to inform facets of animal care, including husbandry, diet, habitat design, and innovative enrichment solutions.

Engineers from GE Additive’s AddWorks consulting team in Cincinnati used data collected by the Zoo’s animal researchers and keepers to imagine how metal 3D printing technology could help give animals the opportunity to find their food as they would in the wild.

“To kick things off, the zoo team showed us around and explained their goal to keep animals engaged and enriched, said Shannon Jagodinski, lead engineer at GE Additive in Cincinnati. “We were thrilled to be working with such an atypical customer and challenge that would allow us to demonstrate that, with additive technology, the sky really is the limit.”

One of the challenges in this pro bono project was learning how to communicate with each other – engineer to zoologist and vice versa. Another was helping the Cincinnati Zoo team understand the possibilities that 3D printing creates. 

“Additive technology allows a design to incorporate any shape, angle, structure or texture that is needed, with metal or plastic, said Jagodinski. “The first thing that we considered was safety for the animals, keepers, and visitors and then the Zoo’s request that the animal enrichment device look natural within the environment.” 

After their initial meetings, the teams began exchanging their design thoughts for a new feeder.  The Zoo collected as many ideas as possible from the animal care staff. GE engineers assessed these concepts for design feasibility, bearing in mind the specific considerations that go into designing an additive part. They presented two ideas to the zoo team, who then selected the design they thought would provide the biggest benefit to the broadest group of animals. The first part was printed, using recycled Titanium powder, in February this year.  

CAD rendering showing side view of feeder

The final product is a device that disconnects the keepers from feeding the animals, disbursing food into habitats at random times, which is more like an experience that the animals would have in the wild. The exterior of the device replicates a tree trunk with a bark-like texture, and the inside of the feeder has a central enclosure to house crickets, which is connected to varying length tubes that exit the device at different points along the exterior. 

Depending on which tube the cricket selects, it takes a different amount of time to leave the device, which therefore provides crickets to the animals at varying times. 

Inside view from the top of the feeder

“We have seen that foraging time and the animals’ investigation and interaction last for up to a few hours in our tests compared to a few minutes,” said Orban, “which is really exciting for us because that means we can utilize it multiple times a day and in different habitats. We have really seen that a lot of animals have been interested in it and continue to stay interested in it, which is exactly what we wanted.” 

GE Additive will be delivering several more of the feeding devices to the Cincinnati Zoo, including one for education around animal enrichment and 3D printing capability. This demo piece will remove a portion of the bark textured exterior to expose the complex and intricate internal passageways made possible with metal 3D printing. 

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