Animals at Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden are now getting their meals from a special feeder that encourages natural foraging behaviours, thanks to a 3D printing collaboration with GE Additive.
David Orban, Cincinnati Zoo’s animal excellence manager, heads up a team that observes and documents how animals live and interact with their Zoo environment. In an effort to mimic the natural feeding habits of the Zoo’s inhabitants, Orban wanted to create a complex feeder that would extend the foraging process and increase physical and mental stimulation in a way that’s more akin to how animals source food in the wild.
Using data collected by the Zoo’s researchers, engineers from GE Additive’s AddWorks consulting team began working on a design. Shannon Jagodinski, lead engineer at GE Additive said the team were “thrilled to be working with such an atypical customer and challenge” that would demonstrate the possibilities of additive – though it’s not the first time the company has worked outside of the typical engineering pillars having collaborated on an elaborate fashion collection for the Met Gala just last year.
Jagodinski said: “Additive technology allows a design to incorporate any shape, angle, structure or texture that is needed, with metal or plastic. 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.”
Following early design conversations, GE presented two ideas to the Zoo team. The chosen design was a titanium 3D printed device that distributes food into animal habitats at random times. Housed inside a replica tree trunk, a central enclosure containing crickets is connected to a series of tubes that exit the device at different points, providing food to the animals at varying times depending on which tube the cricket selects.
Luckily, GE was able to deliver a finished device to the Zoo before the current COVID-19 lockdown commenced, which has allowed the zookeepers to test the feeder with birds and smaller mammals such as meerkats. In the near future, GE Additive plans to deliver additional feeding devices to the Zoo including one for educational purposes.
Orban commented: “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, which is really exciting for us because that means we can utilise 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.”