South Africa’s own Willy Wonka and the 3D printed chocolate factory
The walls of Hans Fouche’s workshop are covered in shelves. Shelves which sag under the weight of the weird and wonderful. They’re covered in modern arcana ranging from broken lampshades to dinky toy racing cars. Every surface is littered with objects in various stages of repair. Circuit boards, cables, camera parts and strings of solder fight their way over the top of boxes. The clutter long since stopped threatening to outgrow this space and began to annex the room next door of its own accord.
Fouche’s own gangling frame rises out of the half-light and completes the picture perfectly. Once upon a time, a room like this would have been filled with taxidermy and jars of animal parts, maybe a model biplane hanging from the ceiling. This, though, is the room of a modern-day alchemist. Fouche may be a throwback to a time when necessity drove invention, and RS Components didn’t deliver to your door, but it’s half-finished 3D prints and gutted computers which fill this wizard’s lair.
This is a room where ideas take on physical presence. It’s the room of someone who Thinks With Their Hands. There is a model aeroplane. And a 3D printed sculpture of Rodin’s Thinker.
This is the room of someone who has turned his garage into the largest 3D printer I’ve ever seen. Who’s building his own car, from scratch.
And, it’s also the room of South Africa’s very own sweet-toothed dessert maestro. For Fouche is a down-to-Earth Willy Wonka with all of the ludicrously clever inventiveness and none of the silly showmanship of Charlie’s favourite confectioner. Who, after all, needs sentient squirrels and Oompa Loompas when you’ve got an Arduino board and a customised RepRap to play with?
From a tiny factory in Kempton Park, Hans and Nicolette Fouche – aka Fouche Chocolates – can produce real magic from the raw materials of butter, sugar and cocoa beans.
The factory is a fascinating building, and its food-preparation cleanliness and order is a direct contrast to Fouche’s mad-looking workshop back home. Half a dozen staff busy themselves around chocolate-making machines: pouring, stirring, trimming, carrying and moving the most amazing scents all around the single room. What’s remarkable is that almost every machine in here has either been built or customised by Hans in some way. Likewise the tools for which they create their fare. Even for the repetitive designs which they produce en masse – mini-chocolate potjies, edible name plates and so on – the moulds for shaping chocolate are 3D prints of his own design.
“I could not have done this if I wasn’t an engineer, it would have all been too expensive,” Fouche says proudly. He opens up a large cabinet in which chocolate is being churned up and then piped away and points inside, “This is a peristaltic pump, and to buy one commercially would cost a fortune. But I can build it myself.”
Fouche’s creativity goes beyond the ability to make machinery, though. Next to a hacked inkjet printer which has been converted to deliver edible inks, he points to one of his latest experiments, a pair of plastic vase-shaped objects which have the telltale ringed surfaces of models that have been extruded in layers by a homemade RepRap-like machine. On closer inspection, there are small holes dotted in patterns all over the surface.
“These have all been 3D printed,” he explains, “The idea is that they will be customised chocolate lolly holders. We can do unique shapes for table displays at weddings, for example. These are things we make just for the fun of it, but you couldn’t do something like this with injection moulding, for example.”
If you want a unique chocolate sculpture and conversation pieces for your special occasion Fouche is happy to design and build it. Indeed, he recently received a small amount of fame after he was contacted by Nestle and the Museum of African Design to help produce a series of 3D printed chocolate sculptures for an exhibition in the Maboneng Precinct.
The exhibition was intended to celebrate the latest version of Google’s operating system for smartphones, Android, and Fouche was called upon to turn the STL modelling files provided by artists and technologists into being using his heavily customised, and positively ancient, RepRap Darwin. Chocnology, as the exhibition was called, received worldwide attention from the media.
“A lot of the designs were very ambitious,” Fouche says, “It was only through our experience with 3D printing chocolate that we were able to help the artists to realise what is actually possible. The best are always simple and not over complicated, because chocolate is difficult to work with, it does not support itself very well.”
The trick for complex models, explains Fouche, is to print them in relatively simple parts which can be created by a typical 3D printer. Chocolate layers have to be thicker than plastic, obviously, but being larger also helps: the longer it takes the extrusion head to move around a full layer, the cooler and harder the chocolate at the start of the layer will be, making it easier for the next level of the model to take. For difficult designs, several straightforward prints can be carefully glued together with more of the sweet stuff – it can be a painstaking process.
Cars, CSIR and chocolate
Fouche has had nothing if not a varied career. An engineer by trade and multi-talented inventor in practice, he left South Africa in the ’80s to work as a Formula One race engineer, and from 1988 he was the chief aerodynamic designer for the Lola, Fondmetal, Brabham and Forti teams successively. After the collapse of Forti in 1996, however, he returned to South Africa to work for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.
But it was always his dream to work with chocolate. And 10 years ago he left his cushy corporate job to do just that.
Fouche says that he first discovered the idea of 3D printing during his Formula One days. He jokes that he was one of the earliest adopters of the technology, when RepRap wasn’t even a twinkle in Adrian Bowyers’ eye. He claims to have experimented with a tube of superglue and a plotter – the pre-dot matrix printers which literally held a pen upright above a piece of paper to draw an image on paper – to create 3D models of car parts out of 2D layers.
Now, he’s an enthusiastic member of Centurion-based Maker collective House4Hack, which he credits with helping him to master the electronics inside his printers. He’s effusive in his praise for fellow H4Hers who’ve given him tips and ideas on their regular Tuesday meets.
And yet despite his inventiveness and passion, when I first met Fouche he was talking about quitting the chocolate business. His one-off creations mean that the firm gets little in the way of repeat custom, and while he gets some interesting orders via event chefs who know him, he struggles to market his wares effectively. Today, the company relies on a weekly bulk buy of cupcake decorations from a local supermarket.
“The chocolate industry is very difficult,” says Fouche, “I’m an engineer, not a salesman or a marketing person. I can’t convince a guy to take my products. Especially when our products are so unique. It’s nice for me to design these things, but for me to sell these things, that’s a different matter. “
The one commercial product that Fouche and Nicolette did try to market was the ‘Expression Bar’. Made using layers of different chocolates mostly produced in moulds, the principle was similar to PS bars of Love Hearts. Each bar had a message written in different colours on the top.
“They were popular, all apart from ‘I’m Sorry’,” Fouche jokes, “We actually took that out of the box as it wasn’t selling. People say they’re sorry, but they’re reallly not. It was a great business, though, it was doing really well and then suddenly it fizzled out, and I’m really not a great business man. I don’t know how to fix that, or what we did wrong. It annoys me. It really annoys me.”
Chocolate is a R6bn a year business in South Africa, which is growing at around 10% a year according to Frost & Sullivan. But frustrated by his inability to successfully market his business, Fouche has actually disabled the 3D capabilities of his most important creation, an eight-extruder chocolate printer which is now used to print 2D designs onto a moving conveyor. Intricate lattice works and dainty chocolate wings are sprayed onto a conveyor belt where they harden ready to be peeled off, all under the watchful eye of an operator who loads new patterns as demand requires.
“Look at the size of this,” Fouche exclaims, pointing at the giant control box which guides the nozzles on the ancient-looking machine. “All those electronics in there. Now, of course, you can control a similar machine from an Arduino board. It’s tiny!”
His most impressive achievement, however, is a giant RepRap 3D printer which stands well over two meters tall and takes up most of his garage. Originally designed for making giant, one off chocolate sculptures, Fouche retired it as the economics of using it to make sweets didn’t work out.
Now, however, it’s found a new lease of life creating vast plastic sculptures which can be made to order for interior designers. He shows off a giant, watertight vase with a thickly coiled surface that feels coarser and more papery than typical 3D prints. This, he believes, he can produce for a cost and scale that it will sell into home furnishing shops – a sturdier and more customisable version of the Chinese lantern style standing lights that are popular in the likes of Woolworths.
“You can coat the surface with filler if you want to smooth it off,” Fouche explains, “And it will hold a painted colour too.”
Fake plastic watering can
That surface itself is the product of a closely guarded secret: a new type of printer feedstock with a more textured feel than ABS or PLA plastics. Fouche says that he’s investigating its properties on behalf of a German firm.
Unlike other 3D printing enthusiasts, Fouche also makes his own plastic filament for ‘normal’ RepRap machines, from pellets which he can buy at around a hundredth of the price of spools of sprue. Occasionally he sells this to other 3D printing enthusiasts too.
Now that Chocnology is over, Fouche says that he wants to try and focus again on his non-confectionary work, and is planning on getting the first batch of designer 3D objects finished and in to stores early in the new year. They may well take off – both as mass produced fittings and as bespoke creations made to fit exactly that space in exactly that room. If all else fails, he’ll go back to building his car, the basic chassis of which hangs on his garage wall. Probably, he laughs, using 3D printed parts for the body work.
Hopefully they aren’t too successful though. It would be a shame for South Africa to see its amazing chocolate wizard retire from the business. His is a special niche between the expensive chocolatiers of Sandton and the mass produced bars that fill every shop around the world everywhere. It would be a shame to see it closed before it gets the attention it so clearly deserves.