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Mar 30, 2021

STEAM and Creative Education... or "How about a nice game of chess ?"

The finest situation a group of young individuals can find themselves in is being intregued, excited and developing a passion for something that will hugely contribute towards their personal growth, greatly enhance their knowledge and overall learning, and build up a credible skill set ---- Any signs that a student has an interest in something that is clearly beneficial to their development should be seen as a chance to nurture that student's interest, encourage it, and assist them in their desired learning.

So why "chess"?

Well, "STEAM" and other "workshop and/or activity-based learning" was something we all missed out on as children, so there's a part of us that really wants to push for more opportunities for students at all levels, to enble them to develop the kind of skills they wish to possess, specifically the skills they need to be able to do the kind of work they enjoy, with a sense of "I own this skill!"-style confidence.

As a group of young school children on holiday back in the early 1980s, we decided to watch a movie called "WarGames"(1983), which turned out to be the most exciting movie we'd ever seen. It was a movie full of chases, terrifying moments of suspense, fantastic performances from the entire cast, and an edge-of-your-seat climax that literally had our hearts racing... But what we loved above all else was the introduction this movie gave us to computers.

The idea that we could play games with a computer against its CPU, or program it to play music , or even use it to draw pictures and possibly even animate them was incredibly exciting --- We'd seen the wonderful Mr Matthew Broderick do it in the movie, and although in later years we discovered some of the computing we see on-screen involved a little trick photography, we nevertheless knew that computers existed and that it was possible to learn how to use them... and not just to play "chess"... or "Global Thermonuclear War".

On the first day back at school, we asked our homeroom teacher HOW we can get access to a computer and HOW we could learn how to use it. We all remember this day, and the response still haunts us all now. "I donno", the teacher said, followed by, "I suggest concentrating on how to improve your grades from last term." So we asked another teacher we always saw as a slightly friendlier figure, who said, "You went to see a war movie? - Bet you loved all the blood and guts!" After a few more attempts, it was clear that what we were interested in learning about was not going to be a part of schooling, and with no internet in the 1980s, we were left asking our parents about technology they knew nothing about and certainly couldn't afford. The only place with any books related to computers was the public library, which was a huge building full of cobwebs and dust that no child ever frequented unless they were on a day out with their great grandparents.

We'd hit a dead end, and even now we can all recall the feeling of frustration we felt that day. After all, this didn't seem like we were asking for the moon, and this was very different from our usual frustrations, as we weren't moaning about not getting a skateboard or new sneakers for our birthday - We were actually eager to learn something in a very serious, dedicated manner, but to this day the lack of effort from our surrounding educators to nurture our creativity and aspirations hasn't been forgotten.

There was another huge punch in the gut to come, which confirmed our teachers had not taken our request for assistance seriously, or even given it any thought at all. It wasn't until we were all leaving that particular school and helping to clear out the "teachers only" storage rooms that we found a number of BBC Micro Computers that had never been used. When we refreshed our teacher's memory about our interest in learning more about computers, and how the teachers could've started an after-school club for us, he simply said, "Well, you can't learn very much from computers, so you haven't missed out". If only we could have opened up a portal into the year 2021 and shown him the world we live in now. It almost seems like it was easier to hand everyone in the classroom a big knife and have us dissect frogs every week, rather than attempting to introduce something new and radical that was doubtless complicated to explain to children, but something we would've all promised to put our minds to and worked hard at.

Even when we went our separate ways to our next schools, the pattern seemed to repeat itself, with our requests for any insight into simple programing or rastergraphics taken as if we were speaking greek, and even the idea of learning more about traditional techniques, such as cell and stop-motion animation, always ended with that familiar "I donno" from the teacher.

Times have clearly changed though, and educators are now selected for their undestanding of how to get the best out of every student.

Oddly enough, decades later, some of us moved into the field of education, and despite having not seen each other for a number of years, we all shared exactly the same approach to teaching - We did whatever we could, going the extra mile, to ensure we were helping every student with their learning goals, which often included fighting for the funding needed for computers and software, art equipment and design tools, architectural kits for robots and gadgets, and anything else that the students would otherwise not have access to at home or elsewhere.

21st century STEAM classes enable students to freely experience both digital and mechanical technology, electronics, CAD (computer aided design), 3D printing, graphic design, animation, programming, and everything in between, coupled with the core S-T-E-A-M basics that glue every learning activity and project together.

Funding for STEAM is still in its infancy, and there are amazing fundraising organizations working relentlessly to provide for the science and technology labs of underfunded schools, as it's clear that the world's requirements of its workforce has changed dramatically over recent years.

Many markets have funneled into entities that it's impossible to compete against, having perfected their trade and acquired countless dedicated followers, so this means we have to find as-of-yet uptapped avenues for lucrative new businesses. Add to this, our highstreets are disappearing in favour of online shopping, which means that gone are the days when you could say, "Well, if all else fails, I'll just get a job somewhere on the highstreet." We thought some of these movements would take another decade, but the COVID-19 pandemic has sped up the process exponentially.

By the time the next generation graduates, it may be the case that they NEED to create their own unique products and be able to program and run their own websites in order to make a living. So now more than ever, STEAM and Creative Education will play an important role in preparing the minds of children and young adults for the future --- The mind is a creative muscle that needs to be pumped, and it would've been fantastic if our teacher back in 1983 would've at least demonstrated the BBC computers the school had hidden away, but we had to wait until we were much older, and we were then all off to a slow start, and we've never fully caught up - When we're asked to write a commandline program, we're all scratching our heads for the first five minutes, as they do say that the youngest mind is the quickest mind.

In summary, anyone who has ever spoken to the Choc Edge team about edcuation knows how strongly we feel about putting in the extra time and effort to nurture the minds of students, and how we encourage educators to adopt and support the concept of STEAM and Creative Education.

Mar 4, 2021

One news article that caught our attention this week was a video featuring Mr Tom Cruise.

Now, as a fan of Mr Cruise (particularly the Kubrick film 'Eyes Wide Shut' from 1999), Creative Designer Anthony Price always jumps at the chance to see what Mr Cruise is up to, as we know 'Mission: Impossible 7' is on its way ! ... However, this wasn't really Mr Cruise in this video. Although through its incredible accuracy of the visual/physical portrayal of Mr Cruise, convincing millions of viewers that it was him, the video was in fact a very competent example of a 'deepfake', a synthetic video created by the manipulating powers of the latest 'deep learning' AI technology.

So... What's this got to do with 3D Chocolate Printing ? ... Keep reading.

Although most of our users are focused on creating their own 2D and 3D designs using our gallery examples as inspiration, we receive regular questions from them about the rendering of 2D human faces and full 3D human heads. When it comes to 3D Chocolate Printing newcomers and CAD novices, producing a 2D face or a 3D head is still the hardest task of all, for 3 main reasons.

[1] To produce a 2D face, either a photograph has to be used as a structural foundation and carefully converted into linework by hand, or an ambitious user can attempt to draw a portrait from scratch that will easily convert into an STL --- Neither method can be considered quickfire, and both require an understanding of what the image will look like when printed in lines of liquid chocolate.

[2] For a full 3D head, it requires time, scanning equipment, and knowledge of 3D CAD and digital sculpting (as edits often need to be made to achieve an acceptable result) --- This is not something a chocolatier would offer as a standard in-store service due to the amount of work involved.

[3] It is important to understand that results will only be in 0.8mm resolution, so only 40~50 lines of horizontal resolution at the very most, which will not show any of the tiny details that people may expect to see - The best results are going to be a simple structural outline at appoximately 40mm in height. (This is, however, not a flaw in our technology - We designed the Choc Creator to produce miniature edible prints which it does amazingly well, and it was never designed to replace moulding, which is the best, tried-and-tested method of producing everything from chocolate santas to pralines, including both hollow and solid spherical objects [which is the shape of a human head broken down into its simplest form]. The idea of producing 2D faces and 3D heads in chocolate was a concept developed by our team members Mark and Anthony together, and it was successful and even made headline news, but due to practicality it is not something we endlessly promote, as our users are mostly chocolatiers without the need for such a repertoire and/or desire to dedicate a great deal of time to a single print - Designing an abstracture 3D sculpture is not the same as scanning and scultping a 3D human head, with most chocolatiers learning how to do the former within a few weeks.)

So... again... What's this got to do with Tom Cruise and 3D Chocolate Printing ? ... I promise you we're getting there !

Although, we have enjoyed our success with 2D faces and 3D heads, we do not tend to overly promote this concept, as the amount of effort required to create a single print is often deemed too much for busy chocolatiers or those without CAD skill or ALM understanding, and we never give our users or followers the illusion that any form of 3D design can be done with their eyes closed and hands tied behind their back. Many users have, however, moved onto 3D heads once they have mastered the art of creating their own 2D and 3D designs, often purchasing a hand-held scanner which itself can be costly for the better models.

Successfully scanning a head and then creating an STL for low resolution chocolate printing will all depend on one's level of skill with both CAD design and face scanning equipment/software. As we simply cannot gauge every user's level of skill, we cannot say how easy or difficult an individual will find the process. Similarly, every head that is scanned will be the head of a different person, all with completely different facial features, with certain features printing better than others, with some becoming largely indiscernible at 0.8mm (or even 0.4mm) resolution.

One thing we do see a lot of is people marketing moulded chocolate as "3D" chocolate, which creates confusion - After all isn't all chocolate a 3-dimensional object ? ... There are companies we have encountered that scan heads and then print the results in a non-foodsafe plastic, and then create moulds from non-foodsafe silicon. The resulting chocolate produced from these moulds is marketed as "3D chocolate", and is in our opinion not suitable for consumption due to the lack of care to source suitable foodgrade printing and moulding materials. This process is not how the Choc Creator V2.0 Plus works, as the 3D Chocolate Printing process is an ALM (Additive Layer Manufacturing) process, aka printing layer-by-layer. The confusion caused by people trying to make money using the buzz word "3D" is something our team has to deal with daily, and every link we receive to a 3D chocolate head takes us to an image of something produced using a non-foodsafe moulding method.

For those users still wanting to produce 3D heads with their Choc Creator V2.0 Plus, it's worth noting that scanners have dropped in price considerably over last few years, with many models appearing in Black Friday sales for up to half the price. Likewise, there are i5 laptops available now at affordable prices that can smoothly run 3D sculpting software, making the editing and final tweaking of scans much easier.

Perhaps most importantly, the last few years have seen an exciting development in software for use in the rendering of 2D human faces / 3D human heads.... and here's where Mr Tom Cruise comes into it.

The advent of 'deep learning' has led to some amazing advancements, which most people will now be familiar with thanks to videos such as the one of Mr Cruise who we all know now is NOT Mr Cruise. Footage seen on the internet, such as these 'deepfakes', show the power of AI in 2021, with human faces replacing other human faces without the need to digitally paint or sculpt them, which until recently only a Hollywood special-effects artist could do, and then not always convincingly despite their best efforts. 'Deep learning' enables 'thinking computers' to render faces from as little as two or three flat/2D images, and the Choc Edge team have seen some results that lead us to believe there will soon be affordable 'Neural Network Software' available that will enable the auto-rendering of 2D faces as contour drawings (as if hand-drawn by an illustrator and therefore perfect for chocolate printing), and full 3D heads that are auto-sculpted from a set of flat/2D images with no requirement for anything more than the simplest of instructions (guidance maps) for the manipulation, which will make the process of creating an exportable 3D head model for chocolate printing so much quicker and easier.

It is, however, important to keep in mind that much of the beta software we are currently seeing is only image-based, meaning its output is pixel-based/raster = photo/video media (again, the Mr Cruise video is a perfect example of this), so software houses need to keep developing in order to enable the 'deep learning' programs to generate suitably 3D modelled results to export as an STL to slice into a G-code for 3D Chocolate Printing.

As Choc Edge is not a team of 'Neural Network Engineers', we ourselves have to wait a little longer to see what software options become available to make the creation of 2D faces and 3D heads a little easier for novices and our chocolatier user-base. There are some amazing beta apps appearing, and we've tried most of them, but they aren't quite ready yet and need another year of two of development to meet the needs of unskilled/novice users - Remember; It's a case of all or nothing for those chocolatiers without the necessary computer skills --- Even if an app does half the work automatically, it still leaves the user with the need to finish the job, and that will likely involve the use of a CAD program, which is what we want to overcome.

In summary, there's a very exciting time ahead of us ! 

For chocolatiers who want to print 2D faces but are not confident using basic CAD programs, our CHOCDRAW doodle app might be the answer - The results will naturally be hand-drawn caricatures that are looser and less accurate than a photo conversion, but the process is quick and simple enough for young children.

Dec 30, 2020


Well, what can we say about 2020 that hasn't already been said? = One thing we will say is that the Choc Edge Team is still standing, but it's a year that we'll never forget.

From tomorrow (31th December) the UK is increasing its level of nationwide restrictions in the hope of stabilizing the R-Number, just until enough of the population is vaccinated by either of the two vaccines that will soon be available (thanks to the most amazing efforts by some outstanding scientists).

So, with the war against the virus waging on, it's clearly not the most positive start to 2021... But I think we all expected this.

It is, however, in the nature of every member of the Choc Edge Team to look for the light when surrounded by darkness, and take whatever good there may be and everything there is to learn from every struggle.

Has this been the most challenging year for Choc Edge so far? = Absolutely. Like everyone around the world, we've faced unprecedented challenges, both in business and in our personal lives. In order to keep our promises to our customer base and our distributors, our team has worked around the clock throughout the pandemic to keep our offices manned and the wheels of our manufacturing facility turning, all while dealing with the pain of losing a number of our loved ones who were taken before their time.

Have we learned anything from our experiences this year? = Without a doubt, we've learned more about ourselves than ever before, both as a team and as individuals. The need for quick and effective solutions to destructive situations arising from the sudden onslaught of the virus has tested our mettle like nothing ever before.

What will change in 2021 ? = Well, it's clear from the announcements made by the government over the last few days that the pandemic isn't going anywhere anytime soon - Sadly, the virus that is relentlessly trying to bring us all to our knees really doesn't care that it's the start of a new year, and it will in no way whatsoever offer us any respite at the stroke of midnight.

However, our arsenal in this fight will soon greatly improve. A number of scientific developments have provided enhanced treatments for those people affected by the virus, and right here in the UK at least two vaccines will soon be rolled out, which will doubtless save lives and take us all another step towards life returning back to normal.

An enormous change that has been overshadowed by the pandemic is 'Brexit', the official departure of the UK from the European Union, which takes place the day after tomorrow (1st January). As our followers know, we're an 'international company', with team members and affiliates from a variety of different countries, so it's not difficult to guess what our preferred outcome of the referendum would've been, but as always we make the best of every situation.

Due to a combination of both 'Brexit' and the pandemic, we've decided to change the way in which we work - Most importantly for our customers and distributors, the way in which we supply our products (namely the Choc Creator V2.0 Plus) will differ.

Although we've already put our new way of working to the test over the past year, as a way of circumventing the obstacles thrown in our way by the pandemic, we're announcing that, from now onward, in line with the first day as a company now situated 'outside' of the European Union (that once brought us closer to the French, German and Belgium markets, which to us are the chocolate capitals of the Western world), we will no longer be keeping any stock of our products in our UK office.

Instead, all our administrative work will take place in our UK office, which is now our base for all international sales, as well as being our creative design hub, and the Choc Creator V2.0 Plus will be drop-shipped in every case directly from our new manufacturing facility in China to every customer's door, and our distributors will receive their stock in exactly the same way.

As no trade deals have been successfully agreed upon only hours away from the 'Brexit' deadline, which will force us to adhere to new (but as of yet unannounced) import/export rules, we are implementing our new approach to supplying our products, and having followed this procedure firstly out of necessity during the pandemic, we've found every customer has actually preferred our new way of working, as it is (in their words) 'faster', 'easier to judge the lead-times', and, quite frankly, 'less convoluted', so this is very exciting for us - We're always looking for ways to improve the way we do things, and it seems we've chosen to move in the right direction!

Another big change this year is in regard to our official distributors, who have been a rock for us, offering encouragement and support all year long. Never before have we worked so closely with our distributors, and in joining forces to overcome the odds, to ensure we all move forward, we've developed what was once solely a business relationship with many of our distributors into a deep friendship, which may never of happened had it not been for the need to pull together in the fight against a common enemy. Although there has always been a strong level of communication with our distributors, we've never had the time to spend on truly getting to know them on a personal level, that is until the pandemic locked us all indoors with only a videophone as our means of working together.

Our bonds with our distributors are so strong now that many are honorary Choc Edge Team Members, which tells you how closely we've worked together, and how closely we will continue working together into 2021 and beyond.

Similarly, we've developed a stronger connection with many of our customers due to the extra time they've found on their hands while in lockdown. Some of our customers are usually so busy that even the quickest telephone call is impossible, so it's no wonder they jumped at the chance to spend hours chatting with us and developing their knowledge and skills during the weeks they had away from their office.

Call it a 'silver lining' or whatever you may, the Choc Edge Team have learned a great many things from all the challenges we've faced this year, and if we remain positive, if we hold on, if we never lose faith, we will all come out of this stronger and wiser.

The time will come when we remember 2020 as a year that tried to break us all but failed, due to our spirit, our passion, and our dedication to the work we do - Nothing will ever stop us from achieving our goal. 3D Chocolate Printing is a dream that we've spent years creating for everyone to enjoy, and the likes of this virus can try to take that away from us, but it better be ready for a fight, because the Choc Edge Team, our distributors, all our friends, fans and followers, all share our love for the work we do, and that love
will overcome anything that's thrown in our way.

We wish you all a very Happy New Year 2021 !!

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