Picture this: University of Michigan students create toaster that burns images onto bread

Michigan Football coach Jim Harbaugh's face on a piece of toast. (Niket Parikh)

ANN ARBOR – Ever wish you could have a face staring back at you when you go to take that first bite of your morning toast?

Three engineering students at the University of Michigan invented a mechanism that “prints” images onto toast as part of an entrepreneurship class taught by Dr. Eric Fretz.

It all started in fall 2016 when the students -- then juniors -- decided to take a class outside their comfort zone.

“We were looking for a fun class to take alongside our heavier engineering classes,” said Niket Parikh. “We didn’t have any expectations of what it was going to be all about.”

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In each class, Dr. Fretz challenges his students to do epic things by coming up with an idea to change the community for the better, create something novel or make money.

On the first day of the course, Dr. Fretz told his students to split into groups for the semester. Typically, he encourages students to team up with classmates in different majors, but the engineers stuck together.

“We decided to do something engineer-related and use that to our advantage a little bit,” said Parikh.

One group member came up with the idea of a toaster that could print pictures on toast.

The group prints Squidward from "SpongeBob SquarePants" on a piece of toast using their Photoaster invention. (Niket Parikh)

They pitched it to Dr. Fretz, who liked it so much he challenged them to print one of U-M’s most iconic figures on bread.

“He told us, ‘Look, if you can put Jim Harbaugh’s face on a piece of toast by the end of the semester, I’ll give you an A+’” said Parikh.

Read: University of Michigan students go viral with their Scrunchie Shots

They got to work and bought a cheap toaster and retrofitted it with a mechanism that could draw on a slice of bread.

“We built a mechanism where the laser would sit and scan the toast and it would basically burn the toast in specific spots,” said Parikh.

The group also developed an iPhone app that could import images to send to the toaster for printing.

The Photoaster was born and they did end up getting that A+.

“By the end of the semester, we were able to put Jim Harbaugh’s face on a piece of toast,” said Parikh.

The Photoaster prototype. (Niket Parikh)

However, unlike other groups in the class, the team decided to let it remain a class project.

“We were thinking of taking it farther and all the things we could do with the toaster (like) license it or sell it or something like that, but there were a lot of issues we came across,” he said. “It was pretty expensive to build and the laser kept breaking.”

At the end of the day, it was a fun course that left a big impression on the group.

“It’s really a pretty fun semester,” said Parikh. “It didn’t even feel like school. It was just a fun thing we built together.”

This story is part of a “Be Epic” series on Dr. Fretz’s Entrepreneurial Creativity class.

About the class

Dr. Fretz’s Entrepreneurial Creativity class (P223/ALA223) is one of the more unusual classes on campus. As the core course for everyone taking the #1 ranked Entrepreneurship minor, almost 2,000 students have gone through its unique structure since Dr. Fretz created it in 2014. This class gets students out of their comfort zone by assessing their personal characteristics that contribute to creative and entrepreneurial success, like: EQ, IQ, Grit, Personality, and Divergent Thinking. Almost 300 students per term form small teams that are sorted into sections and encouraged to develop a list of creative ideas that will improve the community, create something novel, or make money as well as “be epic”!

Each team reviews their ideas with Dr. Fretz and they agree on the best choice as well as a rough plan for the term. Four GSI’s assist with supervising and mentoring each team throughout the term as they grapple with planning, teamwork, and leadership issues, while applying class concepts to those same issues. With periodic check-ins and energetic mentoring Dr. Fretz ensures each team has the best chance to reach their full potential. The very best teams are provided a chance to compete for funding with a Venture firm in NYC and participate in the “Big Show” after classes end. While never conceived as an incubator class, over two dozen companies of varying size have begun from class projects.

About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.