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Improving the Life of A "Lucky" Penguin

Academy alumna Laurel Ebert is using 3-D design technologies to design a life-saving boot for Lucky the penguin

Rachel Ritchason Curator of Birds and Records Santa Barbara Zoo

Lucky the penguin with Rachel Ritchason, curator of Birds and Records, at the Santa Barbara Zoo. Photo courtesy of Laurel Ebert.

Laurel Ebert, an Academy of Art University School of Industrial Design alumna, is working to save a life with the help of technology that continues to revolutionize industries around the world: 3-D design. 

The recipient of this design is Lucky, a Humboldt penguin. Born in 2010 at the Santa Barbara Zoo, Lucky’s life began just like any other fuzzy penguin chick, shuffling around in his nest. It wasn’t until he started to walk that zookeepers noticed something a little different about Lucky.

A foot deformation began hindering Lucky’s ability to get out of the water and even walk. Sores started to develop on his little foot, a situation that could be potentially life-threatening.

However, Lucky, as his name implies, is one fortunate penguin. Teva, a major outdoor-lifestyle shoe company, got wind of the penguin’s story and decided to embark on an adventure that is now six years in the making. 

Teva produced an initial boot for Lucky, a design that lasted many years enabling him to be a normal penguin, even snagging himself a wife. But this year, during Lucky’s nesting time in which he sits on his eggs, also known as incubating, Lucky’s feet started to change. Today, the company is in the process of creating an entirely new boot, but this time using 3-D molding and printing technologies.

Lucky Show Sketch

Sketches of Lucky’s shoe produced by Teva. Image courtesy of Laurel Ebert.

Luckys Teva shoe2

A sample of Lucky’s shoe produced by Teva. Photos courtesy of Laurel Ebert.

Ebert is the lead designer of the project, which is currently in its final stages. She never knew a shoe design could be so close to her heart.  

“This means a lot to me,” Ebert said. “I am very attached to it, one for the shoe design aspect, but really for being able to help Lucky.”

Like any design, the boot started with a sketch. From there, Ebert used 3-D software, Romans CAD, to design physical prototypes made out of flexible, photo-curable resin, which was produced with a 3-D printer. And then the fun part: The boot had to be tried on. 

Hours were spent communicating back and forth with the Santa Barbara Zoo where Lucky tested out his boot. A continued work-in-progress, Ebert’s latest prototype is complete with a soft gel insole, no interior stitching to help prevent chafing and Velcro straps with the distinguishable Teva logo. 

Using 3-D design technologies, Ebert was able to create a more flexible, custom-fit and durable boot. Although the material for the boot and other last remaining elements are still being discussed, Teva hopes to release the final boot early this year.

And as for Lucky, his quality of life has already improved. 

“This shoe has helped him survive,” Ebert said. “He needs the shoe for protection. If he didn’t have it, he’d get sores that could become infected and he wouldn’t make it. The shoe is a part of him now.”

Lucky Santa Barbara Zoo

Lucky the penguin at the Santa Barbara Zoo. Photo courtesy of Laurel Ebert.

The boot has become a part of Lucky’s life, just as the penguin has become a big part of Ebert’s, as well. Rachel Ritchason, curator of birds and records at the Santa Barbara Zoo, has worked alongside Lucky since he was born and saw the pair become close. 

“This isn’t just a job for her,” Ritchason said. “I can really see her compassion. She’s personally invested, even checking in on him. That passion is very real and very true.”

Ritchason worked with Teva on the initial boot design, which allowed her to see the way 3-D design technologies have improved the work process. Previously, in order to create a physical prototype, Teva had to send a design to their manufacturer in China. This time around, prototypes were printed in just seven hours in the Teva office.  

“Laurel was able to make real-time changes,” Ritchason said. “Our ideas moved really fast and she communicated so easily with us.”

Many of Ebert’s fundamental skills that she brought to this project were learned in the classrooms of the Academy. Ebert talked about how courses, like David Curiel’s digital 3-D modeling class, pushed her creativity and improved her problem-solving, communication and technical 3-D design skills. 

After hearing about Ebert’s penguin project, Curiel felt very proud.

“I think that’s probably one of the most rewarding things to experience as a teacher,” he said. “Not only is she getting to where she wants to be in her profession, but she is doing something good.”

He talked about Ebert’s ability to overcome challenges in his class and being a student who always “designed something very innovative for people.”

As a 3-D design instructor, Curiel commented on the impact 3-D technology has and will have. From 3-D printed prosthetics, organs, airplane parts, jewelry and animal parts, the technology is changing a variety of industries and as Curiel said, it’s an Academy instructor’s obligation to help students advance that change.

Laurel Ebert

Academy of Art University School of Industrial Design alumna Laurel Ebert. Photo courtesy of Laurel Ebert.

“In our school, it’s not just about helping the students develop their own skills professionally and simply find a job, but it’s to enable them to find a purpose in life and make a difference.”