Scientists and culinary experts at Cornell University, New York have been working on creating a 3D food printer, which they hope will one day be a common household appliance. Working with the University's Fab@Home programme, Jeffrey Lipton and Dave Arnold have developed a machine that can 'print' food into a variety of shapes and textures that would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve any other way.
Using a technique called Food-SFF (Solid Freeform Fabrication), homogenous pastes are heated and squirted through nozzles to build up layers of food into 3D shapes. Different foods can be combined during the printing process to create new textures and flavours, making it possible to create an almost unlimited range of new dishes. The team have already printed many different foods in a variety of shapes, including space shuttles made from cheese and scallops, and cakes with embedded 3D lettering.
Initially, it is envisioned that 3D food printing will appeal to culinary professionals who will be able to create customised 3D food sculptures, complex 3D cake decorations and even more exotic dishes, such as flavoured gelatine spheres with liquid centres and hot liquid deserts with frozen shells. Eventually, though, the team hope that we'll all have 3D printers in our homes, which will help us save time and connect with food in new ways.
Far from using the Fab@Home printer as a Star Trek-style replicator, Dave Arnold is keen for us to use 3D printing to be creative. Writing on his blog in 2011, Arnold says, 'CNN was hoping for a story about how great it will be when, in the near future, we come home, press a button, and have machine print out dinner for us. I find that whole idea, which removes ourselves even further from the way our food is made, horrifying. Dinner from a series of homogeneous pastes? I needed a food idea that really warranted using a 3-D printer.' He then goes on to describe a technique called stochastic printing, in which he prints masa dough (the stuff used to make corn tortillas) into a series of squiggles with some random characteristics. The end result was a rectangular block, resembling a block of noodles and was, apparently, delicious when fried. A second masa shape, resembling a flower was then created; also delicious but nicer to look at.
Printing food is, perhaps, one of the more exotic and creative uses we've come across for a 3D printer and, it seems, it's only a matter of time before the team at Cornell and Fab@Home develop a commercially viable machine. To start with, we may see them being used to create gimmicky dishes in some of the more expensive restaurants but, if Arnold and Lipton have their way, the food printer will one day be as commonplace as the bread maker.
by Anthony Morgan