A look at 3D food printing technology
By Dale King and Julia Hebert
3D printed food. It’s what’s for dinner – or will be in the not-too-distant future. A cadre of technologically adept people swear that machines capable of printing three-dimensional morsels will someday grace household kitchen counters everywhere, in a revolutionary move unsurpassed since the microwave oven arrived in the 1980s.
When it comes to food, most of us still cook caveman-style, using fire or heat. “Kitchens are the most primitive thing in our house,” said Hod Lipson, engineering professor at Columbia University and creator of 3D food printing technology.
Connecting a computer to a 3D food printer and “uploading” recipes or sending them in from SD cards is the new roadway to the culinary future.
Coincidentally, the Israeli native was angling to invent a machine that could print a complete robot using 3D printed parts. “We built printers to handle multiple materials, but the students were not using robotic components, they were using cookie dough and cheese as testing ingredients. It was then that we discovered that printing with food is interesting in itself.”
Printing 3D comestibles caught on, and soon, “quite a few caterers contacted us. They were not interested in printing whole meals, but, rather, small decorations or pieces tailored to events.” Lipson said restaurants could conceivably use 3D food printers once the machines’ capabilities bump up. The existing breed can ooze raw materials from plastic extruders, but can’t cook the resulting goop. Hooking up a cooker is the next hurdle to overcome in 3D food print technology – and may arrive by year’s end, said Lipson.
The owner/creative director of a high-end Manhattan catering firm is vitally interested in the professor’s work in a field destined to restructure the food industry. “I went to my team and said, ‘Figure out how to make an edible bone for a mini-chicken drumstick,’” said Peter Callahan, the food guru Martha Stewart dubbed the master of mini-hors d’oeuvres.
Callahan holds Lipson in high esteem. “The guy’s amazing with technology. But I’m not in the business for space ships. I’m here to rock people who have seen everything. I’m on a quest to make an edible, tasty chicken bone,” he says, admitting he may have to “wait for the next generation” of printers.
He’s not the only innovator with 3D food extrusion on the brain. While researchers have toiled to print tasty treats with cellulose-based materials, the Magic Candy Factory has been spreading its 3D printable gummies around the world – in places like Dylan’s
Candy Bar, the chain of major sweet shops operated by Ralph Lauren’s daughter, Dylan.
Entrepreneurs Antony Dobrzensky and Marcio Barradas are melding their multi-dimensional expertise to push a dining spot called Food Ink. “Our goal is to work with the best designers and chefs to create nutritious, delicious and healthy food and an amazing multisensory experience,” Dobrzensky said.
World’s First 3D Food Printing Restaurant Opens in London
Food Ink is perhaps the closest thing to an actual, operating restaurant where 3D fare predominates. Last July, organizers took their pixels, printers and plates to the upscale Shoreditch section of London for a three-day, gourmet presentation of 3D printed food. The bustle took place in a storefront behind big front windows where crowds queued up to get a look at what may be the food preparation system of tomorrow.
The event featured row after row of high-tech machines equipped with nozzles extruding fancy ingredients to make creamy morsels, elegant sides and chocolaty desserts, all more intricate than human hands can fashion. As diners dug into segments of their nine-course meal (seven portions printed by machine), several flashed thumbs-up signs as they devoured their servings.
“With the pop-up [restaurants], we want to announce to the world that this concept is now viable,” said Dobrzensky. “It’s a much better way than sitting in a boardroom in a suit making a boring pitch.”
One major Italian food maker has put its euros where its mouth is. Barilla has unveiled the prototype for a 3D pasta printer, a device developed in cooperation with the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO). It pops out pasta bites using pre-filled dough cartridges containing a mixture of durum wheat flour and water. It can produce four distinctive shapes in two minutes.
Lipson says the foods of the future are only a few bits – or is that bytes? – away. “We’ve already seen that putting our technology into the hands of chefs has enabled them to create all kinds of delicacies that we’ve never seen before. This is just a glimpse of what lies ahead.”