3D printed food has been around for a while, but compared to other areas of 3D printing, it’s still relatively undeveloped. For the most part, 3D printed food consists of already-mixed ingredients being extruded into fun shapes. Chocolate is a popular medium, as are other foods that don’t need to be cooked afterwards. But a group of researchers from Columbia University has created a machine that can both 3D print food and simultaneously cook it, opening up possibilities for a wider variety of 3D printed foods.
“We call it digital food because we are looking at food in a new way,” said PhD researcher Jonathan Bluthinger. “The food has been slightly pulverized into a way that it can be distributed through a nozzle and we can move a gantry around and create complex geometries to create interesting shapes with the food. We are shining a laser at two mirrors controlled by motors and these mirrors move really fast to create complex patterns and heating the food from below. We can already cook food with lasers and we can already print food, so the next logical step is to combine both of these projects.”
The researchers’ idea of 3D printed food goes far beyond the simple gimmick of making unusual shapes; they believe that the technology can be used to create customized concoctions for people with special dietary needs.
“It is additive manufacturing instead of subtractive manufacturing; there are food products which cannot be made by injection molds or machine them because of geometric constraints inherent to traditional manufacturing methods,” Bluthinger continued. “Additionally, everybody has their own tastes and dietary restrictions, so when you introduce a data-driven health approach, you can achieve customised and nutrition-rich meals on a per-person basis. Since the machine has knowledge of all the ingredients, it can combine them in unique ways and tailor them to all of your biometric and nutritional needs.”
He also believes that a system could be developed in which people can “download” food to 3D print and share it with others digitally.
“If you try a meal and like it you can simply download and send it to a friend who can try it immediately,” he said. “It’s like having a personal chef who can perfectly replicate any meal. You can also add in this machine learning AI element; the more you use the machine, the more it will learn about your eating habits – what you do and don’t like and what times in the day you tend to eat.”
Laser cooking actually has some advantages over traditional cooking, in that it is much more precise. It can also brown foods much more effectively than microwaves, which tend to leave food mushy.
“The best analogy I can give for lasers is a glorified creme brulee torch, in that you have really high resolution but low uniformity,” said Bluthinger. “So a major advantage of lasers is their really high resolution and total control over where the heat is going, which is really favorable in a food printing application where you have food layers that are only a few millimeters thick. You can cook as the food is laid down layer-by-layer, which is much more effective in this context. The visual aesthetic of food is one of the biggest things we notice regarding quality, so if you can adjust the physical quality of the food by changing the extent you can make it taste better.”
“After five-ten years it really becomes a business question and education process; how you can market it to people – when you talk about food printing, the common reaction is a weird face,” he said. “It will first require acceptance from the public; look at autonomous vehicles, they started low with self-park features and pretty soon whole cars are entirely autonomous. In the same way that autonomous have slowly-but-surely invaded the market, a similar type of thing will happen with 3D printing. Any major disruptive technology takes an adoption process; you will see this happen with 3d printing over the next five-to-ten years. It’s good to be open-minded to new technologies – food printing can at first sound like a daunting technology that doesn’t sound too appetizing, but not once you realize the health benefits and the shareability of food recipes. Look at the iPod – the moment you introduce software into a new domain, you never look back. Innovation always pushes things forward, and this machine will help us look at food in a new way.”