3D food 'printing': coming to a kitchen near you

Cornell researchers propose mass customization of a range of treats -- with expert nutrition formulations programmed in -- via food printers.
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

A couple of months back, we talked about the rise of 3D printers, which enable people to mass-produce a range of objects right from their office or workspace, via printers that are getting cheaper and cheaper to purchase.

Now, it looks like researchers at Cornell University have taken this concept to the next level, proposing a 3D "food printer." As reported in io9, "The contraption will allow people to load vials of liquified food into the printer as inks. They can then set a 'recipe' that will make the printer arrange the liquified ingredients in a particular way. The printer will do the rest, presumably while the person chugs a bottle of Pepto-Bismol and puts their head between their knees."

The Cornell researchers report that 3D printing -- or what they call "Solid Freeform Fabrication (SFF) -- may "make its mark on the culinary realm by transforming the way we produce and experience food. Food-SFF would benefit the professional culinary domain primarily in two respects: by lending new artistic capabilities to the fine dining domain, and also by extending mass-customization capabilities to the industrial culinary sector."

You can imagine printing out massive quantities of chocolate, gummi bears, or perhaps even cookies. The food coming out of the printer may include a range of treats, the researchers point out, including "flavored gelatin spheres with liquid centers, sauce foams, hot liquid deserts with flash frozen shells, syringe-extrudable meats, and much more." (Frankly, "syringe-extrudable meat" doesn't exactly sound appetizing, but at least it won't be tough to cut with a knife.)

However, they add, technological innovations are still necessary, before the vision of 3D food printing can be realized. "In addition to lowering barriers to SFF, such as cost of the machine, materials must be developed to feasibly enable a wide range of foods to be produced on SFF platforms."

The mass-customization food printers make possible could revolutionize the restaurant and food preparation industry, the researchers add.  "Today, industrial food producers rely heavily on high-throughput processes such as molding, extrusion and die-cutting. These processes, however, are not amenable to mass-customization. Molding, extrusion and die-cutting each require substantial custom-tooling, and consequently, producing custom output for low-quantity runs is simply unfeasible."

In addition, individual nutritional requirements could be efficiently addressed in the food output. "Expert knowledge of the world’s leading nutritionists can be abstracted and encoded in 3D fabrication files to help laypeople eat more healthily, without necessarily having to learn healthy cooking techniques or even understand nutritional principles such as caloric intake and protein balance."

A copy of the paper making the case for 3D food printing, "Hydrocolloid Printing: A Novel Platform for Customized Food Production," published by Daniel Cohen, Jeffrey Lipton, Meredith Cutler, Deborah Coulter, Anthony Vesco, and Hod Lipson, all with Cornell, is available online.

(Photo Credit: Cornell Computational Synthesis Laboratory.)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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