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Meet the First Multi-Ingredient Food 3D Printer

Smithsonian Magazine recently interviewed Hod Lipson, who is a professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia University.  Lipson “has been studying 3D printing for nearly 20 years, working on printing things like plastics, metals, electronics, and biomaterials.”

Now, however, he’s 3D printing something else.  Food.

Lipson explains: “for millennia we’ve been cooking the same way.  Cooking is one of the things that hasn’t changed for eternity.  We still cook over an open flame like cavemen.  Software has permeated almost every aspect of our lives except cooking.  The moment software enters any field – from manufacturing to communications to music, you name it – it takes off and usually transforms it.  I think that food printing is one of the ways software is going to enter our kitchen.”

It all began for Lipson when he was “experimenting with making multi-material printers [and] noticed the students in his lab were beginning to use food as a test material.”  He goes on: “they were using cookie dough, cheese, chocolate, all kinds of food materials you might find around an engineering lab.  In the beginning, it was sort of a frivolous thing.  But when people came to the lab and looked at it, they actually got really excited by the food printing.”

And so, ideas began percolating for Lipson concerning multi-ingredient 3D food printers.  “There are two basic approaches to 3D food printing…the first involves using powders, which are bound together during the printing process with a liquid such as water.  The second [approach, which was] used by Lipson’s lab – is extrusion-based, using syringes, which deposit gels or pastes in specific locations determined by the software’s ‘recipe.’”  The Columbia team’s eventual prototype “involves an infrared cooking element, which cooks various parts of the printed product at specific times.”

One of the hurdles the team had to overcome was how to “predict how different foods will fare when combined.  It’s easy enough to create recipes based on single items like chocolate, whose properties are well established.  But when you start to mix things together – mixing, of course, being fundamental to cooking – the mixtures may have more complex behaviors…Lipson’s printer is unique for being able to handle many ingredients at once, and cook them as it goes.”

Lipson envisions his team’s printer having two main uses.  “First, it could be a specialty appliance for cooking novel foods difficult to achieve by any other process…Lipson says he could imagine digital recipes going viral, spreading across the globe.”

“The second use is about health and targeted nutrition.  People are…increasingly interested in personal biometrics, tracking their blood pressure, pulse, calorie burn, and more – using cell phones and computers.  In the future, it may be possible to track your own health in much greater detail – your blood sugar, your calcium needs, or your current vitamin D level.  The printer could then respond to those details with a customized meal, produced from a cartridge of ingredients.”

As for the prototype’s design – Lipson left that up to one of his students, Drim Stokhuijzen, who is an industrial designer.  Stokhuijzen “completely redesigned the machine, giving it the sleek look of a high-end coffee maker.”

Lipson raves about it: “his design is so beautiful people are saying for the first time, ‘oh, I can see the appeal of food printing, this is something I might actually use.’”

By this point you’re probably wondering whether Lipson’s printer is coming to the market anytime soon.

“Lipson says it’s more a business challenge than a technological one.”  In his own words: “how do you get FDA approval?  How do you sell the cartridges?  Who owns the recipe?  How do you make money off this?  It’s a completely new way of thinking about food.  It’s very radical.”

Image and Quotes Courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine

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