What could be better than waking up to the smell of coffee dripping fresh from your automatic percolator, accompanied by the gentle hum of your 3D printer as it fabricates your breakfast? Wait, what?
The 3D breakfast (or lunch, or dinner) comes from Hod Lipson at Columbia’s Creative Machines Lab (CML). The printer itself might be the first piece of lab gear that also looks good enough for your kitchen, resembling a coffee percolator more than it does the box-o-tubes that is a conventional 3D printer. But the printer’s innovations go a lot further than just its good looks.
Whereas other 3D food printers are little more than fancy piping machines, using syringes to squeeze out single ingredients like chocolate into fancy shapes, Lipson’s printer can handle multiple ingredients, laying them out into intricate shapes, and cooking them, using an infrared heating element in the arm.
The machine itself—designed by industrial design grad student Drim Stokhuijzen from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, and Jerson Mezquita of CML—stores eight food cartridges in slots, and can grab any of them to extrude the food within.
"Food printers are not meant to replace conventional cooking—they won’t solve all of our nutritional needs," Lipson told Columbia’s Holly Evarts, "nor cook everything we should eat."
Even so, one wonders what it might be used for. The small machine makes small portions, and even though the ingredients can be mixed, they are all just pastes, so there’s not really any variation in texture. Also, while cooking the separate layers is a practical idea, and fairly fast, you might not want a bottom layer of rare-cooked salmon to lay around while the rest of the pile is built up. Many of these problems can be solved with software. The different ingredients can be cooked with varying times and temperatures, and Lipson’s team is working on software that can model the amount food shrinks when it is cooked, so that this can be taken into account when building a dish.
But to do this requires a rewriting of the way current 3D printers work: Their software is designed to make hard objects, gadgets, or parts (Lipson’s other work involves 3D-printing robots). "This is the wrong language for food," Lipson told Evarts. "With food you want to layer, coat, sprinkle, mix, so we need a new language so that we can describe what we want to the printer. And it has to be easy for someone who’s not an engineer to create a digital recipe."
In its current form, Lipson’s printer is a neat proof-of-concept, but not really practical, unless you are the kind of person who a) really hates making dinner and b) really loves changing printer cartridges. That’s not to say there aren’t uses for the technology. One is in fancy restaurants, where gimmicks are gold, and Lipson’s team has been working with New York’s International Culinary Center to really push the technology.
Another field is in nutrition. Users could dial in the exact amount of nutrients they need, targeting specific vitamins, or fat levels, although that sounds about as far from delicious as it’s possible to get.
"Cooking is still very, very primitive," says Lipson. "We still cook over an open flame, like our ancestors millennia ago. So this is one area where software has not yet permeated."
Maybe, though, this is one case where we should leave things alone.
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