Food Printer 2020: Dinner in 3D
We’re all accustomed to having appliances on our kitchen counters, from toasters and blenders to coffee makers and microwaves. If Mechanical Engineering Professor Hod Lipson (a pioneering roboticist who works in the areas of artificial intelligence and digital manufacturing) has his way, we’ll soon need to make room for one more—a 3D food printer that could revolutionize the way we think about food and prepare it. Over the past year, Lipson and his students have been developing a 3D food printer that can fabricate edible items through computer-guided software and the actual cooking of edible pastes, gels, powders, and liquid ingredients—all in a prototype that looks like an elegant coffee machine. You can watch a behind the scenes video here.
The printer is the result of a design project devised by Lipson and his students, led by Drim Stokhuijzen, an industrial design graduate student visiting from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, and Jerson Mezquita, an undergraduate student visiting from SUNY Maritime who is now a research associate in Lipson’s Creative Machines Lab (CML).
“Food printers are not meant to replace conventional cooking—they won’t solve all of our nutritional needs, nor cook everything we should eat, but they will produce an infinite variety of customized fresh, nutritional foods on demand, transforming digital recipes and basic ingredients supplied in frozen cartridges into healthy dishes that can supplement our daily intake. I think this is the missing link that will bring the benefits of personalized data- driven health to our kitchen tables—it’s the ‘killer app’ of 3D printing,” says Hod Lipson.
Stokhuijzen says his interest in the project was partially sparked by his own desire to understand why 3D printing food is important.
“Today, we’re in a world of farm-to-table food, where everything has to be organic, fresh and sustainable, Initially that seemed contradictory to the world of food printing, but during this project it became more and more clear that these 2 worlds can actually enhance each other since both worlds are fed by our primary societal quest for health. Just like the Nespresso machine democratized the access to good quality coffee, this machine will
democratize the access to healthy food,” says Drim Stokhuijzen
Taking off to the kitchen, Lipson and his team are collaborating with New York City-based International Culinary Center (ICC), a top culinary school in the U.S. Working closely with Chef Hervé Malivert, ICC’s director of food technology and culinary coordinator, Lipson led several workshops to bring together ICC’s culinary creativity with the CML’s technical knowledge to create new kinds of foods—novel textures, combinations, and spatial arrangements of basic ingredients that chefs cannot currently put together.
Malivert hoped to expose his students to the future of food and new food technologies; Lipson’s aim was to explore and study the potential of printed food, to create and document the student-designed recipes, and unveil what food in 2025 might look like.
”The engineers have tackled how 3D printing works, but now we turn to the kitchen experts to face the creative question of what can be made,” says Lipson.
The workshops were a big success for both the chefs and the engineers. “It was exciting to be able to design dishes with the software, to see the drawing ahead of time, to see what’s going to happen, to make interesting shapes and geometries,” says Malivert. “This will help with planning, and will be great to have at home. As these printers improve, it will be exciting to see where we can go with these machines. For instance, I think they will be very useful in the area of health and nutrition, especially in nursing homes and hospitals.”
A new kind of software
Lipson and his team aim to have their prototype printing much faster and more accurately by the end of the year, and, they hope, cooking as it prints, too. Unlike conventional oven cooking, their 3D printer will be able to cook various ingredients at different temperatures and different durations, all controlled by new software being developed by Computer Science Professor Eitan Grinspun. The software is critical, since the 3D printer they have been experimenting with is meant to design and print machine parts, holes, screws, notches, cuts, and bends, not your next meal. “This is the wrong language for food,” explains Lipson. “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.”
Lipson is especially excited about working with the ICC chefs and plans to continue the collaboration. “We’ve already seen that putting our technology into the hands of chefs has enabled them to create all kinds of things that we’ve never seen before, that we’ve never tried. When software touches something, it takes off. This is just a glimpse of the future and what lies ahead.”