February 8, 2011

The Solution to Midnight Cravings

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In five to 10 years, dinner might not be limited by what your roommates left in the fridge, according to Prof. Hod Lipson and Ph.D student Jeffery Lipton of the Cornell Computational Synthesis Lab.“We know at some point you would have a food printer in your home, just like in the 70s we knew you’d have a PC. Videogames did that – food is that gateway for us,” said Lipton. Imagine being able to print anything you wanted to eat, anytime you wanted to eat it.  Food printers, a technology derived from three-dimensional printing first invented at MIT in the 1980s, could ultimately allow consumers to print food at home.  These printers operate like a common inkjet printer, but rather than printing ink, current industrial-sized printers are able to print whatever material is loaded.  For example, while interviewing the scientists, a plastic snowflake was printed. The original purpose of the printer was to create models.  For example, Nike uses 3D printing to examine prototypes of new shoes before going through with manufacturing. A standard 3D printer commonly works with plastics, metal and ceramics, and currently costs around $250,000.  The build-at-home printer costs $1,600.  The goal is to design an open source version of the machine at the $1,000 price point, with the ability to use multiple materials.  “It’s really the future of manufacturing,” said Lipson.  “You can print on demand what you need.”The food printer has attracted attention because of its many possibilities.  “The idea is to unleash creativity,” noted Lipson, who used the example of dead spaces in wedding cakes as a place to innovate.  While it started as a side project, the food printer has opened up a new design space of things you can do.  “Food really captures people’s imagination … The sky is the limit in terms of what you can do … we can really imagine a future where you can download recipes, and you upload your cartridges, and you print enter, and the printer makes it for you.”The current limitation of the printer is the requirement that any ingredient must be made into a puréed paste.  This could turn heads on conventional food, with chefs being able to toy with texture, molecular gastronomy, color, etc.  “This is a way of making new things you cannot make any other way,” added Lipson.Lipson noted three key areas where 3D printing takes off.  It allows for mass customization, on demand production, and geometric complexity.  While food is naturally complex, it can be designed even more intricately on a macro level.In the 1970s, nobody could figure out what the “killer application” of computers would be.  Lipson and Lipton agreed that technology really takes off when it is ubiquitous, and innovates beyond constraints.  Food printers eliminate waste and allow people to receive immediate gratification.  It also allows “people to inject skill in the process,” and can turn an ordinary dinner into a gourmet meal.  Food printing is not a means of helping with hunger or food allocation problems, but a way of changing food production as we know it.   Lipson and Lipton expect pastry and baked good printers to be available in two to three years and for personal printers to be available in five to10 years.  All the weaknesses of 3D printing become strengths with food printing; high resolution is not necessary since the focus is on crafting art and refining taste.  “This is the future of manufacturing. You load the cartridges with materials –– no more stocking, no more shipping – no more all size fits all,” said Professor Hod Lipson.The food printer has also provided an array of students with unique opportunities to conduct research.  Lipton began working with the lab in junior year of college.  The $1,000 printer was developed by undergraduate students from a variety of majors including engineering, hotel administration, history, government, and industrial and labor relations.  The project provides a variety of opportunities from engineering the printer design to working on marketing.  One student involved, Mathew Boban ’13, helped design a rotating blade that cuts thin sheets of material to assist when printing with new materials.  “It’s a very small project team –– there’s about five people on the engineering part.  We usually get an independent project,” Boban saidCornell is the main university working on food printing currently. With social networking technologies growing, the possibilities for food printing are endless.

Original Author: Katerina Athanasiou