October 10, 2013

Cornell Professor Helps 3-D Print Meal for New York Times

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Imagine eating a meal that was entirely printed. That’s what New York Times columnist A.J. Jacobs did early this summer with the help of a Cornell scientist.

Jacobs discussed the process in his Sept. 21 column, “Dinner Is Printed.” Although Jacobs initially tried to print his own 3D items by himself, he said he found the process “surprisingly hard” and “mind-numbingly slow.” He then brought in the person he described as “one of the nation’s top 3-D printing experts,” Prof. Hod Lipson, mechanical & aerospace engineering, computing & information science.

“What a difference a Ph.D. makes,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs had a 3-D printed full course dinner in mind. According to Jenna Witzleben ’15, a lab assistant who worked closely with Lipson on the project, the entire project was designed in-house at Cornell labs.

“Many of the actual objects were printed at Shapeways in NYC,” Witzleben said in an email.

With 3-D printing, users can create solid, three-dimensional objects from digital models. The printer builds the object layer by layer until the object is complete. Cornell is a powerhouse in the 3D printing field: early in February, Cornell scientists created an artificial ear that looks and behaves exactly like a natural ear.

Lipson, who is also the director of Cornell University’s Creative Machines Lab, has vast experience in 3-D printing. The editor-in-chief of the “3-D Printing and Additive Manufacturing (3DP)” scientific journal, Lipson has been invited to speak about 3D printing at various conferences in the past.

Jacobs described the resulting dinner as “perhaps the most labor-intensive meal in history,” and said that while the 3D pizza “tasted like a slightly chewier version of non-3D-printed pizza,” the eggplant was “too gummy to enjoy.”

As far as its use in food preparation, 3-D printing still has a few obstacles to overcome before it could see widespread adoption among consumers, according to Witzleben.

Safety concerns rank chief among them.

“The food is safe,” Witzleben said. “However, the 3-D-printed materials used to make the silverware and dinnerware, with the exception of certain ceramics, have to be made food-safe using some type of food-grade coating.”

Witzleben said that additional steps were needed before the 3-D printed tableware was safe to eat off.

“We had to coat the glasses with silicone so that [Jacobs] could drink out of them,” she said.

Additionally, 3-D printers also remain pricey for most consumers, a fact Jacobs noted in his column.

“A few of the smaller printers can go anywhere from a few hundred to a couple thousand dollars, depending on where you get it from,” Witzleben said.

Besides the printers themselves, the material used to create the object itself can be expensive, Witzleben said. For example, a stainless steel fork would cost more than a plastic one.

Jeffrey Lipton grad, the project’s head of contact on design, added that the time required to print an object was another factor that made the entire process too costly for most consumers.

“It takes too long,” he said. “I can see 3-D printers being used a wide range of industrial and commercial settings.”

Witzleben echoed Lipton’s sentiment, adding that people were more likely to use printers to create jewelry for a party or replacement parts to fix their bike.

“That’s easier than having to prepare an entire meal,” said Witzleben. “There was a lot of preparation that went into it. The cheese had to be melted before it went into the printer, and the pizza and noodles had to be cooked after they came out of the printer.”

Still, Lipton and Witzleben remain optimistic about future 3-D food production. Lipton added that multi-material 3-D printing was an example of an exciting prospect in the technology’s development.

“It will enable the production of parts with different properties from what can be made today,” he said. “I see automation of food production as being the next great challenge of robotics.”