For all the chatter about moon rocks and bio-bots, there’s one 3D printed item that is surer than any other to get the web talking: food. As we have seen again this week, even the suggestion of a square meal being sprayed onto a building platform is enough to grab the collective imagination. One of the big additive manufacturing stories of the moment regards a semi-finalist in the prestigious Electrolux Design Lab competition: a concept for a 3D food printer titled the Atomium.
The brainchild of Brazilian student Luiza Silva, her proposed machine would allow users to design the shape and texture of the food they want to eat then print it to their specific nutritional requirements. Silva sees the target users as children, whose parents’ busy lives make cooking a hearty meal every day difficult. The Atomium will ensure that kids get a full, balanced dinner, while also making healthy food fun for fussy-eating tots.
Of course, this is all in the very, very early stages. Silva’s design is in the box with 20 other ground breaking notions. Yet it is noteworthy as it focuses on the thing that 3D printing can bring to just about any product better than any other form of manufacturing: precise and total customisation. The culinary possibilities of 3D print have not escaped many of the smartest minds on the planet, including the egg-heads over at NASA.
So, is there really a future in cooking by print?
How 3D pizza might get us to Mars
One of the main issues that prevent us from taking off on long-term, Alien-like space missions to distant planets is not technological but gastronomic. Toddling off to Mars, for example, would take in and around 300 days, and that’s just one-way. Considering how long such a mission could potentially take and keeping in mind the safety of those on-board in the event of an emergency, enough non-perishable food for around five years would have to be in the shuttle before blast-off.
The vacuum packed meals astronauts currently wolf down as they spin around the earth won’t do the job. As well as the space, weight and expiration issues, there is also the problem of variety or lack thereof. Eating this way does not present much in the way of choice. While to the earthbound, a lack of eating options might seem like a small concern when faced with exploring dark parts of the galaxy, for astronauts, being faced with the same meat and two veg every day while you float in a tin can for a quarter of a decade is precisely the kind of thing that will send you stir crazy.
This is why casino online NASA handed over a $125,000 grant to Texas firm Systems and Materials Research (SMR): for their team of engineers, lead by Anjan Contractor, to create a device that will feed hungry astronauts on long term explorations. The proposed machine will store all the essential nutrients in powder form, like carbs, fibre and protein. Spacemen and spacewomen punch in a design for the type of meal they fancy eating, right down to texture, flavour and aroma, push print and the device will mix the nutrients with oil and water before spraying the mixture through the extruder onto the heated platform below. Each crew member’s specific nutritional requirements can be programmed into the machine, so the physical well-being of every astronaut is kept in optimum condition.
Contractor’s first goal is to create a tasty, satisfying pizza. Pizza was chosen as it is (A) created in layers and (B) open to a huge amount of personalisation based on an individual’s taste preference and health needs. Yet SMR’s long term ambition goes way beyond the lofty aim of putting a man on Mars. Contractor also wants to solve world hunger.
Printing away starvation?
As both the cost of food and the size of the world’s population continue to rise, many economists are predicting very serious food shortages in the near future. By providing nutritional value from non-traditional, commonly available sources, this problem could, potentially, be addressed. For example, if nutrition could be received from lupine seeds, duckweed and grass, the expensiveness of the more traditional food sources becomes less decisive.
Contractor believes his device will make this possible allowing users to turn any vaguely food-like substance, with basic nutritional value, into something edible. Insects, for example, could be used to supply protein instead of the more expensive option of meat. What’s more, they could be transformed into something appetising looking and smelling through the magic of 3D printing. SMR is not the originator of this idea (Dutch think-tank TNO Research has been theorising about it since 2011) but right now it does look like the organisation closest to making it a reality.
3D cooking right now
When it comes to 3D printed food, there is much more focus on what may be possible in the future as oppose to what is possible right now. With everything from dinner with Martians to the end of undernourishment being promised by those working at the higher end of the scale, it would be easy for the casual observer to dismiss the whole thing as a collection of far-out theories – something that won’t be possible, if it is possible at all, for a very long time.
Yet there are somewhat less ambitious 3D food projects delivering practical results, right this instant. In fact, there is a printer currently for sale that makes the creation of the kind of personalised, complex chocolate designs that once took the hand of a trained pastry chef a simple task. The Choc Creator V1 went on the market just before Christmas last year and can be snapped up on the Choc Edge website for £2,888. A hefty enough price tag, sure, but the degree to which it simplifies a previously complex process is truly remarkable.
Renowned Brazilian designer Marcelo Coelho is also pushing 3D food as a mainstream idea. On his site he moots four possible, futuristic food preparation devices, including the Digital Fabricator, a 3D food printer which ‘can accurately deposit elaborate food combinations with sub-millimetre precision.’ Then there are creations like the Shoeburger by Tristan Bethe and the Bacon Mobius Strip (which managed the previously unheard of hat-trick of being bacon, kosher friendly and infinite all at the same time) – quirky, semi-genius concepts that are sure to attract plenty of clicks and shares.
Though some of the projects mentioned here might sound less serious than others, they are all essentially interesting for the same reason. Each one of them is exploiting 3D printing’s biggest strength (exact customisation) and using it to address an increasingly troublesome human requirement – the need to eat in an impoverished world of expensive resources. As unlikely as it sounds, the Shoeburger, the Choc Creator V1 and spaceman fast food may all be pushing us slowly towards the fairer distribution of our food.