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Picture the dinner hour in a decade: As you leave work, you pull up an app (assuming we still use apps) on your phone (or your watch!) that will direct a printer in your kitchen to whip up a batch of freshly made ravioli, some homemade chicken nuggets for the kids, and maybe a batch of cookies, each biscuit customized to meet the nutritional needs of different family members.

It sounds like science fiction, but scientists and engineers are working on 3-D printing, and the food version of the 3-D printer is taking shape. Don’t expect it to spin out fully cooked meals anytime soon. For now, the most popular application in 3-D food printing seems to be in the decidedly low-tech area of cake decoration.

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Well, not just cake decoration, but sugary creations of all kinds. The Sugar Lab is the confectionary arm of 3-D printing pioneer 3D Systems, and it expects to have the ChefJet, a 3-D food printer, available commercially later this year. Though tinkerers have been exploring the possibilities of 3-D food printing for a few years, and another food printer, Natural Machines’ Foodini, is slated to appear by year’s end, 3D Systems says the ChefJet is the world’s first 3-D food printer.

“Instead of carving away at some-thing, with 3-D printing you build something up layer by layer. That’s the hallmark. You build it exactly as it exists in a file,” said Liz von Hasseln (pictured, with her husband, Kyle), of 3D Systems.
“Instead of carving away at some-thing, with 3-D printing you build something up layer by layer. That’s the hallmark. You build it exactly as it exists in a file,” said Liz von Hasseln (pictured, with her husband, Kyle), of 3D Systems.

Like so many great inventions, the ChefJet came about as something of an accident, this one performed by husband-and-wife architecture grad students Liz and Kyle von Hasseln a couple of years ago. At the Southern California Institute of Architecture, the von Hasselns used a 3-D printer to create models. Intrigued by the process, Liz von Hasseln says, “We bought a used printer and played around with different materials to see how to push the technology. One thing we tried was sugar. We thought if we altered the machine a bit and made it all food safe and edible, we could push into a new space.” More tweaking ensued, and the ChefJet was born.

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Though much of the ChefJet work has taken place in Los Angeles, where the von Hasselns are based, 3D Systems has facilities in Andover, where further development on the project is under way. 3D Systems has had a location in the Boston area for 17 years and opened the Andover facility in February 2013; ChefJet development in Andover began almost a year ago. “Andover will basically be the place where our in-house food scientists will work with material scientists and engineers, to further develop ChefJet recipes that are both good substrates and appealing,” says von Hasseln.

Sugar designs from a 3-D printer by 3D Systems’ Sugar Lab.
Sugar designs from a 3-D printer by 3D Systems’ Sugar Lab. 3D Systems/3D Systems

But, to back up a bit, to the layperson, the difference between “3D printed’ and “manufactured” may seem a bit obscure. Von Hasseln explains that there are a few ways to translate a digital model into a physical object, such as milling and lasering. “But 3-D printing,” she says, “is additive manufacturing. Instead of carving away at something, with 3-D printing you build something up layer by layer. That’s the hallmark. You build it exactly as it exists in a file.” In the case of the ChefJet, the material being layered is sugar; the printer, says von Hasseln, “spreads a fine layer of dry constituents and wets them. It’s basically making frosting very precisely, building it up layer by layer.”

Today, the von Hasselns and 3D Systems are working with bakers and food scientists to unlock the potential in 3-D printed confections. The company has a joint development agreement with the Hershey Co., and celebrity chefs want to get into the act too. “We’re beating them off with sticks,” says 3D Systems’ chief marketing officer Cathy Lewis.

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“It’s not that the machine can do things we can’t. It’s that the machine can do things that would be very, very difficult for us to do and very time-consuming,” said Duff Goldman.
“It’s not that the machine can do things we can’t. It’s that the machine can do things that would be very, very difficult for us to do and very time-consuming,” said Duff Goldman. Charm City Cakes West/Charm City Cakes West

One such eager adopter of the technology is Duff Goldman, of Food Network’s “Ace of Cakes.” Some of Goldman’s employees at Charm City Cakes West, the California outpost of his famed bakery, introduced him to the von Hasselns. When he saw what the ChefJet could do, says Goldman, he was “super stoked. It’s such a cool thing.” The printer pieces, with their tremendous geometric complexity and precision, look like they’d be impossible to make by hand. But Goldman isn’t worried about being replaced by a 3-D printer in some “dystopian cake future where all bakeries are just popping out printed cakes.”

He continues: “It’s not that the machine can do things we can’t. It’s that the machine can do things that would be very, very difficult for us to do and very time-consuming.”

That said, the printer is not terribly speedy. Constrained by the inherent physical properties of sugar and liquid, it might take about an hour to print, say, a decorative sugar cube three-quarters of an inch tall, says 3D Systems’ Lewis. But, she points out, you could print 50 of them at a time.

The idea of printing food isn’t entirely new. Jeffrey Lipton, a doctoral candidate at Cornell University, has worked with 3-D printers for years as part of the university’s Creative Machines Lab and began experimenting with food as a medium for printing early on. In 2007, the lab launched Fab@Home, a comparatively inexpensive 3-D printer. “We gave printers to people and said, ‘Go play with it.’ And when they were done with silicones and epoxy, they started putting in peanut butter and Nutella and frosting,” says Lipton. It took some time, though, to see the commercial potential.

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Sugar designs made on a 3-D printer by 3D Systems’ Sugar Lab.
Sugar designs made on a 3-D printer by 3D Systems’ Sugar Lab.3D Systems/3D Systems

Today, Lipton says, the two most likely applications for 3-D printed food are artistry and customization. The artistry involves things like personalized cake toppers; the customization, he says, could have the “most social impact.” The technology could be used to create foods that meet a specific population’s — or a specific person’s — nutritional needs. Lipton has himself used a printer to create two different (though identical-looking) versions of a cookie, one for himself and one for a co-worker, with different nutrient content based on the eater’s height, weight, activity level, and calorie consumption for the day.

But the printer can’t create food out of thin air. You have to put cookie dough in to get a cookie out, though Lipton can easily envision a future machine that will mix the dough from raw ingredients, the way a bread machine does, and then print it.

A company called Natural Machines, out of Barcelona, is testing 3-D printer technology that makes veggie burgers (pictured) and veggie nuggets.
A company called Natural Machines, out of Barcelona, is testing 3-D printer technology that makes veggie burgers (pictured) and veggie nuggets. Natural Machines

It’s not so different from the idea behind Natural Machines’ Foodini. The Barcelona-based company is positioning Foodini as a way to eat more wholesome, less-processed foods. Pop in capsules you’ve filled with the raw ingredients of your choice, says Natural Machines cofounder and CMO Lynette Kucsma, and Foodini will print you customized ravioli, a veggie burger, or chicken nuggets in any shape you want, free of whatever questionable ingredients might be found in commercial versions.

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Right now, the Foodini is expected to be in mass production and available to consumers for about $1,300 by the end of the year. It can’t actually cook that ravioli, but Kucsma says that’s coming. “We think you’re going to see it evolve into a mash-up of technologies that will combine oven, stove, fridge, and printer. You’ll be able to preload Foodini in the morning, call on your phone when you leave work, walk through the door at home, and have dinner ready to eat. It sounds futuristic, but I really think people are going to get there.”

Printing custom-made ravioli or homemade chicken nuggets might not seem like the most urgent of kitchen tasks. But Kucsma, like others in the field, is convinced that the 3-D printer is the next microwave oven.

“We don’t see it as a gadget or fad,” she says. “We see it as something that will be a basic appliance in the future.”

Veggie nuggets from Natural Machines.
Veggie nuggets from Natural Machines. Natural Machines

More coverage:

- Lux Research: China looks to be a leader in 3D printing

- A visionary of 3-D-printed fashion


Jane Dornbusch can be reached at jdornbusch@verizon.net.