We've Got a 3-D Printer: We Need Applications

posted by Nastassia Lopez

The Jetson's Food-a-Rac-a-Cycle. Very similar to our Fab At Home.
The Jetson's Food-a-Rac-a-Cycle. Very similar to our Fab At Home.

Last week the Tech Department was (permanently) loaned a Fab@Home 3-D printer by Dan Cohen and Jeffrey Lipton from Cornell University.   The Fab@Home universal fabrication machine or, “fabber” (not to be confused with our intern “Fabulous“) can build three-dimensional objects by depositing materials (epoxy, cement, scallop goop) via two 10 mL syringes, line by line, layer by layer.  Just hook it up to the computer and give it a drawing that corresponds to the machine’s x, y, and z axes.  The syringes move along and squirt out the paste in the corresponding form. It’s almost as easy as the Jetson’s Food-a-Rac-a-Cycle that makes prime rib at the push of a button.

Our see-through acrylic 3-D printing machine: Fab@Home!
Our see-through acrylic 3-D printing machine: Fab@Home!

The Fab@Home crew hopes that every home will someday have a fabber. They brought us one in the hopes of finding applications that will get people’s juices flowing.  And what better to get juices flowing than food? 

First we filled the syringes with scallop paste that had been mixed with meat glue, printed out a few scallop space shuttles (that’s the drawing the fabber showed up with) and cubes, heat set them, and attached them to a charm bracelet for Dave.

We tried an emulsified turkey and bacon fat mixture that had been blended with more meat glue (Activa RM), but by the time starting printing the paste had set for too long and was too gloppy as it left the syringe.

We tried a celery fluid gel. It worked okay, but wasn’t smooth enough to extrude nicely.

Finally we mixed up another turkey/bacon mix and printed a celery puree filled meat cube. Meatballs hard –meat cubes easy.  It worked pretty well.

Here is our problem:

We need legit food applications.

We’re trying to come up with some awesome, non-gimmicky, and—most importantly—delicious applications for this fab fabber. We need some suggestions.  Here are the guidelines:

1. The material needs to be able to squirt out of a very small tube.  This is the main problem.  Mixtures must be almost completely homogeneous.

2. The final product can’t be any bigger than a pound of butter (plus remember, we are currently squirting out of 10ml tubes).

3. It must be delicious.

4. It must have a point. We don’t need a printer to make scallop space shuttles.

A Note From Dave:

I love this machine.  I plan on using it to print out parts for my rotovap. The guys at Cornell even said  it is possible to print stainless steel (via inert-gas kiln-sintering a stainless powder-impregnated agar gel).  Stainless steel! 

In order to keep the machine we need to find good food applications.  I want an application that can’t be done any other way—an application that makes everyone want a fabber.  I’m currently thinking about new textures we can create. The main limitation is that the mixtures we use must be homogeneous so they can make it out of a standard luer lock fitting.  Emulsified meat, yes. Ground meat, no (passing turkey forcemeat through a tamis turns out to be a pain in the butt).  Dan says this is something we might be able to overcome in the future (after all the machine is basically a positioning system.  The deposition tool can be anything we want).

Here’s  a long-time dream I probably shouldn’t share: I’d like to make little food creatures that move under their own power.  I know it goes against what I preach about  technology in food but I just want to do it.  It goes back to everything I thought about in my sculpture days.  I want to make beautiful little delicious things that move around on your plate and look like edible jewelry.  There. I said it.  I just can’t think of a way to power them.  Acid/base reactions are unpredictable, provide spotty power, and don’t taste good.  Pressure is difficult to control.  I’m convinced, however, that having a Fabber is bringing me closer to my goal. 

In any event the pastry department here is going to have a field day making centerpieces.

53 thoughts on “We've Got a 3-D Printer: We Need Applications

  1. These things are huge fun but I can’t say I have eaten the results. Given that you are restricted to homogeneous I would think your flavor wow factor would be a challenge. Perhaps a start would be to use a basic but reliable liquid and create fun edible containers and structures. I would enjoy a 4″ dump truck full of flan or a gingerbread house with working doors.
    You could also create parts that snap together that are made from different bases that could give you more flavor options. In the dump truck idea you could make the bucket, chassis, and wheels from different materials.
    We use SolidWorks 3D CAD software to program. I can’t imagine that is on hand at FCI.
    I look forward to something fun.
    Good luck!

  2. what about terrine like cubes (or other shape) you could have thin layers of flavor and be able to precisely control distribution and concentration of each flavor.

    1. The question is: what kind of terine do we want to make, but couldn’t before. Interesting problem.

  3. You might be able to use sodium alginate in the printing fluid and print parts directly into a calcium lactate bath. This way, you can print parts from very low viscosity liquids..

    There are a lot of researchers using this approach (and others) to print tissue engineered scaffolds for biomedical applications like liver implants and ACL grafts.

    1. Dan Cohen, who gave us the machine, has done biomed alginate work. What would we use the alginate parts for? Solid alginate doesn’t have the best gel texture.

    1. Yes. When I asked them waht the best printing material of all time was, they said cake icing. I am trying to get our intern Fabulous to brint out a 3D chocolate El Santo.

  4. my immediate reaction would be deserts as the material are stable and easy to work with.

    I am a neuroscientists and work with brain imaging. I would print out the brains!!!

  5. I’d say see if you can modify it to deal with hot molten sugar to produce sugar sculptures based on cad drawings you might be up to something.

    If you can built a “hot” syringe and add some sort of cool air stream chiller for the product I could see that working.

    1. There is a company that makes a “sintered sugar” device called, I believe, the CandyFab 4000. It has low resolution. The Fab@Home guys already have users who have added heaters to the deposition tool. So that is possible. Another possibility is to build a different deposition tool. I know people who use hot-glue guns and isomalt “glue-sticks” to extrude sugar. The only problem I see with this system is the lack of “suckback.” One of the major parameters of the Fab@Home machine is the suck-back that happens at the end of each line. If there is no suckback you get gloppiness. The other problem is sugar’s tendancy to form strings. You’d have to get around that somehow. I bet it is doable.

  6. What about printing into a LN2 bath? That would allow you to use solutions that are much more fluid, but still result in a solid product.

    you’ll need to of course, keep the printed part stable while in the boiling LN2. and the printer will need to work fast to print each layer so that the previous layer is still semi-liquid and bondable, otherwise you’d get seperate frozen layers.

    1. Dunno. The problem with any liquid system (cause we’ve thought about heat baths to set meat glue and calcium baths to set alginate) is maintaining a constant liquid level with the moving table. The other issue, other than the boiling which you point out, is that the machine itself would become very brittle at cryogenic temperatures. Something to think about.

  7. is edible “glass”ware to obvious? a rocks glass made from gingersnap cookie dough with a bacon-infused bourbon old-fashioned inside sounds pretty delicious……for example. you can eat the glass as you drink the liquid inside. bonus points if you can make it clear but with the flavor of gingersnap. maybe this is where you bring in your rotovap.

    1. This is the first idea to come from two separate people, so it must have some interest. If a deposition tool could could be built that continuously fed molten sugar something like this could be possible if you were to figure out how to stop the sugar from pulling threads. Unless you were going to customize the glasses or embed something in them you might be better off casting them. What do you think?

  8. is there a way to make pasta dough extrudable? I want square filled raviolis or something

  9. perfect sushi topping, wasabi soy ginger a thin sheet that can be made to wrap like nori but is written so you know what youre having. alphabet dumplings in a soup, perfect quenelles in layered form, perfectly layered spheres or cubes of flavor that can be placed in ice cream or flavor burst cubes filled with alcohol in sorbets, pomme souffles, savory doughnuts with filling (shrimp rings filled with cocktail sauce), everlasting gobstopper shape each with its own flavor in each of the rectangle, chicken cordon blue in any shape, mc nuggets with sweet n sour filling, what im saying is all these things are possible but taking the labor out of it makes worth the effort. what about trussing a foie torchon with a messeage, tattooing a food, cheese pinata ball, lattice designs to wrap like caulfat

    1. Cheese pinata balls. I can honestly say I did not see that one coming. I think you are right. In the future, when we have a deposition tool that doesn’t have to be reloaded all the time, some of the things that are possible but too labor intensive will become feasible on the printer.

    1. I’ve hear of people trying to solve this problem before. I would assume sugar glasses could be cast the way sugar breakaway bottles are cast. The problem is wiwth customers who don’t drink fast enough!

  10. Maybe it’s gimicky, but I want edible shells: scallop sashimi served in an edible fabricated scallop shell or escargot served in an edible snail shell.

    1. It would have to be something that is piped as a paste, dried, and didn’t get soggy. I bet you could do that the way Ferran did his creme anglaise bowls –LN some liquid and freeze-dry the shell.

  11. You keep talking about things like that, you’ll have a mob of torch and pitchfork wielding Slow Foodists battering down the doors of the FCI!

  12. Great blog! I love seeing new blogs about food and cooking.

    The 3-D printer is very cool – I can’t wait to see what you do with it! I will be checking back soon to see.

    I really like your writing style on this blog – very distinctive and to the point. A lot of blogs don’t have that. Yours does.

    Please check out my recipe blog @ http://www.kachef.com and let me know what you think. Bon Appetit!

  13. Hi, I’m a 3d modeler and if you guys want i can send you some models for fun that you guys can play with. i think i can help you guys a bit with this, to help make things that are more organic than what solid works can produce.

    using a program called Zbrush, i could make you guys pretty much any organic shape you could imagine.

    feel free to contact me any time

    also an artist you may want to look at to help accomplish your goal of moving animals you can eat is Theo Jansen all you’ll need is a bit of wind blowing.


    heres a video of the basics of how his sculptures work

  14. On glassware:
    The closest I’ve come is using the trick with hot sugar into a bucket of ice that sometimes creates a small glass-like structure.
    But I found air bubbles in the finished sugar mar the effect. I will try making a mould and casting a glass…
    Question, does it have to be made from sugar? Is there something else to print glassware from?

    Also, I’d love to have an edible working clock movement called “time for lunch”. Could you print the cogs and assemble a time piece?
    My uncle makes clocks and could help (he even makes the tools to make parts for his grnadfather clocks.

    Or mechanical devices a la Caberet Mechanical Theatre?

  15. did you try making a -any- roasted, or cooked any way, veg emulsified sauce in the thermomix, with gellan added. Just thinking that it would have a fast setting point. cooling it fast probably inside of a walk in freezer, maintaining aislation in the tubes.

    excelent blog btw

  16. you guys have the best toys!

    How about a cake with a detailed message/image embedded inside that would be revealed when sliced? Seems like it would be highly marketable.

  17. I think you need some kinda polymerization reaction to get going to make stable objects, simply drying stuff is boring.
    Someone already pinted out that alginate might be interesting.
    like one syringe with a calcium rich gel and another with the alginate, might generate some kind of artifical “fibers” at the interfaces (artifical meat?)
    Also polymerization of egg proteins might be an option: a pre-heated landig plate , plus some IR Lamps / a salamande whatever to heat it, syringes insulated , wrapped in ice.
    Maybe something like Swabian spaetzle dough (a very thin pasta dough rich in egg that can be extruded), does the trick, plus some awesome filling, to generate “Maultaschen” some other swabian pasta similar to a giant ravioli,
    but now you can make any shape?

    A side note on the moving food:
    Why not reproduce Galvanis experiments?
    Have some conductive metal coating on your plate, striped and with alternative polarity connected, Best white cookware with gold and platinum stripes LOL, hook up a battery and put some very raw muscle meat on that, watch in jump and wiggle..?
    Its not waht you want, but maybe a start…


  18. My immediate thought was something along the line of what other people have said, basically the ability to make shells. Seems like stabilized meringue would work well in this, and you could print arbitrarily complex, extremely-thin shells.

    Or, for something on the disturbing side, take 2 pictures (front and side) of each guest to a party, then print out an edible chocolate shaped like their own face for dessert. I guess that’s probably a gimmick…

    Anyway, I think the real strength of the fab is to make shells (perhaps filled and multi-layered), perhaps in complicated shapes. You pretty much can’t do that any other way. Bite-sized turducken?

  19. If you can outfit it with multiple print heads, you can precisely control the location and of different materials. You could make cubes out of one material, filled with another, or dotted, or something like the “3d crystal cube” ornaments they sell.

  20. Its a bit cheesy, but you could do Warhol-esque soup cans. I’m not very science savvy so I don’t really have suggestions on how to reach the solid/liquid balance that you need, but soup would obviously be something with homogenous flavors…
    A miniaturized pig’s head with an apple in it’s mouth could also be delicious.

  21. how about detailed patterns in tuille paste using pastes with different food dye in them

  22. Found your blog very intriguing as I do a lot of 3D cake sculptures for my clients. I know that Isomalt sticks were mentioned earlier, and I agree that this would be very sensitive to work with. However, there is a product that just might give you something to work with. It’s called SugarVeil. We use it to make intricate lace pieces. It dries to a flexible state, which might be interesting in your application somehow. Best of Luck.

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