Columbia University is working on a new 3D food printer that can produce and cook a variety of dishes from frozen base ingredients. They also want to introduce an element of design to home cooking that could turn cooking into an open source hub of innovation that unites people around the world on social media.

3D printed food might not replace your cooker

In an interesting twist, though, the researchers at the heart of this project say that the printer cannot and will not replace traditional cooking. This will be an addition to the kitchen, not a complete replacement. So the dream of consigning the cooker to history might have to wait a while yet.

The likes of Foodini and Beehex are making inroads into the 3D printed food market and the company that cracks the code will be an instant smash hit. Beehex is now serving pizzas in restaurants in New York and Foodini has found its way into the hands of top chefs and catering companies that need to replicate specific shapes and textures. A company in Finland, meanwhile, is working on vending machines that will offer hot, 3D printed food.

Frozen gels converted into food

The team at Columbia University have opted for a technique that uses frozen ingredients in cartridges that they can use to print the food, which looks like the Foodini system at first glance. There is obviously a second step, though, and the researchers are now looking for a way to cook the food, consistently, in a desktop format.

The printer is capable of producing the gel-like substances we’ve seen from other manufacturers. So this machine will not try to replace traditional foods and will instead offer nutrient rich gel solutions that can then be cooked. It obviously comes with its own unique texture that the public might have to get used to.

If they can do this then that could take them to the head of the pack. But this printer is a long way off completion and perhaps the most interesting revelation here is that Hod Lipson, the mechanical engineering professor who is heading up this project, has a much more conservative outlook for the future of 3D printing than we’ve heard thus far.

“Food printers are not meant to replace conventional cooking,” he said. “They won’t solve all of our nutritional needs, nor cook everything we should eat.”

Columbia University is building a 3D food printer

@ Columbia University

The replicator is still some way off

So if you’re waiting for the Star Trek replicator to feature in your home, then even the people leading the charge don’t expect that to happen just yet. Lipson is looking forward to changing the way we look at food, though.

“If we look at cooking then it’s very basic,” he said. “So it’s very interesting to think what will happen when you bring software and this kind of hardware into cooking, then we start to look at the potential for controlling nutrition and we can start to make novel food items that you can’t make any other way.

“Your breakfast might not be the same for everybody, from processed food, but it might be based on your biometrics. We’re trying to take this kind of food forward and really take a leap towards something that might be used in the kitchen.”

Will food go social?

The researchers took the basic equipment to chefs and introduced them to the design software and discovered a real social angle to 3D printed food. They expect people to share designs and recipes, with some going viral and modified in the same way as open source software on repositories like Github.

“This could lead to an explosion in innovation in food like we’ve never seen before,” he said.

We’re sure this will be the start of something big and it will be fascinating to see how technology and food combine in the years to come.

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