Dec 27, 2015 | By Kira
When 3D Systems opened its 3DS Culinary Lab in LA, a first-of-its-kind workshop kitchen where avant-garde culinary experts and artists could experiment with the latest 3D printed food innovations, they signaled a new era of food and technology, one in which the most cutting edge and precise instruments could be used to craft elegant plate presentations or experimental flavor combinations the likes of which we’ve never seen, or tasted, before. However, we’re not all French-trained chefs working with 3D printed wasabi eggs or flavor-infused smoke crystals. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to 3D print everyday kitchen staples, including honey, syrup or even cream cheese, today is the day to find out. Structur3D, makers of the Disov3ry universal paste extruder, put various tasty yet common treats to the 3D printing test, and documented their sweet—and sometimes sour—results.
The Discov3ry 3D paste extruder is a clever, plug-and-play add-on that enables just about any motor-stepper based FDM 3D printer to print go beyond molten plastics, and 3D print with a whole new range of paste-like materials, including soft foods. At just $400, it’s an ideal solution for 3D printer owners who are interested in experimenting with 3D food printing, but not yet willing to invest in any of the high-end, food-specific 3D food printers on the market (although if you are interested, be sure to check out our Top 3D Food Printer roundup!).
In the past, the Structur3D team has had a lot of success with 3D printing edible creations using chocolate spreads and icing sugar. Their 3D printed Star Wars cupcake toppers, for example, not only looked great, but were the perfect way to celebrate Star Wars Day (a.k.a May the 4th). However, the Canadian food engineers decided it was now time to go ‘beyond Nutella’ and enter the realm of 3D printing with new types of food.
The 3D printing ‘materials’ in question include liquid honey, a breakfast syrup, liquid pectin (a filling agent used in jams and jellies), and cream cheese—all the makings of a filling Sunday morning brunch. However, given the different viscosity levels and temperature properties of each type of food, Structure3D’s Johannes Schumacher soon found that 3D printing with food can be somewhat bittersweet.
The first experiments were done with the honey, syrup, and liquid pectin, all of which have a very low viscosity, and are therefore better suited to printing flat outlines rather than elevated, three-dimensional structures. Schumacher chose to a flat bee outline for the honey and syrup, and a berry outline for the pectin, and the 3D printing performance seemed to progress about as expected, except for a peculiar phenomena, which he refers to as the ‘lotus-like effect.’
“The leaves of the lotus flower repel water so strongly that droplets cannot wet the surface and just roll along the surface, taking all dirt with them. We saw a similar effect to this when printing honey onto wax paper,” explained Schumacher. “After a line of honey was deposited, it transformed into individual droplets. These droplets grew bigger and attracted adjacent honey. In the end, no visible trace of honey was left in between the drops, as long as the nozzle was not depositing new honey.”
Though he did try to reduce the surface area/surface tension, and increase the building platform temperature to 60°C in an attempt to minimize the effect, this only led to the formation of droplets proceeding even faster. The same lotus-like effect occurred during the 3D printing of the syrup and liquid pectin.
Next up, Schumacher tried a different approach by 3D printing with a much higher-viscosity food substance: a block of Phildelphia Cream Cheese. Given that cream cheese is much thicker and able to hold its shape, he chose a 3D Swiss cheese block consisting of roughly ten times as many layers as the previous, flat prints. To throw in another twist, the Swiss cheese model also featured distinct cavities that required overhangs built into the 3D printed structure. “Since cream cheese is more solid that liquid, this should have been achievable,” he said.
During the initial 3D printing stages, things seemed much more promising than with the previous syrups. “Each spot featured a z-axis height which was achieved, and none of the resulting cylinder-like structures fell over. Moreover, in between those spots, no material was deposited due to the high viscosity.”
However, as things progressed, he realized that the material’s temperature highly affected its viscosity, which in turn affected the quality of the print. “Cream cheese was the first material that featured a significantly varying viscosity during the print. Immediately after taking the cheese out of the refrigerator, the material was almost solid and had a higher viscosity than silicone paste. However, as the cheese approached room temperature, the viscosity decreased.”
Although the overall results of the great 3D food printing experiment might not have been as satisfying as Sunday brunch, they did reveal quite a bit about the existing possibilities and limitations of this exciting new 3D printing trend. For the moment, 3D printing with consistent, medium-viscosity pastes seems to give the best results, however that category includes a wide range of foods that have already been successfully 3D printed, including chocolate, pancakes, gummy candy, icing sugar, pizza dough, pasta noodles, pureed vegetables, and much more.
There are also a variety of advanced 3D food printing technologies either in development, or already on the market, as well as many 3D food printing engineers that are working to optimize the technology for various applications, from 3D printed hamburgers to nutritious and potentially life-saving 3D printed meals for senior citizens.
You can view the full results of Structur3D’s 3D food printing experiment here, and watch Schumacher’s video below:
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