Living in the Future with 3D Printing
What we once envisioned as the untouchable future is now our reality. Cars are parking themselves, hoverboards serve as alternatives to walking, drones are delivering personal packages, and now, machines are printing food.
3D printing is the futuristic manufacturing process that takes a digital model and makes it into a solid 3D object by creating and building upon layers of various compounds such as plastic, resin and even metals. 3D food printing works in the same way but instead of using aforementioned items, it uses consumable (and digestible) compounds to create products you can eat. Engineers first experimented with edible substances like sugars, chocolate, and various types of dough to be loaded into the specialized printer.
Despite initial usage of these popular yet unhealthy types of ingredients, researchers and engineers envision 3D food printing as a way to add sustainable and nutritional value for a range of consumers. With more and more R&D work in these areas, it seems like the barriers to reach their goals are vanishing.
An unexpected benefit to 3D printing is the unique way it can help senior citizens. For example, in Germany, a select group of retirement homes are using 3D printers to aide individuals disabled with chewing and swallowing difficulties who resist eating unappetizing pureed foods. This in turn leaves them malnourished from not consuming an appropriate amount of nutrition to maintain a healthy diet. The special 3D printer they are using can mash certain vegetables like carrots and broccoli and create a softer mold of their original shape through a gelling agent—giving the foods anappetizing and easy-to-eat structure while still preserving their nutritional value. The printer’s ability to create appealing and nutritious foods allows for a significant improvement to their quality of life.
But 3D printing isn’t just penetrating its way into retirement homes – it also holds the potential to influence our daily life at home. 3D food printing is breaking into our homes by introducing customized nutrition. The incredible food printer will be able to deliver the exact dosages of drugs and vitamins along with specific nutritional necessities based on particular individual needs. Hod Lipson, director of Cornell University’s Creative Machine Labs, said “You’ll be able to say when I wake up in the morning I want the printer to print my breakfast and I want it to have the right amount of trans fats, whatever we need.” So no more weighing and measuring…the 3D printer will do the balancing for you.
While the printer can provide undeniable nutritional benefits, one of its biggest advances is its one-of-a-kind ability to create sustainable foods. Kjeld van Bommel, a research scientist at the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research, is exploring ways substitute protein sources like algae and insects can produce alternative and interesting ways to eat protein – ones that are less harmful to the environment.
Pairing the 3D printer’s ability of creating both nutritional and sustainable foods is exactly the characteristic that allows this futuristic technology to penetrate into unthinkable industries. NASA recognized the wide appeal of this creation of nutritional and sustainable foods from 3D printers, and is now testing ways to include this unworldly innovation on long and deep space missions.
The space agency granted $125,000 to the Systems and Materials Research Corporation (SMRC) to make a prototype of Anjan Contractor’s, senior medical engineer at SMRC, 3D food printer and test its ability to feed astronauts on lengthy flights, like the highly anticipated 520-day mission to Mars.
It is the spectacular abilities of 3D food printing that led NASA to recognizes its current food program’s shortcomings. NASA wants to use 3D food printing to provide food that meets safety, acceptability, variety, and nutritional stability requirements – all while using the least amount of spacecraft resources and crew time as possible. Fortunately, 3D printers have the potential to do this in many ways.
Deep missions like one to Mars will require extensively long shelf-life of foods and Contractor is discovering ways to make that possible with various foods. "The way we are working on it is, all the carbs, proteins and macro and micro nutrients are in powder form. We take moisture out, and in that form it will last maybe 30 years." This will be in the form of cartridges of powder and oils that can be bought at the grocery store. The thought is for each cartridge, whether it contain sugars, carbs, or other substances, to be fully exhausted by the time it returns to the store for purchase.
Engineers are still in Phase II of this project so we’ll have to wait another several years until the system can be tested on actual flights, but the potential for 3D printers seems out of this world.