What Happens When 3-D Printing Outgrows Plastics?

The food world is about to be disrupted.

What Happens When 3-D Printing Outgrows Plastics?
[Photo by Flickr user Creative Tools]

For anyone that’s ever considered 3-D printing superfluous, let me suggest a counterpoint: Candy.


Yes, computer-created desserts are about to become a reality thanks to 3D Systems’s new ChefJet printer, which is able to print whole confections.

3-D printed candy

“The ChefJet printers operate using a process that’s a lot like making frosting in your kitchen at home,” says creative director of food products at 3D Systems Liz Von Hasseln. “The ChefJet builds up a confection by adding the wet ingredients of a given recipe to the dry ingredients, only very very precisely, on a layer-by-layer basis.”

Using a 3-D printer in the kitchen gives chefs a completely new way to express their artistic talents. Printing desserts is also a natural fit for the technology, says Von Hasseln, “There’s already a cultural expectation of a dessert as a designed object–it’s a space that values embellishment and experimentation and customization.”

Printing food has long been a popular idea. Even MakerBot originally tried to print using frosting, but the efforts ultimately failed. It turned to plastics instead. This is why the material science side of 3-D printing is so important; without advances there we’d be stuck printing the same objects. Structur3D is approaching the industry from the materials side rather than the mechanical engineering side.

“At the end of the day, being able to move into these new materials gives more options for flexibility, edibility, aesthetics, and how something feels to the touch,” says Structur3D CTO Andrew Finkle. “All these new properties beyond plastic allow printing endless applications now.”

The ChefJet comes in two models: one that prints foods in color and one that only prints them in black and white.

Custom insole printed using silicon

Food service isn’t the only industry that 3-D printing will disrupt. One example Finkle gives is the possibility of being able to print custom orthotics with $3-$4 silicon found at Home Depot. If someone wanted to print an object out of Play-Doh, for example, they could find other projects people had done, challenges they faced, and techniques used–like speed or mixture levels–to overcome the difficulties.

Shapeways has been building its 3-D printing community around shopping and designing custom printed objects. Searching through its store, you begin to see that nearly everything can be 3-D printed in some fashion.

“We are able to directly 3-D print with stainless steel, then the parts are strengthened by infusing them with bronze,” says Shapeways VP of supply chain Justine Trubey. “We also have a family of metals like brass, bronze, silver, gold, and platinum that are printed in wax and cast using traditional lost-wax casting–like most traditional jewelry. 3-D printing with gold is possible–and there are some 3-D printers that can do that–but it’s much more expensive to do so and the quality currently isn’t as good as when it is done through lost-wax casting.”

The material side of 3-D printing is rapidly expanding, but it has by no means been cracked yet. The feeling is that it’s more of a matter of time at this point, rather than having hit a wall. As Structur3D’s Finkle puts it, “Right now there’s not the capability to print whatever, but I believe where there’s a will there’s a way.”