Researchers develop 3-D food printer

August 9, 2016

In the past year, Columbia University mechanical engineering professor Hod Lipson and his students have been developing a 3-D food printer that can fabricate edible items through computer-guided software and the actual cooking of edible pastes, gels, powders, and liquid ingredients—all in a prototype that looks like a coffee machine. The printer is the result of a design project devised by Lipson and his students, led by Drim Stokhuijzen, an industrial design graduate student visiting from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, and Jerson Mezquita, an undergraduate student visiting from SUNY Maritime who is now a research associate in Lipson’s Creative Machines Lab (CML).

“Food printers are not meant to replace conventional cooking—they won’t solve all of our nutritional needs, nor cook everything we should eat,” said Lipson, a roboticist who works in the areas of artificial intelligence and digital manufacturing at Columbia Engineering. “But they will produce an infinite variety of customized fresh, nutritional foods on demand, transforming digital recipes and basic ingredients supplied in frozen cartridges into healthy dishes that can supplement our daily intake. I think this is the missing link that will bring the benefits of personalized data-driven health to our kitchen tables—it’s the ‘killer app’ of 3-D printing.”

The major challenge the team faces is how to get the printer to “cook” the food. Lipson notes that, while he is sure they can get the technology to work this summer, “stuffing it all into the new machine, which is much more compact than the printer we’ve been using, is a big challenge.” The printer is fitted out with a robotic arm that holds eight slots for frozen food cartridges; the students are now working on incorporating an infrared heating element into the arm.

Lipson and his team are collaborating with New York City–based International Culinary Center (ICC), a top culinary school in the United States. Working closely with Chef Hervé Malivert, ICC’s director of food technology and culinary coordinator, Lipson led several workshops to bring together ICC’s culinary creativity with the CML’s technical knowledge to create new kinds of foods—novel textures, combinations, and spatial arrangements of basic ingredients that chefs cannot currently put together. Malivert hoped to expose his students to the future of food and new food technologies; Lipson’s aim was to explore and study the potential of printed food, to create and document the student-designed recipes, and unveil what food in 2025 might look like.

“The engineers have tackled how 3-D printing works, but now we turn to the kitchen experts to face the creative question of what can be made,” says Lipson.

Press release