Dinner Is Printed
By A. J. JACOBS - New York Times
THE hype over 3-D printing intensifies by the day. Will it save the world? Will it bring on the apocalypse, with millions manufacturing their own AK-47s? Or is it all an absurd hubbub about a machine that spits out chintzy plastic trinkets? I decided to investigate. My plan: I would immerse myself in the world of 3-D printing. I would live for a week using nothing but 3-D-printed objects — toothbrushes, furniture, bicycles, vitamin pills — in order to judge the technology’s potential and pitfalls.
I approached Hod Lipson, a Cornell engineering professor and one of the nation’s top 3-D printing experts, with my idea. He thought it sounded like a great project. It would cost me a mere $50,000 or so.
Unless I was going to 3-D print counterfeit Fabergé eggs for the black market, I’d need a Plan B.
Which is how I settled on the idea of creating a 3-D-printed meal. I’d make 3-D-printed plates, forks, place mats, napkin rings, candlesticks — and, of course, 3-D-printed food. Yes, cuisine can be 3-D printed, too. And, in fact, Mr. Lipson thinks food might be this technology’s killer app. (More on that later.)
I wanted to serve the meal to my wife as the ultimate high-tech romantic dinner date. A friend suggested that, to finish the evening off, we hire a Manhattan-based company that scans and makes 3-D replicas of your private parts. That’s where I drew the line.
As it turned out, the dinner was perhaps the most labor-intensive meal in history. But it did give me a taste of the future, in both its utopian and dystopian aspects.
In case you don’t subscribe to Wired, a 3-D printer is sort of like a hot-glue gun attached to a robotic arm. But instead of squeezing out glue, the tube extrudes plastic.
The shape is your choice. Using special software, you can design any object on your computer — say, a coffee mug with two handles — then load the file into the 3-D printer. You wait a couple of hours as the printer nozzle shuttles back and forth, oozing out melted plastic layer by layer until — voilà — your ambidextrous mug. Other types of printers work with metal, biological tissue, ceramics and food.
To its boosters, the 3-D printer is a revolution in the making. It will democratize manufacturing. Just as the Internet turned us all into couchbound Gutenbergs with the ability to publish to millions of readers with a single click, 3-D printers will turn us all into Henry Fords, Ralph Laurens and Daniel Bouluds. In the future, if you want a new pair of boots for that night’s party, just load in a nylon cartridge, choose a design, punch a button and slip them on.
OF course, the revolution isn’t here yet, at least not for home users. According to an industry consultant, Terry Wohlers of Wohlers Associates, only about 68,000 consumer printers have been sold. Most home users are hobbyists, and the geek factor remains high. The biggest chunk of the fast-growing $2.2 billion 3-D printing economy is industrial.
Food printing is so far a minor phenomenon, confined mostly to science fairs, universities and a handful of chocolate devotees. And, I hoped, me. But before I became a chef of the future, I’d need to make the plates and utensils.
I bought a Cube 3-D printer, perhaps the sleekest of the home gadgets. It looks like a sewing machine mated with a MacBook. It’s not cheap: $1,299, plus $49 dollars for each cartridge of plastic. I downloaded design software to my laptop and diagramed a fork. I clicked a button, and 20 minutes later, my “fork” emerged from my printer. It was a lopsided hunk of neon-green plastic with four sharp points at the end. It resembled something a chimp might use to extract termites.
Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
My next half-dozen tries weren’t much better. I printed a cup that leaked, an ice-cube tray that refused to release its cubes, and a spoon that unintentionally called to mind one of Salvador Dalí's melted clocks. My wife, Julie, called my new cutlery drawer “the island of misfit utensils.”
In my defense, 3-D printing is surprisingly hard — a fact its advocates don’t dwell upon. So much can go wrong: The nozzle clogs, the machine overheats, the print pad tilts. In fact, Web sites like the blog Epic3DPrintingFail are devoted to photos of projects gone hilariously awry — including one box that looks as if it were the brainchild of a drunk Frank Gehry.
It’s also mind-numbingly slow. A teacup takes about four hours to print, accompanied by nonstop whirring. When I tried to design and print a replacement die for my son’s Monopoly game, it was a daylong project. My son helpfully pointed out that Amazon has one-click ordering.
That said, I did improve with practice. I was particularly proud of my wineglass, with its tapered cone. I became obsessed with the design software, spending hours squashing spheres and hollowing out cylinders. I downloaded some of the hundreds of free, publicly shared designs (though my wife nixed the Tetris-themed earrings).
I found myself almost giddy after every successful print: Yes, I created this napkin ring! I can make anything. I am a god and bright blue plastic is my universe!
The power can lead to narcissism. You think Americans in the Facebook era take excessive photos of ourselves? Get ready for selfie statues. At a 3-D printer store in NoHo run by Makerbot, you can get 3-D scans of your head (four cameras simultaneously snap photos of you from different angles). I got one of my 7-year-old son and printed a fist-size orange plastic bust of him. At home, we converted his head into a salt shaker for the dinner by poking a hole in the top of his plastic skull and adding some Morton’s.
If my table setting was going to look at all respectable, I’d need to call in the pros. I asked Mr. Lipson if I could hire him and his team to help.
What a difference a Ph.D. makes. They sent back blueprints for the cutlery — a fork and spoon made of lacy, spiraling steel. I told the engineers that my wife likes Italy, so they sent Italian-themed designs. A wineglass inspired by a Roman column, with Corinthian flourishes. A candleholder influenced by Venetian gondola poles, adorned with Julie’s favorite flower, the peony.
I showed the images to my wife. She paused. “You might have gone a little over the top with the Italian theme,” she said. “I think we have different agendas here. You want personalized designs that could only happen with 3-D printing. I want stuff we will actually use more than once.” Mr. Lipson printed most of my dinnerware at a New York-based company called Shapeways, which has fancy, cutting-edge 3-D printers that work with metal and ceramics. Again, it’s not cheap. The cost for my fork, for instance? $50.
I couldn’t afford a 3-D-printed dinner tuxedo, but Mr. Lipson offered to design a tie. “It’ll be a bit like chain mail,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to blow my nose on it. But it will work.” A few weeks later, the tie arrived: a long swath made entirely of white interlocking rings of nylon. I had trouble adjusting the tie, so I wore it loose and low, like a young banker after a few too many vodka tonics.
At last, meal day arrived. The Cube can print only plastic, not food, so I had called in my tech team.
At noon, Jeffrey I. Lipton — a 25-year-old Cornell Ph.D. candidate in engineering — arrived and unloaded boxes of equipment. Out came an air compressor, plastic tubes and bottles of xanthan gum, a food thickener. Our kitchen table was overtaken by a large 3-D printer that had been used for various other experiments — like printing artificial buttocks muscle for medical training.
“Don’t worry,” Mr. Lipton said. “It’s been cleaned.”
Mr. Lipson believes that the 3-D printer could be the most powerful kitchen tool ever created. You will have unlimited control over your meal’s shape, consistency, flavor and color. Just think of what it means for parents, he said: “What boy wouldn’t want to eat a Lamborghini, even if it’s made of broccoli?”
The most ardent supporters of 3-D-printed food have big ideas. NASA gave $125,000 to a Texas company to study 3-D-printed cuisine for astronauts. The benefit is, they could design a wide assortment of meals from shelf-stable ingredients.
There’s talk of embedding medicines in meals. In his book “Fabricated,” Mr. Lipson dreams of digitally driven dinners, where the printer uses your body’s up-to-the-minute data to create the perfect lasagna for your nutritional needs, with, say, extra protein or vitamin A.
Junk-food makers hope 3-D printing will allow them to patent a new way to combine salt, sugar and fat. Animal-rights activists hope printers will squeeze out pork chops made from the lab-grown stem cells of pigs. And idealists believe that the technology will help solve world hunger. The hope? We can more efficiently ship powdered food to developing countries, where it can be printed into a variety of meals. A group of Dutch researchers is working on inexpensive bases made from algae and insect protein.
When Mr. Lipson’s engineers were experimenting with printing food in 2009, they created artificial snacks made from gelatin and flavoring. The resulting food cubes — infused with banana and vanilla — were sampled by undergraduate volunteers. They were not a hit. “It was met with universal condemnation,” says Mr. Lipton. “It was very ‘Soylent Green.’ ”
Instead, the lab now squishes whole foods down into a paste that can be used as the printer’s ink. The menu for my dinner took weeks to figure out, balancing my wife’s tastes and the lab’s scientific constraints. “It needs to be something processed,” said Mr. Lipson. “Like quiche or meatloaf. It can’t be a salad or steak.”
Our final picks? Pizza, an eggplant dish, corn pasta and panna cotta.
Our pizza will be in the shape of Italy, a topographically correct replica of the country, complete with the Apennine Mountain range in the middle.
Mr. Lipton punched some codes into his laptop (e.g., 20 psi for air pressure), and the pizza dough began squirting out of a long tube.
The tomato sauce — which was thickened with xanthan gum to achieve the right viscosity — proved more challenging. “These oregano flakes are killing me,” Mr. Lipton said with a sigh, fiddling with the dial on the air compressor. The flakes were clogging up the tube’s nozzle, leading to what one onlooker called a Vesuvian eruption of red sauce in Northern Italy.
After extruding the cheese, the pizza was ready for heating. Future 3-D printers will most likely use lasers to zap the food. Mr. Lipton used a more traditional method: our oven.
Twenty minutes later, we had a pizza shaped like Italy, or at least Italy and its surrounding coastal waters (the dough rose with the heat, expanding the borders).
My wife and I put our slices on our 3-D-printed plates, cut a piece with our 3-D-printed forks. We clinked our 3-D-printed wineglasses and listened to some Sinatra playing (very faintly) on a plastic and rubber 3-D-printed speaker.
WE each took a bite. We raised our eyebrows. It tasted like the 22nd century. Actually, it tasted like a slightly chewier version of non-3-D-printed pizza. I wasn’t magically transported to the holo-deck of the Starship Enterprise, but it was good eating. In my wife’s opinion, almost as good as Patsy’s, which is high praise.
“We actually found that creating totally new taste sensations alarms people,” Mr. Lipson told me. “Humans are quite phobic that way. So we try to stick to tastes people are somewhat used to.”
Continuing with the carb-heavy theme, we next printed out corn-based noodles in the shape of our initials. They emerged from the nozzle in little squiggles, looking like a plateful of tiny beige Slinkies. They tasted like a more delicate version of angel-hair pasta.
Our side dish was a 3-D Frankenfood: a paste made of squash and eggplant and printed in the shape of a gear (a design that seemed appropriately mechanical). The idea was to show the potential for 3-D printing to combine any vegetables — or meats or fruits or nuts — into a single object. We would create a new hybrid: the eggsquash, or the squant. Unfortunately, our eggsquash’s texture was too gummy to enjoy, so my wife and I left half on the plate.
The dessert was panna cotta. The plan was to have a secret 3-D-printed message hidden inside. If cut in half, the dessert was supposed to reveal the letters “NYC” in blue cream. (The lab had done a similar trick with a “C” buried inside a cookie.)
Mr. Lipton dyed some of the panna cotta blue, but it never made it out of the tube. “This isn’t going to work,” Mr. Lipton said, after searching his gear. To inject the secret letters, we needed a second compressor hose, which Mr. Lipton had left at the Cornell lab. Instead, we had (once again) food in the shape of our initials. It was creamy and light, though the monogrammed letters made us feel uncomfortably Trump-like.
Thanks to the technical snafus, the meal finished late — or at least late by parents-of-young-kids standards. Mr. Lipton packed up his gear around 11 p.m.
After spending weeks with 3-D printing, I have no doubt it will change the world in ways we can hardly imagine. Much of the change will be behind the scenes, unobserved by consumers. Engineers foresee a lightweight largely 3-D-printed airplane that could cut fuel costs significantly. That savings will (fingers crossed) be passed along to travelers. As Mr. Lipton says, we are in for a “silent revolution.”
But will there also be a revolution in our homes and kitchens? Will 3-D printers transform our lives like the PC and Mac did? That remains to be seen.
It will be a battle between two forces: one, our love for ego-gratifying stuff tailored to our every whim. And two, our built-in laziness. Will we make the effort to print out a hexagonal ostrich burger with cucumber swirls (and then clean the printer) when we can just get a Quarter Pounder at the drive-through on the way home? I’m a techno-optimist, so I hope so.
In the meantime, I’d judge this the strangest and most memorable meal of my life, and that includes a dinner party that featured vegan cow entrails.