Hod Lipson and his team at Columbia University (CU) have been developing a prototype 3D printer designed to find a place on the kitchen counter alongside the toaster and coffee maker. The device will be able to print edible creations using a variety of pastes, gels, powders and liquid ingredients, meticulously crafted through computer software and eventually, cooked within the printer itself.

"We've been cooking forever," says Lipson, a Mechanical Engineering professor at Columbia University (CU), wants to help reinvigorate the area,. "But if you think about it, while technology and software have wormed their way into almost every aspect of our lives, cooking is still very, very primitive – we still cook over an open flame, like our ancestors millennia ago. So this is one area where software has not yet permeated. And when software touches something, it takes off."

Following in the footsteps of Foodini, ChefJet and other food-focused 3D printers, The CU team's device is designed to open up the possibilities of what we eat, as well as make it easier to prepare meals and manage dietary requirements. But it doesn't mean conventional cooking's goose is cooked.

"Food printers are not meant to replace conventional cooking – they won't solve all of our nutritional needs, nor cook everything we should eat," says Lipson. "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."

These frozen cartridges form one of the main challenges the team is still working on: how to cook the food inside the printer. Many existing 3D printers either opt for food that doesn't need to be cooked, like candy and chocolate, or have users cook the meal post-print, like NASA's astronaut pizza printer. The CU team is working on building an infrared heating element into the robotic arm of the device, and ideally, giving it the ability to cook the different ingredients at different temperatures and for varying amounts of time, as the meal is prepared.

All this will be controlled by software under development by CU computer scientists. Amateur chefs will be catered for, with the system designed to determine what a meal will look like after being cooked for a specific time and temperature, allowing users to adjust the meal before they begin. This software needs to be built specifically for cooking, rather than the language of manufacturing that the current hardware was designed around.

"This is the wrong language for food," says Lipson. "With food you want to layer, coat, sprinkle, mix, so we need a new language so that we can describe what we want to the printer. And it has to be easy for someone who's not an engineer to create a digital recipe."

Already, the team has put this to the test by tapping into the culinary creativity of professional chefs working in the International Culinary Center (ICC) in New York.

"It was exciting to be able to design dishes with the software, to see the drawing ahead of time, to see what's going to happen, to make interesting shapes and geometries," says chef Herve Malivert of the ICC. "This will help with planning, and will be great to have at home. As these printers improve, it will be exciting to see where we can go with these machines. For instance, I think they will be very useful in the area of health and nutrition, especially in nursing homes and hospitals."

"We've already seen that putting our technology into the hands of chefs has enabled them to create all kinds of things that we've never seen before, that we've never tried," says Lipson. "This is just a glimpse of the future and what lies ahead."

The team discusses the project in the video below.

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