And You Think Printer Ink is Expensive Now?

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We all know that most famous of Star Trek lines… no, not “make it so.” No, not “damnit Jim I’m an -insertsomethinghere-” I mean:

Tea. Earl Grey, hot. The favorite replicated beverage of Capt. Picard.

Well, the technology to synthesize our favorite foods and drinks is on the way. According to the BBC news:

“The team at Cornell University’s Computational Synthesis Lab (CCSL) are building a 3D food printer, as part of the bigger Fab@home project, which they hope one day will be as commonplace as the microwave oven or blender.”

Basically the device is an array of ingredient filled syringes that inject the “inks” (liquified food stuffs) in sequence with the help of a CAD program. Right now it’s limited to stuff like cheese and raw dough and chocolate; stuff that can be squeezed though a straw.

“However, the team are now experimenting with mixing foods with hydrocolloids – substances that form gels with water, generally used to thicken food products – to create a range of basic liquid ingredients.”

That said, if either NASA and/or the military get interested in this idea this thing would definitively become reality. They’ve been putting food in tubes for years; finally it could be edible.

One of the goals of the group is to one day be able to digitally exchange CAD recipes via email and social networking. We’d someday be able comment on, tweak and tweet the recipes across the internet.

Think about it. We’ve all seen those food-of-the-month clubs: get a variety of cheeses or a basket of fruit sent to your door. Well, forget the door, get it right in your inbox. Puts a whole new spin on the idea of SPAM.

The food printer stems from the concept of rapid prototyping machines – a device that layers polymers on top of each other to form 3D objects. You’d design a product, print out the parts and build it in the comfort of your own home.

Before now it was a expensive prospect – like 40 grand expensive. That’s a lot to blow on a model airplane press.

But a company called RepRap is making the technology available to the common man… for free! Well, the plans and software are free; you’d just have to provide the tools and about $1000 for parts. Still a lot better than a taking out a second mortgage.

From their website:

RepRap is a free desktop 3D printer capable of printing plastic objects. Since many parts of RepRap are made from plastic and RepRap can print those parts, RepRap is a self-replicating machine – one that anyone can build given time and materials. It also means that – if you’ve got a RepRap – you can print lots of useful stuff, and you can print another RepRap for a friend… “

RepRap from Adrian Bowyer on Vimeo.

Something as neat as this doesn’t come without controversy though. Much like when the ability to burn CDs came out, there’s a fear of copyright infringement and theft of intellectual property.

In theory yes, it’s something to worry about down the line. In theory, yes, someday you could A) produce the CD blank on which your about to copy an album B) build from scratch the computer you’re going to use to burn it, then listen to it sitting on a C) Ikea POÄNG chair you downloaded from Pirate Bay while sipping a D) Wendy’s Frosty you whipped up with your food printer in the kitchen.

In practice, however, there are those out there in the year 2011 who still think their CD-Rom tray is a cup holder. There are those out there in the year 2011 who will attempt to log into their E-mail by putting their E-mail address in the URL bar. The collective manual dexterity and 3D AutoCAD skills of humanity are such that I don’t think there is a need worry about mass piracy of everyday physical objects.

What I kinda do worry about is all that plastic going to be thrown about. I mean if at first you don’t succeed – draft, draft again. Right? What will become of the prototype prototypes? Sure, we’d probably be able to melt them down and re-use the plastic. But consider this… how many of us use the other side of the paper if we print out the wrong thing? No, normal plastics won’t do.

In a previous post I mentioned some products being made with a material called Mirel. It’s a renewable biodegradable plastic made from plant sugars. Folks from Cornell were also working on plastic from citrus oil and carbon dioxide called polylimonene carbonate.

If the RepRap were able to use these you could be totally self sustaining. Grow your own corn and oranges, toss ’em into the food printer an make some plastic ingots and build your own little world!

Well, at the very least all those the embarrassingly misfit toys produced in the experimentation stages would biodegrade and not laugh at us for all eternity.

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Ryan is an artist / writer out of Melbourne, FL.

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