[ExI] [tt] NYT: Dinner Is Printed
eugen at leitl.org
Tue Sep 24 12:14:48 UTC 2013
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Date: Mon, 23 Sep 2013 00:59:35 +0000 (GMT)
From: Frank Forman <checker at panix.com>
To: Transhuman Tech <tt at postbiota.org>
Subject: [tt] NYT: Dinner Is Printed
Dinner Is Printed
By A. J. JACOBS
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.
Jeffrey Lipton helping to prepare the evening’s dinner on a
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
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
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
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
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
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."
A 3-D printed pizza in the shape of Italy, complete with the
Apennine Mountain range in the middle.
Our final picks? Pizza, an eggplant dish, corn pasta and panna
Our pizza will be in the shape of Italy, a topographically correct
replica of the country, complete with the Apennine Mountain range in
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 tie, the dishes and the cutlery were all created with a 3-D
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
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
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.
A.J. Jacobs is an editor at large at Esquire magazine and the author
of "Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily
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