Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 26 May 2013





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

‘Printing’ food

Copying, even colour copying, is so passé now. Forget colour scanning. People want to see things for real. They want to see things in three dimensions. This is where 3 D Copying and Printing comes in. It is one of the most exciting fields of scientific innovation and endeavour right now, with so much happening every day.

Just what is 3 D printing? The common definition is “a process of making a 3 D solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model”. The technology is used for both prototyping and manufacturing in jewellery, footwear, industrial design, architecture, engineering and construction, automotive, aerospace, dental and medical industries, education, geographic information systems, civil engineering, and many other fields. The good news is that 3 D printing is a lot less expensive now than it was even five years ago - you are looking at paying US$ 1,000 for a low-end machine. (There are 2-D colour photocopiers that cost more).

The possibilities of 3D printing are mind boggling. If you are an architect, forget about showing 3-D computer renderings of your projects to clients. Just print a model of what their building would look like for real, in three dimensions. It’s a heaven-sent solution for surgery - just the other day, I read a report on how surgeons saved a baby’s life by using a device to help him breathe created by a 3D printer. Microsoft unveiled its next generation video game console the X-Box One. The console, which will feature 15 exclusive titles, Skype video calling, and a voice and gesture command feature, came with one other surprise; it was prototyped using 3D printers.

Given more time to develop, 3-D printing could become as revolutionary as printing itself. As one 3-D printing expert pointed out recently “it is a great opportunity for entrepreneurs and start-up companies - turn an idea into a design, into a product almost instantly, and then reach an internet marketplace at the click of a mouse”.


You don’t even have to own a 3-D printer to enjoy its advantages. The Dutch company Shapeways in New York has a battery of 3D printing machines to make things sent in by its customers -as data - over the Internet. The products, including lots of jewellery and individualised smartphone cases are then shipped back to them a few days later. This is 3D printing for people who don't want to spend US$ 1,000 or more on their own machine.

However, 3-D printing is not only about the good things in life. One case in point is the recent printing of a plastic gun by an outfit that calls itself Defense Distributed. It created a huge controversy by posting the blueprints for the gun online on its site, though it was later pulled out on the request of the US Government. It was too late, because the blueprints are freely available on many other sites which the US Government cannot regulate. One major concern about the gun was that it may not be detectable at airport security stations, being plastic. There is a chance that terrorists may use 3-D printers to create guns and weapons.

On the other hand, fears have been expressed that such governmental action may hinder the development of 3-D printing. There has to be a sense of balance in this regard – creativity should not be stifled, but any dangerous or anti-social ideas must not be entertained. There are two sides to every coin and 3-D printing is no exception.

As with any new technology, the good side seems to be defeating the bad side here as well. And now NASA has come up with the ultimate 3-D printing ‘recipe’ – 3-D printed food. The space agency is paying US$ 125,000 to study the use of 3-D printing technology for food preparation in space. (If you have already seen such a thing on TV, it must have been a 45-year old episode of Star Trek, which featured 3-D food printing long before anyone even thought of it).

“We will be building the components for a prototype” over the grant's six-month period, David Irwin, principal investigator for the project at Texas-based Systems and Materials Research Consultancy, told NBC. The idea is to use a 3-D printer to turn generic mixes of starch, protein and fat into textured foodie-type elements, and then add flavourings with an ink-jet device. Theoretically, you could have a warm slice of crusty-type starch material topped with (fake/manufactured) cheese, sauce and pepperoni. The advantages of using such a technique on a (four or five-year) trip to say, Mars, are obvious. In fact, the project is part of the space agency's effort to widen the menu options for future space travellers when they head out to Mars or a near-Earth asteroid.


Basic unflavoured ingredients could be kept in long-term storage - up to 30 years. The 3-D printer could build up different blends of the basics with different textures. Food-specific flavourings could be sprayed onto the components of synthetic food. Thus, the same device could turn out pizzas on one day, and tacos on the next for extra spice and variety. Astronauts are much more likely to warm up to such a machine than to pre-packaged, bland ‘real’ food that had been in a freezer for years. And the biggest advantage is zero waste, which is essential for long-term space trips.

Apart from its potential use on space trips a la Star Trek, it could be a very long term answer to the food crisis facing most parts of the world. As agricultural lands are taken over for settlement and other purposes, the world will face a major problem in feeding up to nine billion people by 2050. If foods could be artificially manufactured from a few basic ingredients, it could resolve this crisis to a great extent.

The technology should be perfected and the costs should come down greatly for this to happen, but it nevertheless offers a tantalising possibility. Printed foods may not be the stuff of science fiction after all.


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