3D printing is a hot topic that is rapidly gaining notoriety in the food realm. Many believe that it will transform the future of food and the way we consume and prepare it. It can assist in the creation of complex sweets for professional patisseries and chocolatiers, it can inspire creativity in home cooks and give them unlimited control over a meal’s shape, consistency, flavour and colour, it can be useful for long-distance space travel and eventually it may help to combat world hunger.
Others believe that printed meals from cartridges of powders and oils high in fat and salt, highlights the failings of our current food system. If we continue to produce processed technicolour foods, how will we learn to feed ourselves healthily and sustainably?
In layman terms, a 3-D printer is about the size of a microwave and looks like a hot-glue gun attached to a robotic arm. However instead of squeezing out glue, the cartridge oozes out plastic, metal, biological tissue or food…soft or liquid materials (pastes and fluids) work best (think hummus and peanut butter).
Using special CAD software (a computer aided design model), you can design any object on your computer and then load your digital blueprint into the 3-D printer. The printer nozzle will map out your object, by releasing the soft materials layer by layer into the desired shape.
Innovation in food printing is constantly evolving, but things really started to kick off when Cornell University graduate student Daniel Cohen created an RGB standard set of elements (like the yellow, magenta and blue colour set in an ordinary printer) for the food printer. These elements were composed of hydrocolloids – materials like carrageenan, xanthan gum, and gum Arabic – that today appear on many food labels. By mixing gumming agents and gelling agents together with other ingredients, the cartridges were equipped to construct edible products like milk cubes. In other words…the theory was valid, but the output was…well it was…odd.
Soon after, 3D printing experts realised that instead of designing foods from basic materials – from the bottom up – they had to use a top-down approach. Jeffrey Lipton, co-founder and CTO of Seraph Robotics, explained that they are now taking existing real foods, modifying them into paste form, and then printing new edible goods. “Using the printer to creatively customize food shapes is a lot more appealing than crafting milk cubes out of hydrocolloids,” he said. Apart from cool shapes, the 3D printer can create internal designs and intricate sculptures as well as modify textures and porous structures of food.
Whilst 3-D printing is incredibly cool and otherworldly, it is also surprisingly difficult to master. A lot can go wrong: The nozzle may clog, the machine can overheat, the print pad may tilt, external temperature settings are difficult to control, and moreover the process is incredibly slow.
But these minor details haven’t deterred 3D printing aficionados from the scene. In fact, it has made them more innovative. Meet Choc Edge – state-of-the-art producers of 3D chocolate printers.
Choc Edge started as a research project at the University of Exeter; the aim was to create a 3D printer that could produce objects in a material that hadn’t been used for 3D printing before. As chocolate is universally loved it was decided it would be the perfect material to appeal to existing 3D printing enthusiasts and engage people who would normally not be interested in the technology.
In 2012 the company created the Choc Creator V1 – the world’s first commercially available 3D chocolate printer. The Choc Creator V2 and V2.0 Plus soon followed.
Crowdfooding had a chat to Choc Edge’s all-round communications guru, Mark Jones, about how Choc Edge aims to revolutionise the chocolate creation and consumption experience with the latest 3D chocolate printing technology.
Can you tell us a bit about your education background and career journey to date?
I graduated from university with a degree in English Literature, so 3D Chocolate Printing is a bit of a departure for me, but it was a chance encounter with our CEO at a local museum that led me to get involved with Choc Edge. I was doing freelance web design, social media, and tech blogging at the time so had a keen interest in all things digital. I asked if there was anything I could help with and they needed someone who could learn on the job and help in all of the different aspects of the business – so I said I was their guy. It turned out there was a lot more to the role than I expected and now I’m heavily involved with developing the methods we use for printing, 3D design, and of course updating our Facebook page and website.
What attracted you to enter the 3D printing space?
I thought 3D printing was an amazing technological leap and I love chocolate, so when I heard there was a printer that combined both these things I knew I wanted to be a part of that.
Do you know about the RepRap project? What are your views on open-source technology?
Yeah the RepRap project is amazing, and a great example of how open-source technology is a driving force in innovation. We did an event at a school recently and one pupil asked if one day there would be a 3D printer that could print a 3D printer, and there kind of already is, so that’s really incredible.
How do you think 3D printing will transform the future of food?
It’s the next step on from microwaves and ready meals, but with the added bonus of being customisable as well as convenient. I think it will have a lot of positive effects, both in terms of its impact on the world and how people interact with food, and there will always be real food if people want it. Unlike its predecessors though there’s also the potential for customising the nutritional content and flavours of the meal produced which is a really exciting prospect – and I’d imagine a great way of tricking children into eating their vegetables!
NASA’s already looking into using 3D food printing as a solution for feeding astronauts as they venture farther into space, and it’s not hard to imagine it being used when they start putting people on Mars. From there it’s only a matter of time before we have something comparable to one of Star Trek’s food replicators. So I believe the technology will transform the future of food for the better.
How did you come up with the idea for Choc Edge? How long did it take to actually design/build the choc creator v1?
The Choc Creator was the result of our founder Dr Liang Hao working with a research team at the University of Exeter, in the ALM (additive layer manufacturing) department. They wanted to invent a 3D printer that used a material which hadn’t been explored before and which would engage people who weren’t normally interested in 3D Printing. Chocolate was the obvious choice and in 2012, after five years of prototypes and experimenting with different designs, the Choc Creator V1 was born. Following an enthusiastic response from the public and media it was decided to sell the machine, making it the world’s first commercially available chocolate printer.
Who is part of the Choc Edge team?
The Choc Edge team is made up of five people in the UK who handle sales, marketing, and design while there’s a larger team of 15 people in China that develop and produce the machines. Our CEO Christina Zheng and founder Liang Hao manage both teams. The founders are originally from China and split their time between their UK office in Exeter, and their office in Wuhan, China. The machines are manufactured in China then shipped worldwide.
Is the machine designed primarily for confectioners and bakers or for home use too?
The machine is designed primarily for high-end confectioners and bakers who are looking to create completely unique gifts and experiences for customers. As with all 3D printing it isn’t a platform for producing things in massive quantities or very quickly – the real value lies in the technology’s ability to produce customised chocolates that can’t be created cost-efficiently using any other method, or which are only possible with 3D Chocolate Printing.
What are the biggest obstacles with 3D printing chocolate? Time? Temperature?
The biggest obstacles for 3D Chocolate Printing are definitely time and temperature control. If you want to use pure chocolate, which has always been our goal, then there’s a certain time the chocolate layers take to dry and a certain temperature it has to be printed at. Depending on the type of design and its size printing time could take anywhere from a couple of minutes for something simple like a name, to over an hour for one of our more complex 3D shapes.
If you were to print too fast the previous layer wouldn’t be dry before the next one completed and your model would collapse, and if you were to cool it too fast you would encounter problems such as nozzle blocking and brittle chocolate.
What is the most interesting design you have seen be successfully printed using the machine?
My personal favourite is our designer Anthony’s spiralling love design. The word “love” is extruded and twisted round to create a really dynamic and exciting piece of chocolate. It also means that we could produce people’s names in a similar way for placing on top of things like wedding cakes.
What has been your favourite Choc Edge moment thus far?
There are so many to choose from but for me it was producing the first repeatable 3D print in chocolate. We’ve had a lot of flukes over the years but finding the right balance of parameters, which results in a 3D print that can be printed again and again, and features significant overhang, was a big moment. It was just a dodecahedron and doesn’t look great compared to our current standard but at the time it was a big step forward.
What has been the most challenging Choc Edge moment to date?
The most challenging Choc Edge moment was probably during our first production run. We got a request for 600 pieces of chocolate that we wanted to fulfil, and we hadn’t attempted anything that large before. Using three of our old machines, which weren’t as easy to use as the V2 Plus, we produced the order but there were lots of unexpected issues we had to overcome in a short space of time.
These included a broken tempering machine (we had to use alternate tempering methods until a replacement part came), finding the best way to package the chocolates so that they looked attractive but were well protected, and managing our normal workload while printing. The older generation machines required more attention when printing to prevent certain problems like blocking.
We learned some really important things like how many pieces it was possible to print in a day, how to optimise designs so that they’re both artistic and quick to print (which we hadn’t had to do before), and the economies of printing large amounts of chocolate. Fulfilling the order enabled us to create a benchmark for pricing orders going forwards and how much wastage we can expect to generate for large print runs. The great part is that any waste can be recycled and that even for such a large order we used a relatively small amount of chocolate. The main cost is the time spent printing, which is reflected in the price we quote customers. In terms of the amount of chocolate used the machines are very economical, though everybody always gets a good bite of chocolate!
We also learned a lot about shipping chocolates, as the customer was in the US, and we had to make sure that the chocolates didn’t break, melt, or bloom in transit. Our team did a great job though and everything arrived intact and looking awesome.
What does 2016 hold for Choc Edge?
More exciting and more ambitious 3D prints, and new ways of helping our users to produce their own chocolate designs. The end of 2015 saw us take a huge leap forward with what we are capable of printing, and we’re sure there will be even more exciting developments in the year ahead.
What would you like the last meal of your life to be?
How many courses? If it’s just one I’d have to skip to dessert – a big cheesecake with the lyrics to one of my favourite songs printed on top. It’s hard to pick one song, but I think it would have to be ‘The End’ by The Beatles – “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”