Jan. 25, 2011 at 3:24 PM ET
Do you need to decorate a child's birthday cake, even though you have the drawing skills of an infant? No problem. Just get your hands on a 3-D printer, and your guests will think you're a five-star pastry chef. Heck, you could even print their (edible) pictures on individualized cupcakes.
That's one potential application for 3-D printers in the kitchen. They also work great for making squiggle-printed masa cakes — as Dave Arnold, a chef at the French Culinary Institute and co-author of the Cooking Issues blog, demonstrates in the video above.
The printer essentially spits out paste, or frosting, or any other malleable product through a moving syringe. The syringe can be programmed to build whatever you want. But instead of just one layer, such as text or a photo printed out on a piece of paper, these printers allow layers to be stacked into three-dimensional shapes.
Currently, the technology is most useful for things such as decorating cakes and making funky-shaped cookies, according to Jeffrey Lipton, who leads the Fab@Home project at Cornell University. Lipton and his colleagues created the 3-D food printer, and he says the future of culinary 3-D printing lies in creating foods with different textures.
"You could imagine having a meatloaf that is spongy and absorbs the sauces, and that is a completely different experience from just taking meat, putting it into a loaf and baking it," he told me today. "Even though the materials are all the same, how they are arranged really affects how it tastes and how it feels in your mouth."
More than food
The buzz around 3-D printers extends well beyond food. The MakerBot Thing-o-Matic 3-D printer kit, which prints three-dimensional products by building up layers of plastic to match a computerized design, was crowned by Cosmic Log readers as 2010's top Science Geek Gift.
The $1,200 gizmo could be used to print prototypes for commercial products, made-to-order artwork or replacement parts for other devices you have at home ... even custom-made action figures for gamers and collectors.
A group called Made in Space wants to put 3-D printers on the International Space Station. Then, instead of shipping up spare parts or some object left back on earth, astronauts could just download the design and press print.
Other researchers are eying the technology to print three-dimensional structures of cells. A first step would be to use the technique to build layers of cells and study how they communicate. Sometime in the future, the machines could be programmed to print out human organs for transplants.
"The real power of 3-D printing is giving you complete control over geometry, about giving you the ability to innovate, and about allowing you to customize," said Lipton, whose project envisions 3-D printers available to make just about anything.
Press print for dinner
Back in the kitchen, the 3-D printer could be used to spit out dinner for the time-starved set. Just walk in the door, and instead of hitting the freezer for yet another TV dinner, hit the print button instead.
"You'll always have ways of manipulating the food. … Even though it may not be the best quality and the most amazing food in the world, it will still be interesting and edible and rapidly produced," Lipton said.
Arnold, the Cooking Issues blogger, finds the idea of a 3-D printer that spits out a meal with a press of a button horrifying — it removes humans even further from the way our food is made, he says. Tasked to figure out how he would use the printer loaned to him by the Fab@Home project led to the masa cake idea.
"Masa is a homogeneous paste. Masa is delicious. It is the ideal printing medium," he writes. "I had a feeling that the taste and texture of steamed and fried squiggle printed masa would be fantastic. I was right."
Fab@Home is open source technology. Anyone with access to a laser cutter can build one for about $1,600, Lipton said. A kit costs about $2,400. Lipton expects the price to fall further and the quality of the technology to improve as it moves from academics and tinkerers to the realm of professional engineers and corporations.
If you got your hands on a 3-D printer, how would you use it? Feel free to weigh in with a comment below.
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John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following msnbc.com's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).