Advocates for 3-D printing have called the technology revolutionary, the wave of the future and the next big thing. Now they can add "delicious" to that list.
Using new digital technology, a printer designed by researchers in England allows you to create your own designs on a computer and reproduce them physically in three dimensional form in chocolate. Building the chocolates up layer by layer, the 3-D printer uses special software that navigates the precise heating and cooling cycles needed to produce intricate cocoa sculptures.
"What makes this technology special is that users will be able to design and make their own products. In the long term it could be developed to help consumers custom- design many products from different materials but we've started with chocolate as it is readily available, low cost and non-hazardous. There is also no wastage as any unused or spoiled material can be eaten of course! From reproducing the shape of a child's favourite toy to a friend's face, the possibilities are endless and only limited by our creativity," said Liang Hao, a researcher at the University of Exeter, England, who lead the team that designed the chocolate printer.
3-D printing, also known as 3-D fabrication, began as a rare process used to make industrial models. However, in recent years, as the technology has become cheaper and available to the general public, people have 3-D printed clothing, toys and other objects. The printers expanded the materials they can process to include 3-D fabricated glass, metal and even scallop meat.
The research has presented many challenges. Chocolate is not an easy material to work with because it requires accurate heating and cooling cycles. These variables then have to be integrated with the correct flow rates for the 3-D printing process. Researchers overcame these difficulties with the development of new temperature and heating control systems.
A consumer-friendly interface to design the chocolate objects is also in development. Researchers hope that an online retail business will host a website for users to upload their chocolate designs for 3-D printing and delivery.
Designs need not start from scratch, and a web-based utility will also allow users to see designs created by others to modify for their own use.
This research has applications far beyond sweets, the precise temperature control developed for Hao's chocolate printer will open up many other materials for use in the 3-D fabrication revolution.