From additives like trans fat to GMOs, food processing is often blamed for being the unsavory scourge behind the widespread nutritional deficiencies and overall decline of the modern-day diet. But what if you were able to process your own food? Or more specifically, 3D print it?
For Lynette Kucsma, it’s more than a half-baked idea. Kucsma, the co-founder of Barcelona-based Natural Machines is betting that, given the option, you’d load only the best ingredients into her new creation, the Foodini, a kind of meal-o-matic replicator. Though the former Microsoft employee will handily admit that the device is hardly anything close to the sci-fi synthesizing technology envisioned on popular shows like “Star Trek,” it has shown to be quite masterful at quickly and efficiently arranging various raw ingredients such as dough, sauces, purees and well-grounded meat fillings into a ready-for-the-oven meal. By experimenting with several recipes, the four-person development team found that the 3D food printer is particularly adept at preparing burgers, gnocchi, ravioli, cookies, chocolate sculptures and bread sticks—foods generally made from pasty ingredients. It won’t, however, do a meatloaf since the layered process generally only works well with materials comprised of a smooth, fluid texture. (The team’s burgers, for instance, are made from beans.)
“Its function is more like food assembly, so it’s important to not confuse what it does with actual cooking,” Kucsma says. ”It’s probably most ideal for deserts or dishes with a meat or cheese paste, like ravioli. But even then it can be useful with many different kinds of food.”
Kucsma got involved with the project after she was invited at an event to try out current Natural Machines’ chief executive Emilio Sepulveda’s cake and chocolate printer. She found it intriguing, but being a health-conscious foodie, thought a better use of the technology would be to develop it further, so that it would enable people to prepare healthier meals in a manner that’s convenient, rather than resorting to having to reach for the factory-processed packaged variety.
“I’d say people would love a eat a home-cooked meal made with nothing but the freshest ingredients, but it’s a lot of work,” she says. “The dilemma is that many people feel its only worth the time and energy to whip up a big batch of something if they can continue eating the leftovers for days without getting tired of it. That’s enough so that it can deter most people from doing it.”
Take, for instance, well, ravioli. Even preparing a small serving involves rolling and cutting the dough before wrapping and sealing in the filling by hand. It’s either that or pick up a preservative-laden frozen dinner from the supermarket. So in a way, the Foodini can best be thought of as a happy medium where much of the redundant labor can be done by automation, making the process not only convenient for a simple one-and-done dinner but also a time-saver for cooking in bulk.
Kucsma emphasizes that the Foodini is unlike the type of food printing technologies often showcased to the public. Those machines, she points out, tend to be nothing more than basic garage-built contraptions merely re-purposed to work with the simplest culinary confections, such as chocolate. Whereas those raw devices often come with exposed electrical wires and moving parts, a huge contamination risk, Natural Machines’ concept is enclosed and designed to look and operate just like a common kitchen appliance. To be certified “food grade” and on par with the likes of toaster-ovens or blenders, the FDA requires that any piece of food preparation equipment comply with health and safety standards, a process, she says, the company is currently undergoing.
In redesigning a food printer from scratch, the founders wanted to ensure that their consumers identified their product more with Martha Stewart and less with MakerBot. So instead of relying on complicated operating systems such as CAD (Computer-Aided Design), the team developed specialized software and a touchscreen interface that makes inputting recipe instructions and adjusting the settings as seamless and intuitive as using tablets or smartphones. Inside, the compartments for ingredients are comprised of five capsules, which the machine is programmed to pick out one at a time to print or, more accurately, excrete in the shape of predetermined patterns. Depending on whether it’s ravioli shells or the filling that it’s printing out at the time, each soft ingredient is squeezed out at different rates of pressure and temperatures; the machine has a built-in heater to ensure certain ingredients stay at the proper consistency. And going along with the kitchen-friendly theme, cleaning and maintenance is made simple as the ingredient capsules can be tossed into the dishwasher.
The Foodini also includes Wi-Fi so that owners can receive software updates and take part in what the company envisions as an online community of enthusiasts who interact and share recipes. (I’m imagining a popular recipe series called “Five-Ingredient Meals.”) Users can sign on to view video demonstrations and recommended recipes and to access tech support. “When we re-conceptualized the 3D printer as a kitchen-friendly technology, it was important to us that it didn’t end up becoming one of those super-specialized appliances that you use once or twice a year and the rest of the time it sits in the cabinet collecting dust,” Kucsma says. ”We wanted it to be useful enough to help prepare many types of food and for people to continuing playing with that idea.”
In the meantime, the company has already begun taking pre-orders, which start at $1,366, though the staff is still in the process of testing the models and tweaking the software in preparation for a launch they’re hoping will happen by the middle of next year.