Jan 26, 2011
In the not-so-distant future, instead of buying manufactured food items at the store, you may instead just “print” them right in your own kitchen. The technology is called “food fabrication,” and it allows you to fabricate foods right in your own kitchen, layer by layer, in much the same way an inkjet printer prints a color bar chart on a piece of paper.
This is an emerging technology that I predict will have a huge impact on the future of food. Several food fabrication devices already exist, in fact. Perhaps the most notable example is from Cornell University’s Computational Synthesis Lab (CCSL) (http://ccsl.mae.cornell.edu/3d_printing), where a project led by Dr Jeffrey Ian Lipton hopes to ultimately create a consumer-level food fabrication device that would one day be an integral part of every modern kitchen. With such a device, instead of running to the store to buy blueberry muffins, for example, you would simply download the 3D blueprint, then “print” the muffins on the food fab machine (and then bake them in your oven).
Cool tech, but with pitfalls
As cool as the technology sounds, however, keep in mind that it can really only fabricate foods out of homogenized, semi-liquid ingredients such as chocolate syrup, cookie dough, or tomato paste (for example). And it doesn’t create food out of nothing: You still need to load up the syringes with the various ingredients to be used in the fabrication. The food fab machine merely “prints out” those ingredients in the right proportions, shapes and layers. It does not, however, cook your food, chop vegetables or otherwise turn raw ingredients into cuisine. It could, however, create a nice “raw lasagna” if you load up the syringes with sufficiently thickened raw ingredients such as tomato paste, spinach paste and a flax / nut butter paste of some sort.
But this technology also threatens to dehumanize our food right in our own kitchens. One of the greatest things about home food preparation right now is that every batch is unique and artistic. With home food fab machines, this art of food creation might literally be lost after just one generation as people forget how to create foods from scratch.
Another concern is that the primary food ingredient “pastes” will likely be sold in bulk at the store in much the same way that you currently buy ink jet printer ink. In order to adhere to so-called “food safety” rules, those food ingredients will all have to be pasteurized, fumigated, irradiated or otherwise killed, meaning they will all be processed junk food pastes rather than anything containing real living food.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that you could hack your food fab machine and load up one of the ingredient cylinders with a paste blended up from fresh ingredients you grew yourself, but the inconvenience of that means most people will avoid doing so. The vast majority of consumers will simply buy the food fab ingredients off the shelf and use those to churn out factory foods at home.
$7,500 a gallon for ink?
This brings me to the business model discussion of such a food fabrication device. What HP has proven in the world of computers is that consumers vastly underestimate the long-term costs of using printers and are primarily attracted by the seemingly low up-front cost of buying the hardware. A typical consumer, for example, thinks they’re getting a bargain paying $49 for an inkjet printer, not realizing they’re actually paying as much as $7,500 for each gallon of ink consumed by that printer in the future.
Because consumers are so gullible in falling for this cost-shifting gimmick (hey, it works for Gillette’s shaving consumables, too!), the future of food fabrication machines will likely follow the same structure. Any corporation that hopes to maximize profits over the long run will all but give away the machines up front while charging exorbitant fees for the consumable food ingredients that must be used with the device. In order to guarantee their long-term profits, they’ll use all the same tricks that HP uses today to force consumers to buy name-brand toners and inkjet refills: Engineering physical limitations that make competing consumables incompatible with the fabrication device and even microchipping the consumable canisters to make sure that generic canisters don’t function in their machines.
There will be a huge industry, however, that grows up around these devices: Expect somebody to make a fortune selling third-party “compatible” food ingredient canisters at a much lower price. A hacker community will also get involved and release open-source code for hacking the food fab devices in order to use them for purposes not intended by their original manufacturers, such as printing out “natural cure cookies” made with medicinal herbs that will have long since been banned by the FDA.
You can also expect the government to eventually get involved in regulating food fab devices in order to “protect the public” from “unsafe muffins” fabricated on non-licensed devices. Creating your own ingredients to be used in such machines may one day be criminalized in much the same way that selling raw cow’s milk is today. The FDA, after all, doesn’t want people to have real control over their own food. Food fabrication machines represent far too much freedom and must therefore be aggressively regulated.
Fabrication machines galore
It’s not just food that’s going to be fabricated in your future home, by the way. A new wave of desktop fabrication machines that use resins and other materials are also in development. Makerbot Industries recently introduced the Thing-O-Matic object printer that can print small items out of a quick-hardening resin material (http://wiki.makerbot.com/thingomatic).
You can use it to print all sorts of objects such as space invader earrings, tiny plastic tweezers, whistles and even gears. You accomplish this by downloading 3D designs from an open-source site called Thingiverse.com (http://www.thingiverse.com). So far, the library of objects from Thingiverse isn’t exactly impressive, as this technology is just getting off the ground (what? You don’t want your own plastic rhombohedron?).
It won’t be long, however, before you can download and print out entire circuit boards, cell phones, and, in the case of astronauts on long space journeys, spare parts for your busted NASA spacecraft constructed by awarding government contracts to the lowest bidder.
The ultimately geek goal for these fabrication devices, by the way, is to build a device that can replicate itself. If a Thing-O-Matic could print out another Thing-O-Matic and assemble it, then runaway replication could give rise to a race of self-replicating machines that would one day declare war on the human race and develop a popular series of sci-fi movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Buying virtual blueprints for stuff instead of buying stuff
All this promises huge changes for our consumer-based society. Today, the stuff we buy is manufactured in China, then shipped to our stores by burning fossil fuels. We then buy the stuff, take the stuff home, and toss it in a corner of the house somewhere, just in case we might actually need it one day. (Where’s that fly swatter when you need one?)
In the future of fabrication devices, instead of storing the stuff itself, you simply buy the blueprint for the stuff. But you don’t actually need to create the physical object until you really need it. Is that fly buzzing around your head today? Load up the old fly swatter object model in your Thing-O-Matic and hit print. Grab the fly swatter as the machine spits it out and your problem is solved.
The key thing in all this, of course, is that with at-home fabrication technology, instead of storing lots of physical objects such as fly swatters, soap holders, kitchen funnels and even cell phone covers, you simply store the raw resin which can be made into just about any object you want, in mere minutes. Sure, the electronic blueprint will cost you some bucks up front, but once you download the blueprint, you can print out an unlimited number of similar objects in the future.
Why we will still need stores
Desktop fabrication machines won’t be able to print out metal objects (at least not in the foreseeable future) for obvious reasons. They will be strictly limited to substances that can be squeezed out of small tubes, such as plastic resins or food ingredients. If you need to a heavy-duty wrench to fix that annoying leak under your kitchen sink, you’ll still need to buy that through retail distribution.
Complex circuits and CPUs also won’t be printable through desktop fabrication machines anytime in the near future, although there is the possibility that you may be able to print out small solar panels within a decade or so (they’re doing it now on a larger scale).
You also won’t be able to print out counterfeit $100 bills and hand them out to all your friends. That’s the job of the Federal Reserve.
Nevertheless, food fabrication machines and desktop fabrication technology promise to truly revolutionize the way we buy and consume things in our modern society. They will also greatly reduce packaging waste since you no longer have to buy an object at retail, packaged in a plastic bubble shell that gets tossed into landfill. This might even qualify at-home fabrication devices as “green” technology.
Watch for this technology to quickly advance, and expect large corporations to get involved in creating consumer-ready devices over the next few years.
Sources for this story include: