The first time someone lays a 3D-printed piece of candy in your hand, you almost feel bad about eating it. The virtuosity of these pieces confuses the senses: stunning hexagonal structures cluster together like a complex chemical construction, full-color starburst patterns curve as if made from fabric, and neon geometrical shapes interlock without a single seam. On first glance, you think each one is a piece of art and meant to be consumed only by the eyes. But then you taste it and realize this is a whole new recipe.
Sugar 3D printing is a relatively new development and a fun sense-oriented detour under the “additive manufacturing” umbrella, which has often been largely about function. Not to mention this is a huge development in 3D printing materials alone, especially considering that they’re all edible. No chemicals allowed. If we can 3D print with sugar, you have to wonder how many more materials are out there that we haven’t even considered yet.
Most importantly, food 3D printing empowers us to build upon the culinary traditions that are so deeply imprinted on our cultural psyche. Food, as we can all attest, occupies a prominent space in the human experience. After all, we always seem to gravitate toward the kitchen as a gathering place, and one of the greatest pleasures of being human is making and enjoying a meal with someone else, whether it’s to catch up, celebrate, remember, or imagine the future. As culinary practices shift, so too do the experiences that surround them: they become heightened, enriched. This is exactly the kind of progression that food 3D printing will catalyze, as bakers, chefs, and confectioners take hold of capabilities never before realized, giving new shape to the moments of life that revolve around our food culture.
The Sugar Lab
The Sugar Lab at 3D Systems is the birthplace of sugar 3D printing. Think of it as our bakery and the place where all the amazing, sweet creations you see here come to life. Liz and Kyle von Hasseln, who began developing 3D printed food out of their small apartment while they were architecture graduate students, founded the Sugar Lab. For this husband-and-wife team, it started as a simple experiment with unusual 3D printing materials. They first attempted to print in wood, using sawdust, and later ceramics and concrete. Those all produced mixed results. But next, motivated by the need for a special birthday decoration, they tried sugar. After a few months spent perfecting the recipe, they realized they were onto something. A bit later, The Sugar Lab took form as a full-fledged business, with Kyle and Liz using a 3D Systems 3D printer that they’d retrofitted to be food safe.
Now as part of the 3D Systems family, their amazing invention has taken the next step with the introduction of the ChefJet 3D printer, the first sugar 3D printer available for restaurants, bakeries, catering companies, and more. We first revealed the ChefJet at International CES 2014, and the excitement has rightfully been through the roof. Since then, candy giant Hershey’s has joined our efforts to find delectable and captivating new ways to print candy.
As Kyle and Liz put it at CES, the ChefJet presents a fantastic new outlet for 3D printing to spread throughout mainstream culture. Food being such an integral part of our social interactions, our family gatherings, and our time at home, these edibles have the chance to open a lot of eyes to the personal power of 3D printing and its myriad uses.
How It Works
For those familiar with the different methods of 3D printing, sugar 3D printing is similar in principal to other technologies like ColorJet or Selective Laser Sintering (SLS). It uses a bed of powdered materials (in this case sugar), flavoring, and sometimes cocoa powder. A stream of water bonds the sugar together within the material bed to form a single layer, then the build platform lowers, a new layer of sugar is spread over the build area, and the machine builds the next layer. So it goes layer by layer until the sculpture is finished.
The results, as you can see here, are just as magnificent as printing with plastic or metal. The ChefJet is virtually unlimited by the geometry or the complexity of the model you want to print. You can create interlocking pieces, perfectly straight lines, and smooth curves, all in full color if you desire. Considering the sugar sculptures that it creates, it makes sense that architects thought it up.
To date, The Sugar Lab and the ChefJet have created everything from customized sugar cubes and structural cake decorations to premium cocktail decorations and exact scale Ford Mustang replicas. Flavor choices are equally delicious with mint, cherry, sour apple, milk chocolate, and others.
But what I love about the ChefJet and other 3D printers is that they provide yet another tool and a multitude of other options when it comes to artistic applications. I discussed this in last month’s blog: 3D printing in this respect can supplement the traditional methods, and recipes, that we’ve developed over years and years. In this case, it’s about building on tradition, not overpowering or replacing it. So now bakers and confectioners can match their delectable flavors with never-before-seen visual aesthetics. They can have their cake and eat it too.
(Written with Josh O’Dell)