Sunday, November 30, 2014

November 2014: Food Replicators and 3D Printers

     Caveat: This letter is about what was once science fiction and now seems possible. Therefore, there are a lot of video links in it and, thus, is best read on a PC or pad, if you want the full experience. 

     Since I was a youngster, I was fascinated with a kind of space age alchemy. Alchemy like turning lead in gold in Medieval times alchemy? Not exactly, I did say space age alchemy. I remember seeing television shows like Lost in Space, Star Trek, and other movies that I cannot recall. Sometimes, when the crew was being social, they would go to galley or dining hall for something to eat. They would go to a voice-activated vending machine of sorts and tell the gizmo what they wanted to eat. After a few seconds, some flashing lights, and perhaps some space-age beeps and blips, presto change-o, the food was ready in the dispenser. One could ask for a steak medium rare with mashed potatoes and, voila, the machine would make it. Not only would the machine make it but would deliver it on a plate in a presentation that one might expect from a fine restaurant. 
     These machines would make all kinds of foods almost by magic. Not only could it make human food from hot dogs to spaghetti and meatballs but it could make alien food too. Let’s say you had a bulgy eyed lizard skinned Zerloffian from Harmol Solar System. Your guest wants some Feldjgis smothered in Glamixinas? No problem for our Veg-o-matic Pi Squared. Just tell the machine what your guest wants and it will serve it lukewarm or frozen depending on his or her mother made it. The machine never said no and it never seemed to malfunction or be out of anything. It was amazing.   
     There was never any explanation of how it worked or where the ingredients came from. We were supposed to be OK with the fact that it was space-aged or magic. After all, we were conditioned to expect miraculous things from the future! Being fascinated with this bit of science fiction, I was curious how it worked and when we might start seeing these machines in our school cafeterias and our homes. It would be pretty cool. I assumed that it used any form of matter or materials as an input and that the science and technology inside the machine was so sophisticated it could take trash and turn it into crème brûlée!
     Since this machine could turn anything into anything we wanted to eat, it stands to reason that another machine could be made to convert any trash into energy. This was, of course, shown as a possibility in Back to the Future 3 or 5… or was it 1. The time traveling DeLorean took any kind of trashy input and turned it into nuclear energy. How perfectly splendid! All we have to do to get there is, simply, to invent the flux capacitor, dilithium crystals, flubber, and the 3D printer. Come to think of it, these miraculous machines of the future should even be able to do old-fashioned alchemy i.e. turn lead into gold.
     I wonder what that would do to the price of gold? I wonder what that would do to the value you place on gold. That will have to wait for some future letter.
     The gizmo on the Star Trek franchise of TV shows and movies was called a Replicator. Thanks to YouTube there are several examples of how this fascinating item performs. Witness this from one of the more recent Star Trek TV series. This version of replicator is more magical than most. Want a glass of ice water? It creates it out of nothing in a most fashionable glass. Want pan-fried catfish? No problem. The Replicator creates a most stylish presentation including plate, silverware, a slice of lemon and sides. It is amazing.
     Of course, even with something so advanced, flexible, and diverse as a Food Replicator, humans will become jaded and not want to wait. We will expect the machine to read our minds. Certainly, there will be occasional computer glitch that can be mildly irritating depending on just how hungry one is. All in all the Food Replicator is an amazing bit of science fiction that hopefully will be one of the greatest inventions ever!
      There are some that claim the future is now and 3D printing is the answer. Hmmm, we have seen movies made about the flux capacitor. The entire Star Trek brand is fueled by dilithium crystals, which make warp drive possible. We all know how cool flubber is. What then are 3D printers?
      There was a report on National Public Radio supports the claim that the future may be much closer then we think: NPR Story. It seems that the US Army is seriously dabbling with 3-D Printers to create food that is engineered for each single soldier. We are going to print food? How do you print food?
     There is a higher tech twist to this project the Army researchers are working on. Per the NPR story:
Imagine soldiers who are strapped, head to toe, with sensors that measure if they're high or low in potassium or cholesterol. 
"We envision to have a 3-D printer that is interfaced with the soldier. And that sensor can deliver information to the computer software," Oleksyk says. "And then they would be able to have either powdered or liquid matrices that are very nutrient dense, that they have on demand that they can take and eat immediately to fill that need."
     The quote is attributed to Lauren Oleksyk, a food technologist who is leading this project. It is pretty impressive. Basically, the US Army wants to have a machine that will make a variety of energy and nutrition bars for soldiers on the battlefield. The goal is to have the bars customized to each soldier in terms of both nutrient content and, I suppose, flavor. It would consider if the soldier is diabetic, lactose intolerant, dehydrated, or any number of conditions.
      These “printers” will take the various ingredients specified by soldier’s sensory input, add flavors, some based nutritional goo that will probably needed to hold the concoction together, mix them, apply heat if necessary, press the bars, cool them if necessary, coat them (think chocolate), and finally wrap-up them. I do not suppose this entire process pushing the start button until the bar is dispensed will be anywhere as quick as the Star Trek video showed.
      The future is now… sort of. There are a variety of 3D Printers available on They range in price, and let’s assume capability relative to price, from a few hundred to thousands of dollars. There is even a 3D Printers & Supplies Store on Amazon. The site even provide an explanation of what 3D Printing is:
3D Printing, also called additive manufacturing, is the process of taking a digital model of an object of any geometric shape and creating a three-dimensional (3D) solid object replica. A 3D printer uses rapid prototyping, a pre-production process that allows manufacturers to scale a model using computer-aided design (CAD) data, or modeling software. A solid object is created using layers of various materials such as liquid, paper, powder, or metal that form a series of cross sections. The additive process automatically fuses the joined layers to create the object. Using a 3D printer filament, commonly supplied in various colors on spools, the 3D printer is able to create a smooth extrusion, creating a shape form as the material comes through the nozzle.

Commonly used in manufacturing, machining, automotive, construction, medical, and architectural industries, 3D printers are applicable to a wide variety of fields. Education, engineering, and jewelry-making professionals also use additive manufacturing. Manufacturing, in both industrial and remote areas, can utilize this technology. For example, if new machinery is required, new machined objects can begin to take shape in minutes. Material savings can be measured in decreased material waste during the manufacturing process.
     A Dremel 3D Printer costs $1,264 on eBay and only $999 on Amazon. Here is a video of it making a simple frog. Another video shows the Top 5 Best 3D Printers To Buy USA. So, they produce plastic parts that can be used as toys, prototypes, and perhaps even replacement parts depending on the kind of material used in the extrusion process. If we want to think big, there are folks working on building houses using 3D printers (this is also a great video to introduce 3D printing). It seems we are at the dawn of something with great and unlimited potential.
     Of course, the printer has to follow a plan. A detailed digital drawing is needed to print the simple frog and an even more detailed drawing is needed to print an entire house. With regards to the house, it is not exactly clear exactly how much house is printed. Is a big persons Little Tyke house? Does it print the plumbing and electrical wiring? I am guessing that the foundation still has to be dug and poured the old fashioned way? How about the roof? Are the shingles printed onto the roof or is that another process? These are all “small details” that need to be worked out. 
     Let’s get back to food. It seems like nutritional meal bars are probably coming to a military unit near you. What if you want tad something a bit more satisfying like a burger or a pizza? Not to be outdone by the Army, NASA has invested in the 3D printing of food. They began with pizza. Here is an article and a video of the first foray in this technology. They chose to make pizza. Notice the printer has three nozzles: one for dough, another for the sauce, and the third for cheese. The result is pizza but, frankly, it did not look too appetizing. For now, we should let the Army do their thing and invent the best meal replacement bar they can. Maybe these 3D bar printers will available in stores and vending areas and will be exciting as the high tech Coke machines that provide virtually every product they sell. 
     If you watched any of the 3D videos, it is clear we are nowhere near the Star Trek food replicator. There might be some decent applications. But there is nothing on the horizon where we can walk up to a machine and order anything we want and have it served quickly and in a presentation we might only find in a high end restaurant. This is what I would love to see.
     I have no clue how such a replicator would work. But, I have always had a notion of how I think, or wish, replicators should work. In my vision, a replicator makes everything from a base food powder or slurry. Really awesome technology would then transform the base into the desired finished food at the perfect temperature. The finished products would be placed on in a bowl or on a plate, depending on the kind of food ordered, and dispensed. My version of the replicator would not necessarily, as in the Star Trek version, replicate the plates and silverware. The plates would be in a hopper and silverware would be in bins next to the replicator.
     There are probably many obstacles to ever seeing such a food replicator in the near future. First and foremost would be the whiz-bang technology that would transform the base food goo or slurry into any kind of vegetable, meat, fish, legume, grain, pasta, libation, and condiment conceivable. Given we had the technology, the next question is would the process be time and cost effective? Such a transformation might require much more energy than it would actually cost to buy and prepare the real food the machine is replicating. In the movies, the replication is instantaneous. There is a microwave like convenience to these replicators. The replication transformation might take as much time as to prepare the same meal using real ingredients. Lastly, many people are railing against genetically modified foods. I cannot imagine what these folks would say about replicated food even though the machine in my imagination would be generically equivalent to the best natural foods ever experienced.
     If by chance this concept comes to fruition, I have a phase two in mind. In the follow-up, a preprocessor would be added that would allow any form of matter to be put into the replicator. It would transform the “stuff” into the base food slurry. We could dump table scraps into the replicator. We could put all our household refuge. It could be pretty amazing.
      Why stop here? Eventually, we should be able to replicate food simply from energy. As we will have to ween ourselves off of fossil fuels and migrate to something close to what I will call safe fusion, we may have unlimited and cheap energy available.
     There is another reason why we may need this kind of replicator technology sooner rather than later. There was an article in the November 17, 2014 USA Today, that reported that the demand for chocolate could exceed supply as early as the year 2020. This shortage is due to a variety of reasons that includes global warming reducing the growing regions, a disease effecting cacao yields, increased demands for chocolate from China, and cacao producers deciding to grow more profitable crops e.g. corn and rubber. Of course, if supply goes down, prices will go up. When prices go up, more growers may want to cash in and most likely the market will adjust to a new equilibrium. Needless to say, as the world population increases we will run into more and more shortages. There are similar reports that coffee production areas are also shrinking due to climate reasons. It is predicted that supply will not be able to meet demand for this commodity as well. Replicators will be needed to cover these shortages and provide people with the full litany of products they value and enjoy.
      After we get this replicator gizmo going we turn our attention to creating the transporter and the Wayback Machine.

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