How 3D printing affects baking (and other forms of manufacturing)

3d Printing explained layer by layer

3D printers have been available for years but it wasn’t until recent that they started becoming more mainstream. If you aren’t familiar with the matter of additive manufacturing (also referred to as 3D printing, or direct digital manufacturing), read on to learn the basic principle of 3D printing in an appetizing way.

What is 3D printing?
Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, turns a virtual 3D model into a solid 3D form by placing layers of material on top of each other. To bring in the baking, additive manufacturing is comparable to when you use a decorating tube to build little towers of cream on a cake, or dress up cupcakes with layers of liquefied sugar. And you can of course also 3D print a cake, with a hidden message in it…

3D printing versus traditional manufacturing techniques
3D printing has a number of benefits compared to ‘traditional’ manufacturing techniques. The latter involve either removing material from a base material (subtractive fabrication) or injecting material into a pre-formed mold (injection molding). To explain these methods, let’s get back to baking.

Subtractive fabrication
Suppose you would want to place a little rose made of sugar or marzipan on your freshly baked cake. If you would manufacture this rose using subtractive fabrication you would carve out the needed forms, bend these parts into the desired shape, and then build everything up whilst trying to glue it together with some sugar water (and in my case see it fall apart again just a few minutes later). Obviously this method involves many different steps, an uncertain outcome, and a lot of left-over marzipan.

Injection molding
You could also choose to create a rose by manufacturing a mold and injecting this with a sugary substance that will solidify in the mold, taking on its shape. You need to make sure though that the material you use for your mold does not in any way interact with the sugar in a harmful way, and you also want your mold to be smooth. Now suppose you have somehow created (or acquired a one-size-fits-all) mold, you then inject it with the substance, and after a while take your mold apart so you can see the end product, which may or may not be satisfactory, in which case you need to start over. Again a time-consuming method with an uncertain result.

Additive manufacturing
So now let’s 3D print this rose. The virtual 3D model already shows what the rose will look like and you can tweak this until you’ve created the prettiest rose you’ve ever seen before you press ‘print’ to manufacture a customised product with a certain outcome. The software will exactly calculate how much sugary filament is needed – as well as in which spots – so you don’t have to waste any ingredients (or eat more leftovers than you planned) and are certain your rose will be strong enough to make it to the party.

Now there are several ways to create 3D objects layer by layer, and a multitude of materials are already available to use for additive manufacturing. Food for many more future blog posts on 3D printing, stay tuned.