Print Your Dinner

If you’re a fan of Star Trek fan, the words “tea, earl grey, hot” likely hold a particular fondness in your heart. That’s the regular drink order of Captain Jean-Luc Picard from the Star Trek: The Next Generation series, and the food replicators make it perfectly every time. That’s because food replicators are, basically, magic. The person tells the machine what he or she wishes to eat, and out of the ether comes, made to order, a nutritionally balanced version of that meal — and one that is hopefully tasty, too. It needn’t be something as simple as a cup of hot tea, either; in the show, food replicators can make complex dishes, including ones which don’t exist on Earth.

Food replicators, are, of course, science fiction. As of yet, there isn’t a way to instruct a computer to make a meal out of thin air. And don’t get your hopes up for the near future, either. Even if the laws of physics allow for such a machine, our current state of technology is nowhere near that point. But we’re making some progress, in some sense. For example, a pasta dish may come out of your printer in the somewhat-near future.

Three-dimensional printing is an emerging technology and business sector where printers, fed with fast-drying plastic instead of ink, are able to “draw” items based on predefined instructions. It’s currently useful for prototyping product designs (and has limited other viable applications as of yet) but there are many people and companies out there trying to push the envelope in the area. Barilla, the world’s largest producer of pasta, is one of those companies. For the past two-plus years, they’ve been working with a Dutch research team to create a machine which can print custom pasta shapes on demand.

That seems like a relatively silly product — the best use-case Barilla’s PR team could come up with was rose-shaped noodles, created at a restaurant, for a romantic anniversary dinner. But one can imagine all sorts of possibilities long-term — if food products do not need to be produced at scale, the amount of customization opportunities increases dramatically. Currently, the prototype takes special cartridges filled with pasta dough as raw materials, but imagine if chefs or nutritional experts were able to create contents filled with other, more nutritious mixes — one could create a pasta-like dish balanced for an individual’s needs.

That’s likely far away, though. Right now, Barilla’s pasta printer can only produce a dozen or two pieces of pasta every two minutes and the cost of producing the custom pasta likely precludes much demand for on-the-fly crafted shapes. So for now, we’ll have to be satisfied with the dozens of currently-existing types available, and printers which can’t make food. Although even ink-based printers are getting closer to that point — just ask Dominos, which is printing labels for rented DVD which smell like pizza.

Bonus Fact: Even if a bowl of custom-shaped pasta is incredibly expensive, there’s a slight chance someone will come along with the means and willingness to give it a try — and there’s certainly a precedent for restaurants to offer such indulgences. In 2007, a New York City restaurant partnered with one of the city’s jewelers to come up with what is now the world’s most expensive dessert — a $25,000 sundae.

From the ArchivesCooked to Perfection: The fight over mac and cheese designs. (Macaroni-side.)

Related: A pasta machine which kind of, sort, looks like a printer. A printing press, maybe?