All posts by Callum Tyndall

3D food printers head for mass production

By the end of the year, 3D food printers will be in people’s homes for the first time, with the first thought to be produced by Natural Machines.

While a few companies have been working on the technology, Natural Machine’s Foodini looks to be the first in an oncoming wave of mass production in 3D food printing.

The Foodini machine is an open capsule model, in which the user places fresh ingredients and then tells the Foodini what to make with them. For example, rather than hand making ravioli from start to finish, you just load the dough and filling into the machine and it will print individual ravioli for you.

3D printed burgers made using a Foodini 3D food printer

3D printed burgers made using a Foodini 3D food printer

The notion behind the machine, and where it fits into average household usage, is to encourage better eating.

According to the Natural Machines website: “Today, too many people eat too much convenience foods, processed foods, packaged foods, or pre-made meals – many with ingredients that are unidentifiable to the common consumer, versus homemade, healthy foods and snacks. But there is the problem of people not having enough time to make homemade foods from scratch.

“Enter Foodini. Foodini is a kitchen appliance that takes on the difficult parts of making food that is hard or time-consuming to make fully by hand. By 3D printing food, you automate some of the assembly or finishing steps of home cooking, thus making it easier to create freshly made meals and snacks.”  

The notion of replacing the hand crafting process of cooking with 3D printing may well seem a strange one, perhaps raising concerns of a reduction of people’s skill and effort. While it is certainly a better option than potentially more suspect ready meals, there is an element to which the idea of machines like the Foodini may detract from the craft of cooking.

However, although it allows those who would not usually be in a position to hand make ravioli to enjoy food they would otherwise not, it may also make it too easy for those who are able to make said food to simply not bother.  

The Foodini 3D food printer. Images courtesy of Natural Machines

The Foodini 3D food printer. Images courtesy of Natural Machines

The worries of excess convenience aside, it is reassuring to see a focus on homemade food and quality eating. And with 3D printing ever developing, a future where we use it to manufacture our meals as well as our homes is perhaps not so far-fetched. As to when you should expect this, it is hard to say.

The Foodini currently sells at $4,000, somewhat above what the average consumer can be expected to spend. Yet if successful, a growing market could see the price steadily come down to the point where, in the future, we may expect every home to utilise 3D printing as a regular part of their cooking.

Natural Machines’ device will be initially released by the end of the year, but the next production batch will not be available until some time in 2017. So if you wish to be a part of the first wave of home 3D food printing, place your order quickly.

Vibrating attachment allows surgeons to ‘feel’ with their tools

A team from Hiroshima University have developed a vibrating device to attach to hand-held surgical tools that has the possibility to improve surgeons’ sensitivity to the various shapes and textures within the body of a patient.

During keyhole surgery, surgeons are reliant on long, thin, metal tools that allow for the reduction of patient scarring and reduce the size of surgical cuts but leave surgeons without the use of their fingers to directly touch patients in order to feel what is happening within the body.

The new device, called the PZT Actuator, attaches to the surgical tool and then vibrates in the surgeon’s palm at a constant rate. The vibrations are far too subtle to be detected but the constant, uniform vibration increases the surgeon’s sensitivity to any other, irregular sensations.

While variations are present while using a metal tool, they are for all intent and purpose undetectable; the actuator’s vibrations however, raise the surgeons’ sensitivity to a point where the varying sensations of the tool touching different tissues will be noticeable.

Image courtesy of Yuichi Kurita, Hiroshima University

Image courtesy of Yuichi Kurita, Hiroshima University

“We started this work six years ago, trying to enhance human fingertip sensitivity, but in 2012 I had the idea that increased sensitivity could be valuable during minimally invasive surgeries,” said Dr Yuichi Kurita, lead author of the study and associate [rofessor at Hiroshima University.

“ Typical medical tools obtain information about the patient’s condition.  There are very few devices that aim to enhance the doctor’s skill.”

In order to test the device, the team blindfolded volunteers and had them use forceps with the actuator attached to identify different textures of sandpaper and find a small styrofoam ball inside a cup filled with silicone. The test was designed to mimic the detection of tissue textures and identifying a solid tumour.

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These tests, alongside further analysis, showed that sensitivity is drastically improved within a certain range of vibration intensity. Importantly, this improvement is consistent across users, meaning that the actuator does not need to be refined to each surgeon’s particular sense of touch but, is instead simple to use by anyone.

The safety of the device is also a huge boon; the fact that it remains outside of the patient’s body at all times means that there is no risk to those going through the surgery. Its power supply and the subtlety of the vibrations are further guaranteed as safe for both surgeon and patient.  

“Our next set of experiments will confirm the usefulness of the PZT Actuator in surgical situations.  Before we can give this tool to surgeons, we must also develop a method to maintain good hygiene of the device so it is always safe for patients,” said Kurita.

The Hiroshima team who put the device together are a combination of medical and mathematical engineers, who originally tested the actuator through mathematical modelling using calculations of four types of neurons and their response to different levels of mechanical stimulation.