Three-dimensional printing has gained steam in recent years, with designers and artists seizing the technology to fabricate everything from plastic trinkets and jewelry to coffeepots and cell phones. But wouldn't all those things be better rendered in chocolate? Of course they would, and the engineering brainiacs at Britain's Exeter University agree — which is why they've developed the world's first 3-D chocolate printer.
The machine is a desktop chocolate factory that squirts molten chocolate into precise layers according to computer-modeled designs. Still in the prototype stage, the printer — which the research team calls ChocALM for Chocolate Additive Layer Manufacturing — was developed by groups of Exeter students with the help of corporate donations of mechanical components and a £2,000 ($3,191) sponsorship from a chocolate company. Government funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) will go toward assembling two more chocolate printers. The researchers have a loftier goal than consuming lots and lots of chocolate. They hope to involve mainstream consumers in the act of "co-creation." Currently, most 3-D printing services are geared toward those familiar with the software used to design products for 3-D printers.
When this video made its debut on YouTube last week, some viewers expressed skepticism over ChocALM's authenticity, since at no point during the five-minute-long explanation is the machine shown in action. Co.Design reached out to Exeter's Dr. Liang Hao for ocular proof, and he provided this low-resolution video to set the record straight:
Later this year, Hao hopes to roll out a beta version of a 3-D chocolate-design interface on Google's Sketchup (a free, downloadable modeling tool), so that consumers can craft their own confections. Next year, the team plans to launch a community website, where users will be able to upload and share their designs, and eventually establish a business model for manufacturing and delivering the chocolates. "This solution," Hao tells Co.Design, "will provide a great potential to use the collective intelligence of users and producers (manufacturers and service providers) to co-design and co-produce user-centric chocolates and bring them into the mainstream market." Nothing short of a gift to humanity.