What a Sweet Idea: 3D Printing Using Sugar

by Abdul Rehman on August 12, 2013

A Creation From the Sugar LabHansel and Gretel, lost in a forest, found a house made completely of candy. You should keep an eye out for such a candy house in your area because within a year or two, this centuries’ old tale could take the form of reality. This is all thanks to a Los Angeles couple’s sweet idea of printing intricate 3D foods using sugar.

The Background – A 3D Birthday Gift

It was a cold evening of December, 2012. Kyle and Liz von Hasseln, students of architecture at Southern California Institute for Architecture (SCI-Arc), were thinking hard on a seemingly impossible task. The Gehry prize they had won in November of the same year, for their combined thesis on an uninterruptible 3D printing method called Phantom Printing, bore testimony to their brilliance. The task at hand, however, was of a less scientific nature.

It was their friend Chelsea’s birthday and they wanted to make her a cake. There were faced with quite a problem though: They neither knew how to make a cake, nor did they have an oven. Not giving up, they decided to take the course that was best suited to their speciality. They decided to 3D print a cake!

After several days of hard work, and despite the fact that Chelsea’s birthday passed, they couldn’t make a complete cake, but they did succeed in creating an intricate three-dimensional topping, made completely of sugar, on a cupcake. The topping spelled “Chelsea”, their friend’s name. They gave her this cupcake and she really liked the sugar structure that formed the cake’s topping. In Liz’s own words,

“We really wanted to make her a cake but we realized at the last minute that we didn’t have an oven in our apartment… we were able to print her a tiny little cupcake topper… and she was so excited about it that we started thinking maybe other people would be really excited about the concept.”

Kyle and Liz decided to share this concept with the whole world and hence, Sugar Lab Came Into Being, a team of two working to revolutionize the world of sweets forever.

The Mechanism – 3D Printing in the Sweetest Manner

3D printing has come a long way from its invention, in 1985, by Charles W. Hull. Traditional 3D printers use only plastic as their raw material. Modern 3D printers, in contrast, are using a wide variety of raw materials including Organic Materials and Even Cells.

Scientists at evilmadscientist.com invented “CandyFab”, the first 3D printer to Use Sugar as a Raw Material, in an attempt to reduce the cost of 3D printing. However, the 3D structures created by CandyFab are hardly edible because the gases and other materials used, contaminate the sugar. The von Hasselns are the first to use sugar for making edible 3D structures.

Although Kyle and Liz haven’t fully disclosed the method they are using, the basic principle is the same as that of all 3D printers. This means that they first design a 3D structure on a computer; then a 3D printer, using sugar as raw material, prints out layer after layer of sugar.

Next, the sugar layers are made wet by a mixture of alcohol and water and finally, the layers are dried which harden them into a complete 3D structure that is quite similar to the one designed on the computer. Using this method, Kyle and Liz have created several intricate and beautiful 3D sugar sculptures, that can be viewed in Sugar Lab’s Gallery.

Although the concept seems quite simple, several problems arise in using sugar as the printing material. The most significant of these is that sugar structures, bound by water and alcohol, are intrinsically weak and can fall apart quite easily. Kyle says:

“There’s constraints, basically, and those constraints make interesting objects… because… you’re obligated to think about mathematically complex shapes that have surfaces that curve in multiple dimensions that really promote strength”

In other words, Kyle is saying that the solution to this problem is to design shapes in such a way, that the pattern itself imparts strength to the structures. Also, discovering and using edible substances, more resilient than water and alcohol, for binding the sugar layers, could increase the overall strength of 3D sugar structures.

Future Possibilities – A Sweeter World

Kyle and Liz have announced that they are working hard to make a commercial sugar printer available in a year or so. Such a printer will likely revolutionize the world of cooking as we know it. Talking about the goals of Sugar Lab, Liz says:

“We kind of daydream about a day when a sugar 3D printer will be present in every custom bakery”

Let us look at some of these future possibilities:

  • Food Revolution: 3D printed sugar foods have the capacity to replace all of our bakery and confectionery items. Although at present, the sugar printer can, at best, print toppings composed solely of sugar, soon it will become capable of Printing Food Products Like Chocolates and cakes. This, however, may cause many bakers to lose their jobs.
  • Novel Sweets: The sugar toppings that Sugar Lab has created even at this early stage, are architectural marvels. They are not only beautiful to look at but are also very complex. Once the 3D sugar printer becomes capable of designing larger sweets and bakery products, it will change the shapes and designs of sweets, forever. Furthermore, people will be able to choose the shapes of their sweets. A football cake, an Eifel Tower chocolate, a Statue of Liberty ice cream; all these and more are well within the domain of 3D sugar printing.
  • Intricate Patterns of Blood Vessels: Although the present aims of Sugar Lab are related to food, another particularly interesting use of sugar printing has recently been proposed. Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania have put forward a method for creating blood vessels in three-dimensional printed human tissues, in which Sugar is Used to Create a Network of Vessels in the Tissues. The Sugar Lab’s 3D sugar printer, which specializes in printing delicate and complex sugar structures, may be the perfect tool to create such blood vessels.

Conclusion – The Candy House

In conclusion, the concept of 3D sugar printing will possibly change our lives and the foods we eat, forever. Sugar Lab will soon become the center of all bakery products and there will be a sugar printer in every house and every bakery, ready to print out any delicious dessert a person can imagine, in any shape the person wants.

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Kyle and Liz are modern-day Hansel and Gretel. They successfully made it out of the witch’s house and are now sharing the secrets of that legendary candy house with the whole world.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Abdullah Khan August 15, 2013 at 12:06 pm

That would really be a revolutionary breakthrough in every field. If 3D printers for bakery use are developed, soon there will be 3D printers available for printing all the other things as well…

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Jase August 15, 2013 at 6:35 pm

Yes, it’s only a matter of time before this happens and we’re 3D printing almost everything. How much time is anyone’s guess but the journey sure will be interesting…

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