Although the pandemic has restricted us from doing many activities that we like, family hobbies, such as DIY, baking, and crafts, have become more popular. Now there is a way to combine all these skills to create something completely new. However, what you will need is a 3D printer.
A 3D printer can quickly print anything made of plastic, in any shape you like. But there are many things they cannot do. You can’t 3D print pasta in the shape of your child’s favorite cartoon character, nor can you make a pizza in the shape of your football team’s logo. Our new research paper published in the Data Bulletin shows a simple way to redesign your 3D printer to create objects made of food or clay.
In the past few years, 3D printing has emerged from science fiction, research laboratories, and technology companies, and has fallen into the hands of enthusiasts. This is because printers are becoming cheaper and easier to use. Some competing brands sell 3D printer assembly kits online for less than 300 pounds, and the price of the feed material plastic filament is less than 20 pounds a kilogram.
Although 3D printers may sound like very complex futuristic machines, it is actually easy to understand how they work. The software that controls the 3D printer needs a 3D image and slices it into many 2D (flat) images. Then, the printer uses molten plastic as ink to “draw” these flat images on top of each other as instructed by the software. This pile of thin slices becomes a solid object.
To achieve this goal, an electric motor in the printer pushes the plastic filament into a nozzle. The nozzle is heated at a temperature above 200°C to melt the plastic filament and push it out of the nozzle. This print head composed of nozzles and motors can move in all three directions (length, width, and height) because it is mounted on a separate device composed of motors, pulleys, belts and screws for these three direction. A 3D printer has nothing but a print head, a motion device, and a circuit board that controls the two and talks to the computer.
How to print food
Imagine sending your friend a custom cake or coffee cup printed in clay. For these, you need a 3D printer that uses slurry, gel or mud type materials as raw materials instead of plastic filaments. The gel or paste can be clay or edible things that you want to use to make shapes, such as jelly, dough, soft cheese, and jam.
Such a printer can have an empty “ink cartridge” to fill with your raw materials, and a print head that can “print” out of this cartridge. Such printers have been around for many years. However, these things are generally more than 1,000 pounds in price. But when you can make one at home and have fun with it, who needs them?
Our new research shows that you can modify an inexpensive plastic 3D printer to print gels and pastes. The key is to replace the melted plastic print head with a “syringe pump”, which is a device that holds ordinary plastic syringes and squeezes the feed when needed. The plastic syringe itself can be used as a printer cartridge. The syringe pump is just a plastic frame that holds the syringe. The motor can be used to rotate a screw, push down a nut, and use it to press the plunger of the syringe to force the material out of the needle of the syringe.
3D printed xanthan gum with food dye (left) and transparent gellan gum (right). The gray plastic shape has been 3D printed with the same image for comparison
But how to make a syringe pump? This is where it becomes interesting. You can 3D print with plastic before modifying the printer. Once you modify your printer, if you want to print out plastic products again, you can also easily switch back to the old print head.
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