Engineers at Exeter University are collaborating with partners at Brunel University and software developer Delcam to create a three-dimensional printer that can build products from chocolate.
Their research is being funded as part of the Research Council UK Cross-Research Council Digital Economy Programme and is managed by the EPSRC on behalf of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Medical Research Council (MRC).
3D printing is a technology where a three-dimensional object is created by building up successive layers of material. The technology is already used in industry to produce plastic and metal products, but this is believed to be the first time it has been applied to chocolate.
The research has presented many challenges. Chocolate is not an easy material to work with because it requires accurate heating and cooling cycles. These variables then have to be integrated with the correct flow rates for the 3D printing process. Researchers overcame these difficulties with the development of new temperature and heating-control systems.
Research leader Dr Liang Hao of Exeter University’s College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences said: ’In the long term, the technology could be developed to help consumers custom design many products from different materials, but we’ve started with chocolate as it is readily available, low cost and non-hazardous.’
A consumer-friendly interface to design the chocolate objects is also in development. Researchers hope that an online retail business will host a website for users to upload their chocolate designs for 3D printing and delivery. Designs need not start from scratch — the web-based utility will also allow users to see designs created by others to modify for their own use.
Dr Hao added: ’In the future, this kind of technology will allow people to produce and design many other products, such as jewellery or household goods. Eventually we may see many mass-produced products replaced by unique designs created by the customer.’