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Sugar Lab Review: Throwing a Stuffed Animal Birthday Party with 3D Printed Sugar Treats

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As food 3D printing slowly congeals into the mainstream, ordinary consumers are being introduced to an increasing number of options for getting their hands on the technology—or at least the byproducts of that technology. In addition to low-cost food printers, various pilot programs, and Barilla’s pasta printing shop, a new service bureau has opened up that supplies 3D printed sweets. I had the opportunity to take some of Culinary Printworks’ 3D printed sugar for a taste drive.  

Founded by the inventor of sugar 3D printing himself, Kyle von HasseIn, Culinary Printworks works with businesses to bring their 3D printed food concepts to life. Clients first speak to food designers about how the technology can realize their ideas, include eye-catching geometries, delectable flavors and specific applications. This includes whether or not a customer should shoot for a cake topper, drink rimmer, or a garish garnish. Flavors aren’t limited to the taste of standard powdered sugar but can range from pumpkin spice to watermelon. 

3D printed pastry shells from Sugar Lab, baked with a pumpkin muffin recipe. Image courtesy of Volim Photo.

The technology that powers von HasseIn’s business is the Brill 3D Culinary Studio powered by 3D Systems. Using a form of binder jetting, the printer works by depositing an edible binder, as well as food coloring onto a bed of powdered sugar. Layer by layer, the machine builds up full-color and edible 3D objects. To add flavor, dehydrated foods like nutmeg, cinnamon, and salt–and pretty much anything you can imagine–are mixed directly into the sugar powder. This system actually evolved from von HasseIn’s own modification of older binder jetting 3D printers. 

After being introduced to 3D printing while obtaining his graduate degree at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles, von HasseIn became infatuated with the technology. In fact, his graduate thesis was the creation of a six-axis digital light processing 3D printer, which he imagined could be used to 3D print large-scale objects, such as furniture. But it was when he started hacking a ZCorp binder jetting system that his course changed direction. Von HasseIn first experimented with architectural materials before leveraging the technology to 3D print with sugar. 

“The thing that I especially liked about it was that it had really beautiful aesthetic qualities. When we photographed it, it was a little bit translucent. We just found it to be really beautiful and compelling,” von HasseIn said. “So, I was just printing my architectural models that I was designing for school in sugar. Months later, I started to realize that, in a different setting, the technology could maybe be really compelling. It was quite a kind of epiphany.”

In 2012, ZCorp was bought by 3D Systems and, by 2013, von HasseIn and his wife Liz founded The Sugar Lab. Soon the Los Angeles firm was also acquired by 3D Systems, where the technology was further developed and refined. In 2017, bakery ingredients and product manufacturer Brill, Inc. began working with 3D Systems to push sugar 3D printing even more, finally bringing it to market as the Brill 3D Culinary Studio powered by 3D Systems this year. 

3D printed Día de los Muertos skulls. Image courtesy of Sugar Lab.

At the same time, von HasseIn has returned to his roots, leaving 3D Systems to launch Culinary Printworks, along with its retail brand, Sugar Lab. While Sugar Lab acts as a retail brand with an online catalogue dedicated to foodies, people shopping for gifts, and home chefs, Culinary Printworks, the parent company of Sugar Lab, works with culinary professionals on custom 3D food products for specific events and venues at high volumes, and aligns with partners on longer term R&D projects. Small caterers, bakeries, restaurants, and other retail sites can order from Sugar Lab in bulk, as well. 

As COVID-19 continues to spread and lockdowns remain in place, my own family has been struggling to keep things interesting for our two young children. When von HasseIn mailed us a handful of 3D printed items from Sugar Lab, we used them as an excuse to shake things up around the house. Our three-year-old, Niko, insisted that it was the birthday of his stuffed animal, Bushbaby, spurring us to throw a party for the worn and well-loved toy. 

3D printed pumpkin spice drink rimmer next to a 3D printed pastry shell. Image courtesy of Volim Photo.

Niko and my wife, Danielle, baked cupcakes on which to display 3D printed sugar garnishes. We whipped up some cocktails on which we could place our 3D printed drink rimmers. We even made some mini-cupcakes using a Sugar Lab supplied-recipe, baked within 3D printed pastry shells. 

The sweets arrived packed neatly in thin cardboard boxes, each item protected with cleanly shredded cardboard and a plastic enclosure. The vibrant colors of the items were instantly eye-catching, but it was difficult waiting for our photoshoot knowing that I could eat these delicious-looking prints. 

“Throwback sugar cubes” placed atop homemade cupcakes. Image courtesy of Volim Photo.

Whereas plopping the printed Día de los Muertos skulls and classic Sugar Lab cubes onto a dessert was straightforward, baking the pastry shells required that we follow the recipe to a tee, in order to ensure that the products didn’t collapse in the oven. Fortunately, even with our toddler helping, we did execute the recipe more or less exactly and all of our shells survived the oven. Necessary to the task was the purchase of a specialty cooling rack that would prevent the prints from direct contact with the oven itself. 

Image courtesy of Volim Photo.

I was relieved to see the shells come out in perfect condition and couldn’t wait to eat them. Once Danielle was finished mixing up multicolored frosting to match the rainbow pallet of the sugar skulls, we were ready to serve our birthday guests: our sons, Niko and Felix; Green Dino, Bunny Rabbit, some miscellaneous critters Niko has no attachment to, and the guest of honor, Bushbaby. 

Our 3D printed birthday party. Image courtesy of Volim Photo.

The kids were too preoccupied with eating frosting to even notice the 3D printed sugar, but Danielle and I noticed how these printed masterpieces elevated our homemade cupcakes and cocktails. And, once we actually started eating, we were taken by surprise by the flavors they offered, as well. 

The skulls seeped sweet watermelon into our mouths. The classic Sugar Lab cubes were snowy peppermint flavored. And, though the rimmers instantly dissolved into our drinks, they transformed the cocktails with their pumpkin spice taste. If the pastry shells weren’t so beautiful, I would have popped all of them into my mouth like M&Ms, as the outer sugar wrapping lent a crunchy texture to the soft, pumpkin muffin inner core.

Sugar Lab has introduced some holiday-themed products to its shop, including these candy cane sugar cubes. Image courtesy of Sugar Lab.

All in all, Bushbaby had a pretty decadent party. Niko was so happy with the celebration that he informed us that it was Green Dino’s birthday the following day. Fortunately, we still had plenty of cupcakes and a few 3D printed treats left over for another b-day in quarantine. Unfortunately, we learned that 3D printed sugar doesn’t survive in the fridge for very long—at least not while they’re absorbing moisture from adjoining desserts. When we gathered around for Green Dino’s party the next afternoon, the pastry shells, remaining skull and cube had all collapsed. They still had the same great flavors, but the texture had gone from crunchy to chewy. 

Van Haselin pointed out that guidance regarding refrigeration has been added to all the product pages at Sugar Lab and in the FAQs to help others. He added, “We’re pretty sure you can freeze the products (even baked ones) which is surprising since the fridge doesn’t work, but we’re still testing and evaluating how to give guidance on that.”

3D printed ornaments from Sugar Lab. Image courtesy of Sugar Lab.

Nevertheless, Danielle was convinced that these 3D printed items would be perfect for any party, whether for stuffed animals or adults. I can imagine them serving as unique gifts for fancy foodies. This is particularly relevant to the holiday season, as Sugar Lab has launched a number of holiday-themed products, including ornaments, candy cane sugar cubes, candy cane and wrapping paper-styled dessert shells, lumps of coal and snowman kits. Beyond the staple product offerings from Sugar Lab, however, chefs have already demonstrated how creative they can get using the broader services of Culinary Printworks. 

3D printed snowman kit from Sugar Lab. Image courtesy of Sugar Lab.

In a previous article on the subject, we learned how chefs with beta access to the technology have pulled off some pretty innovative projects. These included Coming 2 America themed garnishes, wasabi eggs, kaffir lime leaves for curry soup, and more. This is surely just the beginning for the 3D Systems-linked business. 

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