Rock Hill firm prints bite-sized chocolate Ford Mustangs

The Ford Mustang turned 50 this past week with epic celebrations, including one on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building – where the Mustang made its debut as part of the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

Over the past half-century, the Mustang has become an icon for style with its long hood and short rear deck. It created the pony-car market, forcing other automakers to play catch-up. It personified the American dream of freedom on the open road.

Can it get any better?

How about the Ford Mustang and chocolate?

Ford recently partnered with 3D Systems of Rock Hill to create a perfectly designed, bite-sized morsel of the 2015 Mustang for Valentine’s Day.

The task of taking full-sized computer-assisted drawings for the latest Mustang and adapting them to print a mini, edibile Mustang fell to the husband-and-wife duo of Kyle and Liz von Hasseln of Los Angeles, creative directors for food products for Rock Hill-based 3D Systems.

It was like any other 3-D printing: Run the digital drawing through a computer, which tells the printer how to create the object one thin layer at a time. For edible Mustangs, the printer deposited layer after layer of sugar and then water to crystallize it.

When the process was finished, the extra sugar was carefully removed by hand, and with a gentle blast of air, the mini-Mustang was revealed.

“You brush things off like an archaeologist … and when the model is revealed for the first time, it’s a magic moment,” Liz von Hasseln said. “It’s the first 3-D printed car you can eat. It’s historic.”

Liz von Hasseln admits the mini-Mustang tasted more like Cocoa Puffs than traditional chocolate. That traditional chocolate taste may not be too far in the future, however, as 3D Systems recently signed a development deal with iconic chocolatier Hershey.

But the edible Mustang shows what’s possible with forward thinkers who envisioned combing basic food components such as carbs, proteins and fats into an edible material that could be printed. The result could revolutionize nutrition.

So far, the von Hasselns have been printing sugars. Starch-based and spice-based materials are being developed. The challenge has been not what you can or can’t do – “anything you can model digitally, you can print,” Liz said.

The challenge has been getting the printing material to “read” and taste like food.

In developing 3-D printing materials, the key factors are strength and smoothness.

While the von Hasselns applied that standard to their edible material, “it was too smooth and it read like plastic,” Liz von Hasseln said.

Food, she continued, has texture and granularity – the “subtle signals that you can eat it.”

And, of course, there’s the yuck factor. No matter how technologically advanced the product might be, it still has to taste good.

It’s been quite a change for the von Hasselns. Neither is a good cook, and being a “foodie” was not even on their minds when they were graduate students in architecture. Their grad school apartment didn’t even have an oven.

So when it came time to bake a birthday cake for a friend, they turned to their 3-D printer and printed a tiara-like topper for a cupcake that wowed the birthday girl. It was their aha moment about what was possible.

They started talking with others about printing food, and “were shocked at the intensity of the interest,” Liz von Hasseln said. Ultimately, 3D System purchased their lab and made them creative food directors, using the soon-to-be released Chef Jet printers. The Chef Jet is essentially a regular 3D Systems 3-D ink-jet printer adapted for culinary uses.

3D Systems is one of a number of companies in the food-printing market.

Choc Edge, an English company, has a printer that creates chocolate illustrations.

Cornell Creative Machines Labs, based at the New York university, has a printer that can print corn chips as well as hamburger patties with layers of ketchup and mustard.

Systems and Materials Research of Austin, Texas, has a grant from NASA to develop a pizza printer for outer space.

The Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research plans to build printers that reassemble pureed food, which could be used by nursing homes to help elderly people who have trouble chewing or swallowing.

Liz von Hasseln said the 3-D printing of “foods” is not necessarily more efficient, faster or cheaper.

And the size of current food printing is restricted not only by the printers, but also the materials, as small, intricate designs can be limited by the size of sugar grains, she said.

“But the main benefit,” she said, “is the ability to meld art, designed techniques and food. That’s a powerful intersection.

“The real power is not only changing the rituals of celebration but changing culture.”