In a post I wrote last year entitled “Trekkies Rejoice! Food Replicators are Coming Soon,” I discussed how culinary schools, restaurants, and NASA are experimenting with 3D printers that use edible materials, like chocolate, as their medium. Unless you are just returning from a multi-year expedition in the jungle where you were cut off from all contact with the outside world, you know that 3D printing (or additive manufacturing) is poised to make a significant impact in our lives. To learn more about additive manufacturing, read my post entitled “The Disruptive Nature of 3-D Printing.” Researchers are experimenting with all sorts of materials that can be used as feedstock to manufacture products, including all sorts of different foods.
Prices for 3D printers for home use are also coming down; however, 3D printers are unlikely to penetrate deeply into the home market for years. Their usefulness is simply too limited. Regardless, there are a number of companies now offering 3D printers for the home and office. As I noted in the post mentioned above, nearly 30 vendors showed up at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. One of those vendors, 3D Systems, unveiled “the first food-safe 3D printer capable of printing sweets.” [“CES: First 3D printer to make food revealed,” The Telegraph, 9 January 2014] Obviously, the 3D Systems’ printer is not the first device to print food (as the post above notes, food printers have been in use for over three years). 3D Systems claims, however, that its device is the first one to be certified safe for use in the home. The following video provides a fuller explanation. As you will see, some of the shapes the printer can make are very elaborate.
The 3D Systems’ printer will come in two versions — the ChefJet, for “the casual confectioner” and the ChefJet Pro, for “the seasoned pro.” One company that took notice of the 3D Systems device was the Hershey Company. Following the CES, 3D Systems announced that “it will partner with the Hershey Company to develop ‘innovative opportunities’ in 3D-printed food. The multi-year agreement will have 3D Systems working with Hershey to come up with new ways of delivering 3D-printed food to consumers. Hershey is the first big food company to jump on the 3D-printed confection bandwagon.” [“Hershey and 3D Systems team up to make 3D-printed chocolate candy,” by Valentina Palladino, The Verge, 16 January 2014]
Michaeleen Doucleff reports, “The ChefJet isn’t the only 3-D food printer in development.” [“Spinach Dinosaurs To Sugar Diamonds: 3-D Printers Hit The Kitchen,” NPR, 14 January 2014] She explains:
“The pasta giant Barilla is said to be working with a Dutch company to put a new twist on fusilli and rigatoni: ‘Barilla aims to offer customers cartridges of dough that they can insert into a 3-D printer to create their own pasta designs,’ The Guardian reported last week. ‘But the company declined to give further details, dismissing the claims as “speculation.”‘ Meanwhile, a team in Barcelona is probably the closest to getting printed pasta boiling on your stove. They have developed an appliance, called The Foodini, that automatically prints items like ravioli, gnocchi, pizza and quiches on a baking pan. And then you pop them in the oven to cook.”
As I noted above, researchers are experimenting with all kinds of edible ingredients for future use in food printers. Chocolate seems to be one of the favorites. But there are others. Below is a brief overview.
In addition to 3D Systems, “U.K.-based Choc Edge offers a printer for £2,888 ($4783) and a pack of syringes and chocolate for £15 that create what are essentially chocolate illustrations.” [“A Guide to All the Food That’s Fit to 3D Print (So Far),” by Venessa Wong, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, 28 January 2014] Another entrant is the field is the Chocabyte. Costing around $100, “the Chocabyte will print custom designs or downloadable designs up to 2 x 2 x 1” and work with chocolate cartridges priced at around the $5 mark.” [“Think Chocolate, Print Chocolate, Eat Chocolate — Without Taking Out a 2nd Mortgage,” by Rachel Part, 3D Printing Industry, 9 January 2014]
In my earlier post, I noted that NASA had teamed up with a company called Systems & Materials Research to develop a food printer for space travel. Wong reports that Systems & Materials Research has used NASA’s grant “to develop a pizza printer. The prototype uses shelf-stable powdered food and oils, offering nutrition while minimizing garbage on board a space vehicle. It first prints a layer of dough onto a heated plate that bakes the dough and then lays down a tomato base that has been stored in powdered form and mixed with water and oil. Last comes a printed ‘protein layer.'” Doucleff noted that The Foodini can also print pizzas.
The Foodini also prints pasta using a pasta base as its feedstrock; but, it’s not the only printer that uses that material. As noted above, Barilla is also working on a pasta printer. Michael Molithc-Hou reports, “Barilla has announced plans to put a 3D pasta printer in every restaurant over the course of the next several years. The company has been working for two years with Dutch research organization, TNO, to develop a 3D pasta printer for custom noodle fabrication.” [“Print Pasta Fazul Right on Your Plate,” 3D Printing Industry, 9 January 2014]
Wong reports that, in addition to pasta, The Foodini can also print “vegetarian nuggets made of chickpeas, bread crumbs, garlic, spices, olive oil, and salt.” She also reports that Cornell Creative Machines Lab has “built a printer that can create a swirly, flower-shaped corn chip, using masa dough.”
The printer developed by the Cornell Creative Machines Lab, “can also make hamburger patties with layers of ketchup and mustard.” Another meat printer is the BotBQ Extruder. “The BotBQ Extruder was created by Jason Ray to bridge the gap between 3D Printing and BBQ – and it is open-source, reports so anyone pining for their own 3D Printed Burger” can download instructions on how to it. [“BotBQ New Nozzle Testing – 3D Printed Food,” 3D Printing Industry, 30 December 2013] Printing meat, however, is not just for the weekend barbeque scene. “Modern Meadow … is the company developing 3D bioprint technology to produce meat and leather products, previously reported on TIME, Scientific American and at 3DPI here and here.” [“Update: Andreas Forgacs on 3D Printed Meat,” by Eetu Kuneinin, 3D Printing Industry, 7 March 2013]
Among the more interesting miscellaneous items that have been printed are Jell-o shots. “For those uninitiated with the common party beverage,” writes Evan Chavez, “a jell-o shot is jell-o combined with alcohol in small to medium containers, usually cups, for fiestas and jovial gatherings.” [“3D Printed Jell-O Shots! Take Notes and Pass the Glass Around,” 3D Printing Industry, 22 January 2014] He reports that a homemade 3D printer was assembled “to put creative designs into jell-o shots.” There have also been prototype printers developed to create fanciful pancakes. [“3D Printing Pancakes,” 3D Printing Industry, 6 October 2013] And, if you love Mexican food, the “Burritob0t can 3D print edible extrusion of Mexican food using the latest knowledge from digital fabrication technology and molecular gastronomy.” [“3D Printed food: Burritob0t,” 3D Printing Industry, 18 May 2012]
Although 3D printing food may sound like a novel idea unlikely to go mainstream, I’m not so sure that is true. As the world’s population grows to over 9 billion people, feeding them will become a global challenge. Figuring out how to affordably print tasty dishes could provide part of the solution. “Almost 95 per cent of food loss and waste stems from supply chain inefficiencies in poorer countries, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF).” [“Supply chain inefficiency to blame for majority of wasted food,” by Gurjit Degun, Supply Management, 27 January 2014] I’m betting that researchers will be able to create edible materials that can be stored, transported, flavored, printed, and consumed with little to no wastage or loss. After all, even though it wasn’t 3D printed, the Army has just developed a pizza that can last up to three years without spoiling. [“Pizza that could last for 3 years? It’s for soldiers in the field,” by Jenn Harris, Los Angeles Times, 17 February 2014] Anything that helps reduce spoilage and waste would be a real boon for global food security.