The era of 3D printed food has arrived – would you eat it?
30 June 2015
Author: Debra F Laefer, associate professor at UCD School of Civil, Structural & Environmental Engineering and the director of U3D at UCD
While the 3D printing ecosystem of machines, materials, and service providers continues to grow by leaps and bounds, the 3D printed food sector appears to be outstripping all other areas – except in the biomedical field – in terms of innovation and adoption.
While the idea of a 3D printed hamburger might not be everybody’s cup of tea, what has been happening in the industry is much more than simply extruded pastes of chocolate, peanut butter, marizipan, cheese, and sugar.
At the consumer end, much has changed in the past two years. Until recently, 3D printed food spanned only the ‘dumb end’ of the technology, namely appliances that were little more than computer-enabled play-doh machines.
While the output of these units was nothing short of gorgeous, there was little innovation in these devices and approaches. In contrast, the newest machines to hit Kickstarter and the 3D print expos incorporate a cooking component.
Standard fuse deposition (FD) frame with bidirectional capabilities
One of the most prominent examples is Pancakebot, which mounts a squeeze bottle onto a standard fuse deposition (FD) frame with bidirectional capabilities atop a griddle (see main image).
After floating around the trade shows for more than a year, Pancakebot recently launched a Kickstarter campaign, which only last month raised in excess of $400,000 (about €355,000) – far beyond a $60,000 target. By incorporating the cooking aspect as a direct extension of the preparation phase, this latest group of food 3D printers are mirroring a much larger trend in multi-function kitchen appliances.
As the number of ever smaller and single-person households continues to grow at unprecedented levels, having small, compact units with limited production throughput providing multiple functions makes a lot of sense, and consumers agree.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the advent of dual microwave/conventional ovens that are now produced by nearly every significant applicance manufacturer. The day is not far off where something similar will be introduced as a 3D food printer.
As this column is being written in flight just off the coast of South Korea and is my 15th intercontinental flight this year, I am thinking that a 3D printed hamburger is not sounding too bad compared with my present dining options. Perhaps equipping long-haul flights with 3D food printers might be well aligned with recent moves by Lufthansa and United Airlines to provide nearly unlimited choice in their in-flight entertainment options.
A multi-food processor is also likely to intersect with two other highly innovative food trends. One is from a company called Beyond Meat, which is using plant proteins to generate animal-free products that not only taste but have the texture of chicken fillets and ground beef. Consumer testimonials indicate that when mixed with other foods (for example, in salads or chilli), the products are nearly indistinguishable from the actual meat products.
Growth of aero-farms
As these meat substitutes are already highly processed, linking them into a 3D printing environment seems only half a step away. The other trend in food production that could also be highly synergistic is the growth of aero-farms.
This is where produce is grown in warehouses on trays with mist and artificial lights instead of rain, sun, and soil, thereby enabling food to be raised from seed to store without arable land and in the dense urban environments where it will be consumed. This concept of producing things when they are needed and generating them where they are wanted is in many ways what 3D printing is all about.
While the new ‘form and cook’ style of 3D food printers is interesting, one of the most innovative technologies is Dovetail, a Cambridge University spin-out (fig. 2). Its printer produces small globular pellets that adhere to each other in a water bath.
The output feels, smells, looks, and tastes a lot like jello. It is targeting those in assisted or sheltered housing type environments where medicines and other nutrients could be mixed into easy-to-eat products.
Overall, 3D printing, in all of it various incarnations, is extremely well positioned to capitalise on an ever-increasing market in mass customisation and personalisation for things as varied as Father’s Day cigars to baby food.
Endeavours in this area range from personalised packaging with the recipient’s name front and centre to products like ‘mix your own’ ice cream, trail mix, or even dog food (no kidding! Purina now has an online service that offers 57 different ingredients depending upon your dog’s breed, age, size, and personal preferences).
Speaking of multinationals, there has also some notable adoption of 3D printing with large-scale companies. For instance, a pasta company has recently released in the consumer market a 3D printed pasta. As far as I know this is the first 3D printed food in the grocery stores.
3D-printed pasta and potato chips
Furthermore, the softdrink conglomerate Pepsi has been using 3D printing, but for product development. As the parent company to Frito Lay, it recently employed a low-end FD printer to print prototypes of a new potato chip. These properly coloured, properly sized (but not salted) prototypes were used in focus groups to test their consumer appeal. The top three out of more than 20 styles were then computationally modelled to see if they could withstand the rigor of the production process.
Unfortunately most of the 3D food printers are not yet available for purchase, but while we wait for most of these to hit the retail market, there is some good news for local 3D printing enthusiasts.
On Wednesday, July 1, U3D is hosting a free ‘scan to make’ show featuring some of the very newest scanners on the market, as well as 3D printers and local filament and service providers (see www.u3d.ie for all the details). Also, on Monday, July 13, U3D will be launching single-day and multi-day classes for adults (children’s classes to follow soon). Lastly U3D is now printing in both bronze and silver. So we hope to see you in July.
Debra F Laefer is an associate professor at UCD School of Civil, Structural & Environmental Engineering and the director of U3D at UCDhttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/2015/06/30/3d-printed-food/http://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Food-31.jpghttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Food-31-300x300.jpgTech3D Printing,UCD