A number of companies have embarked on the development of 3D printers designed to ‘print out’ food. In fact there are various uses for additive layer manufacturing technology in this field and it might even have a radical impact on our eating habits.

3D Printing the Future of the Food Industry?

When Miguel Valenzuela progressed from putting together a simple gadget with Lego bricks to amuse his daughters to building a real prototype for a 3D printer, he did not foresee that he was about to position himself in a new niche market. This father of two, a true aficionado of the ‘Maker Movement’, has just launched a pancake ‘printer’ under the name Pancakebot. The concept might seem rather trivial – using integrated software to model a particular shape when the mix is poured – but the underlying business appears to have some solid support. Valenzuela’s venture, whose financing campaign on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter closes this week, has massively exceeded its $50,000 target, with pledges already standing at around $400,000. The interest shown by the general public in this invention underscores the growing interest in 3D food printers. In fact manufacturers of these machines have compared their product with a micro-wave oven. Such statements raised a few eyebrows and aroused safety questions when these printers first appeared, but in the long term they might well replace micro-wave ovens in homes, as they can in fact be used to prepare a meal very quickly.

Food printing sector taking off

At the present time, three companies look like cornering most of the market for food sector 3D printers. The first is Taiwan 3D printer specialist XYZPrinting, with its Food 3D Printer. The machine was showcased at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January and is due for launch in a few months. Food 3D Printer does not actually cook the ingredients, but simply creates the mix and the shape and leaves you to cook the mixture afterwards. Meanwhile competitor Natural Machines is planning to integrate the cooking function into its prototype Foodini machine, planned for the end of the year. This printer looks to have the greatest potential in the sector. Among its attractive features, it promises a healthy lifestyle as you have to use fresh ingredients to print out your meals. The third player in the market is South Carolina, US-based 3D Systems with its CocoJet Printer, which has been developed in partnership with US chocolate maker Hersheys. This additive layer machine has been designed especially to print out chocolate, its target market consisting mainly of pastry chefs.

Towards greater customisation of food

The biggest potential of these printers lies in customising meal quality. In the era of the Quantified Self, you can now more easily calculate the calories you require and monitor your intake so as to keep an eye on your weight and physical shape. Nowadays, software-controlled food ‘printers’ can take on board this information so as to provide the exact quantities of vitamins, calories, minerals etc in the meals they prepare. These machines could also be used for example to make more appetising meals for elderly people who can only eat soft-textured food, to enable companies to highlight their brand by creating foodstuffs in the shape of the company logo for special events, and so on. It appears that there are many potential uses for 3D printers in the food sector. However, manufacturers that launch into this field will need to be careful to comply with food safety standards. Meanwhile, beyond additive layer machines, technological progress has now reached the point where, as l’Atelier reported last summer, a number of tech startups are looking to radically transform what we put on our plates.  

By Eliane HONG