While the crew on board the science-fictional starship Enterprise had access to a “replicator”, a machine capable of assembling atoms of matter to create any possible object that could exist in the Universe, for some undefined reason, they primarily used it to make hot tea or other alien beverages. It has thus become clear, from its very first conception in the Star Trek TV series, that, if humanity had access to a machine that could create anything, it would mostly be used to make food. Since 3D printers can be considered to be the ancestors of Star Trek’s replicator, it seems only – and “Vulcanianically” – logical that food 3D printing is a hot topic.
Just like everything else, before food was ever 3D printed, it was 2D printed. In 2005 Homaru Cantu, a chef in the Moto Restaurant1 in Chicago made headlines by being the first to use regular inkjet 2D printing to design images on sushi rolls wrapped in edible paper made of soybeans and cornstarch. He used organic, food-based inks of his own concoction to draw the colorful images and photos, while the process he adopted was similar to other multi-material and multicolor 3D printing processes, which are also defined as “inkjet processes”.
The next step toward the third dimension (that of height, or “Z” axis) was taken by Oskay and Lenore Edman of Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, with their CandyFab Project. In 2007 they introduced the CandyFab 4000, an early DIY (Do-It-Yourself) 3D printer based on a modified version of another 3D printing process commonly used today at industrial levels. It is called laser, or heat, sintering. In laser sintering the powdered materials (polymers or even metals) are bound together by being partially melted by a laser beam, while heat sintering uses infrared radiation or a heated surface. The CandyFab version of laser sintering, which was followed by the 5000 and 6000 version in 2008 and 2009, was referred to as SHASAM, an acronym which stands for elective hot air sintering and melting. It used a focused heat source moving over a bed of sugar, fusing its particles together to create large 3D sugar sculptures.
Some of the most forward-looking projects still advanced even to this day, were those introduced by Marcelo Coelho and Jamie Zigelbaum when, in 2010, they presented prototypes and concept designs for a complete Digital Gastronomy solution. The Cornucopia project included a family of four food printer prototypes: the Digital Chocolatier, the Digital Fabricator, the Robotic Chef and the Virtuoso Mixer2. These ranged from a machine capable of assembling different ingredients to make chocolate-based sweets, to an actual multi-food 3D printer (the Digital Fabricator), to a multi-arm robotic system designed to physically and chemically transform foods by using an array of tools.
The very first developments of industrial 3D printing technologies, binder jetting and stereolithography, took place respectively at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and at 3D Systems, which became the very first company to produce a commercially available 3D printer in 1987. During the 1990s, MIT developed a procedure it patented and trademarked with the name 3-D Printing, later officially abbreviated as 3DP. As of February 2011, MIT has granted licenses to six companies to use and promote the 3DP process in their products. The best known among them is Z-corporation or Zcorp, which was acquired by its competitor 3D Systems in 20113. Its 3DP technology, now also known as jet printing or color jet printing (CJP), is still among the most commonly used today for non-functional full-color objects.
Many new advances in 3D printing technology still take place at universities and then become commercial projects or companies. Food 3D printing is no different. It is a highly relevant segment which draws studies both in the academic and corporative communities.
In 2007, Hod Lipson and Evan Malone, of the Cornell University Computational Synthesis Laboratory, adapted the Fab@Home4 open source extrusion printer – meaning its specifics were freely available over the web – to work with food. For this Project they partnered with the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan to print personalised chocolate and cheese, cookies, cubes of pureed turkey and celery paste, and even tiny spaceships made of deep fried scallops. For the scallops the team went as far as to blend the seafood and add transglutaminase – often called meat glue – so that the mixture would solidify again after having been extruded. For the celery, they added agar and created a celery gel. The food-printing craze is catching on in other research settings as well, and chocolate has been one of the main areas for experimentation.
Three years later, in 2010, scientists at the University of Exeter, in England, built their own 3D printer with a heated extruder for printing gourmet chocolate. They developed a new fabrication method known as chocolate additive layer manufacture (ChocALM) 5. Led by Dr. Liang Hao, the study investigated the material properties and behavior of commercial chocolate. Deposition experiments were carried out using the newly developed ChocALM system to illustrate the effects of the deposition parameters on the geometrical accuracy and dimension of the deposited chocolates. The results revealed that process parameters, such as extrusion rate, nozzle velocity and nozzle height are critical for successful deposition of chocolate and the optimization of these parameters enables the ChocALM system to create 3D chocolates with appropriate quality. The commercial result of this study was the founding by Dr. Hao of the ChocEdge company to manufacture and distribute the Choc Creator, the first commercial chocolate 3D printer ever to hit the market, at a price of about £3.000. After the initial success, both from a commercial and a media standpoint, ChocEdge launched the 2.0 version of its 3D printer in 2014.
When speaking about University-led research projects pertaining to technology and 3D printing, the Dutch University TNO has been playing a major role since 2006, when the TNO Research Center began working on the development of various innovative food processing technologies, including a particular food printer. Their research was embraced by Barilla6, one of the world’s leading pasta companies, which announced in 2013 that it has been working with TNO Eindhoven for over two years at a prototype for the perfect pasta printer, to be used in restaurants and even in the home to create custom pasta shapes. The possibilities were later illustrated in the PrintEat contest, where Barilla asked designers worldwide to come up with innovative pasta design, such as a hollow moon shape or a complex flower shape that opens up during cooking.
TNO has also worked industrial designer Chloé Rutzerfeld to develop the Edible Growth project7, based on a food 3D printer that has the ability to produce mini 3D printed appetizers made from nutritional ingredients like sprouts and fungi. Multiple layers containing seeds, spores and yeast are 3D printed and within five days the plants and fungi mature and the yeast ferments the solid inside into a liquid. The product’s intensifying structure, scent and taste are reflected in its changing appearance. The user then decides when to “harvest” and enjoy the fresh and nutrient-rich edible products depending on the preferred flavour intensity.
There is not, as yet, a clear definition of what a food 3D printer is. Whether it is just a cooking machine with augmented capabilities or a tool to make new food combinations or even something that will one day be capable of creating foods that do not exist today. In general, a food printer is a machine that can turn digital recipes into edible and, possibly, delicious morsels. The vast majority of currently available food 3D printers implements the FDM variant with a syringe-based paste extrusion system. This works somewhat like an oversimplified inkjet printer, with a single, large nozzle which releases dense paste material instead of many tiny nozzles releasing picoliter droplets of liquid ink. The paste material can be stacked layer upon layer to form the 3D dimensional food structures. Much like it happens with 3D printers using ceramics, the food needs to be “sintered”, or “cooked”, in a separate post-process which can – but does not have to – occur within the 3D printer itself.
Inspired by the University of Exeter’s experiments with chocolate 3D printing, Richard Horne from the popular Richrap.com website, published his “Universal Paste Extruder” in 2012. His goal was to enable any open source 3D printer to experiment with many different pastes, including both foods and ceramic materials. The UPE is driven by gears and uses a driven belt to press down on the standard 10 ml syringe. The main reason for this arrangement is to keep the height to a minimum in order to allow the maximum build height.
Ontario, Canada, based Structur3d 3D printing has made its own Discov3ry 3D printing paste extruder available for pre-order, promising it can be used to 3D print with any paste material, from the Nutella chocolate paste to silicon and wood-filler. The system has been designed to work with almost any FDM based 3D printer, replacing the molten plastic extruder. It works by forcing material out of reusable, affordable and easily available syringes, through a feed tube, and finally, an extruder tip mounted to the printer head carriage.
Another paste extruder, the Plastruder, dates back several years, In its many different versions, it was implemented and offered by MakerBot in 2010 as the MK5 version, which featured an all stainless steel hot end which was precision machined to tightly fit together and prevent leaks. The UNFOLD version of the Plastruder was used in 2012 by designer Ralf Holleis to 3D print Christmas cookies based on original CAD designs. They were extruded onto wax paper to then be easily transported to the oven for “post-production”.
Following up on these DIY solutions, some newer 3D printers such as the Zmorph, FABtotum and byFlow, have introduced easily interchangeable print heads, which enable the same 3D printer to be rapidly adapted to use thermoplastics such as ABS, PLA or nylon as well as paste materials such as chocolate and other edible products. The manufacturers of these 3D printers generally make the technical data pertaining to their machine available to all, so that the community of users can develop and use alternative extruders that fit their own specific needs, including that of using the machine to create edible products. Other commercial projects are focused primarily on the food printing aspect. These include the previously mentioned Choc Creator by Choc Edge8 as well as the Imagine 3D Printer by Essential Dynamics, which has been built to use paste based materials such as silicone, epoxies, organics, cheese and chocolate.
While it is by far the most common, extrusion-based fabrication is not the only process used to 3D print with food. Along with sintering and binder jetting experiments, Laser Cooking9 is a novel cooking technology that uses a laser cutter as a dry-heating device. In general, dry-heat cooking heats the whole surface of an ingredient, while a laser cutter heats a small spot of the surface in a very short time.
Alternatively, another “subtractive” digital fabrication technology such as CNC milling has been implemented in the Icepop Generator, a concept machine created by the Netherlands based Melt Icepop. Places in a freezer, it works as a mechanical ice sculptor, using a drill that travels back a forth across three axes. The design is thus carved out of a block of ice, with a fourth axis used to rotate the ice in order to create more complex figures.
The US Army, in particular, is very much interested in the possible application of food 3D printing on the battlefield. As the Army website reveals, Lauren Oleksyk, a food technologist, is investigating 3D printing applications for food processing and development, as head of a research team within the Combat Feeding Directorate (CFD). One of these possible applications is ultrasonic agglomeration, which binds particles together by shooting ultrasonic waves at them. This approach affords great flexibility when it comes to printing a wider variety of meals – adding several additional options to a soldier’s menu.
In 2013, designer Janne Kyttanen, one of the very first visionaries of consumer 3D printing applications over a decade ago, produced plastic prototypes of 3D printed pasta, cereal and even hamburgers to prove the point that 3D printing technologies are capable of transforming the way we eat. Kyttanen is convinced that once we will be able to easily assemble the elements that compose our foods we are going to use 3D printers capabilities to make foods of the most amazing and personalized shapes we can imagine. He goes as far as to predict that the future of food 3D printing truly is Star Trek’s replicator, where a machine will assemble molecules in combinations that can yield tasty and nutritional meals.
Perhaps the most common use for pasta, albeit a different type of pasta known as “dough”, is for pizza. Pizza itself is an additively made product: the first layer being the pasta, the second being the tomato sauce, third the mozzarella cheese, then toppings and so on. Built by four mechanical engineering students at the Imperial College of London, the F3D printer is capable of manufacturing and cooking a regular “Margherita” pizza in just about 20 minutes. Using three different syringes it extrudes Masa Harina dough, tomato puree, and cream cheese. (just don’t talk about this around Naples or, if you do, do not call it pizza).
Food printing and in particular Pizza 3D printing even attracted the interest of NASA. The US Space Administration knows that 3D printing is the key to long term space missions as it would allow astronauts to carry along just the raw materials and the CAD designs for every replacement part they could possibly need (instead of carrying every single one of the actual parts that may break). For this reason, a 3D printer was delivered to the International Space Station and in the future may be used to prepare astronaut meals as well as tools. NASA awarded the Systems and Materials Research Consultancy of Austin, Texas, a $125.000 contract to develop a 3D printed food system for long duration space missions. NASA’s Advanced Food Technology program11 is interested in developing methods that will provide food to meet safety, acceptability, variety, and nutritional stability requirements for long exploration missions, while using the least amount of spacecraft resources and crew time.
Chocolate and sweets still remain at the same time the ultimate and closest objective of food 3D printing. While chocolate can be extruded through a heated syringe system, new technology implementations are already looking at laser as a way to melt together the 3D printed chocolate powder and form the three-dimensional geometries. This is what four University of Waterloo Mechatronics Engineering students, who call themselves 3D Chocolateering, did. Much like the previously mentioned CandyFab project, their machine consists of a sintering system which uses a laser to selectively melt together powdered chocolate. Since laser sintering does not require the presence of supporting structures, this allowed for the creation of highly complex geometrical figures. For the students, it was also an exercise in creating a low-cost sintering system, given that current laser sintering machines cost upwards of €200.000.
While creating the 3D printed sweets is a big part of the process, much like in industrial and consumer 3D printing, the finish is just as important as the proverbial icing on the cake. The Vienna-based design studio mischer’traxler presented a digital, automatic cake decorator at Vienna Design Week in 2014. Titles “Till you stop”, the project’s underlying goal is the exploration of a new kind of personalized food manufacturing, where the consumer’s decision to say ‘stop’ defines the design’s outcome.
While all the previously mentioned projects are ambitious and hold an incredible long term potential, 2015 is likely to be remembered as the year when the very first truly commercially available food 3D printers will hit the market. Three different systems will contend for the sceptre of most kitchen-ready food 3D printer: two of them are manufactured by 3D Systems and will focus on sugar and chocolate as the main printing materials. The third is the Foodini, an equally ambitious multi-food 3D printer designed and built by a Barcelona based start-up called Natural Machines. Others are already following in their footsteps.
Announced early in 2014, the Chefjet originates from a project carried out by a Los Angeles based design studio called The Sugar Lab. The two-person studio developed a machine which implemented a technology very similar to Zcorp’s, except that it used water, instead of glue, as a binder for the sugary powder. The patent’s owner, 3D Systems, found it more convenient to purchase the studio rather than to sue them, and the Chefjet was the result of this alliance. It is meant to be the first in an entirely new, kitchen-ready category of 3D printers for food. The first two printers in the series were the monochrome, countertop ChefJet 3D printer and the full-color, larger format ChefJet Pro 3D printer. Destined to the professional baker, pastry chef, mixologist and restaurateur, these printers allow the creation of custom edible geometries and were going to be made available with ChefJet printable materials for a variety of recipes, including sugar, different flavor candy and milk chocolate (spoiler: they never made it to market)
Focusing specifically on chocolate manufacturing, the Cocojet is the result of 3D Systems’ partnership with Hershey, a global leader in chocolate and confections. This is a “standard” machine based on 3D Systems’ own version of FDM technology, which the company refers to as Plastic Jet Printing (PJP). In fact, the Cocojet is a modified version of 3D Systems’ Cube Pro 3D printer for plastic filament.
The Foodini 3D printer was among the most revolutionary and promising of all the commercial 3D printers. It uses a syringe-based system to extrude a series different paste materials (anything from dough to chopped meat) and the reason why it was so revolutionary is the company’s approach. The underlying idea is that, by mixing healthy base ingredients, the Foodini will be able to robotically prepare healthy home-cooked meals for those whose lives are so full that they have no time left for cooking anything. Developed in collaboration with Elisava’s Barcelona School of Design and Engineering students, Natural Machines’ device can use six capsules of different materials, allowing much more complicated foods to be made. It also has a built-in heater to keep the food warm during the printing process.
RIB “Robots in Gastronomy”, also based in Barcelona is a global hub for culinary experimentation. Its research and design group focuses on the intersection of technology and gastronomy. Led by Luis Fraguada the team includes Michelin Star Chefs, Industrial Designers, Interaction Designers, and High End Kitchen Equipment Distributors. The group’s research has culminated in the creation of the Food Form 3D, a computer numerically controlled deposition robot capable of 3d printing edible materials. The aim of the group is not to industrialize the kitchen as much as to provide tools of invention and innovation.
Blending technology and cooking, especially around Catalonia country, one cannot but mention molecular gastronomy techniques. Some of the elements that characterize molecular gastronomy processes, such as the use of sodium alginate to induce jellification and solidification of liquids, can be used in extrusion-based digital fabrication processes and even have applications in the field of bioprinting (3D printing of human tissues). The evolving combination of molecular gastronomy technologies and processes is likely to drive us closer to Star Trek’s replicator.
Cambridge based Dovetailed got ahead by developing a “3D fruit printer” by combining a digital print head and the “spherification” process of molecular gastronomy. It uses sodium alginate to create caviar-like gelatinous “bubbles” with a liquid interior from fruit juice. The first experiment carried out by Dovetailed consisted in using strawberry flavored juice to create a series of caviar-like bubbles, which were then assembled to form a “strawberry-flavored 3D printed fruit that looked just like a raspberry.
As curious as the Dovetailed process may be (the flavor is still not quite entirely satisfactory, but that may be an issue pertaining to molecular gastronomy rather than 3D printing), the final frontier in molecular food assembly is meat manufacturing. Intensive animal farming is not only increasingly perceived as an extremely cruel practice but it is also a major cause of global warming and depletion of the world’s hydric resources. A company called Modern Meadows applied the latest advances in tissue engineering toward the development of novel biomaterials to address some of these pressing global challenges. It thus developed cultured leather and meat products which require no animal slaughter and much lower inputs of land, water, energy and chemicals.
Set up by father-son team Gabor and Andras Forgacs, the start-up made artificial raw meat using a 3D bioprinter. To bioengineer meat, the scientists first harvest stem cells, which are cells capable of turning into any type of the animal’s cells, via a common procedure known as a biopsy. As scientists feed and nurture them, these cells are also able to replicate themselves many times and grow into strands. They are then inserted into a bio-cartridge to be 3D printed into the desired shape to form living tissue, which has the exact same biological composition of meat coming from a live cow. Roughly 20,000 of these strands are required to create the normal sized hamburger that Dutch scientist Mark Post from the University of Maastricht created it to show that meat grown in a Petri dish might, one day, be a true alternative to meat from livestock.
Another group working along these lines is Future Food, an Austrian based Internet-Initiative which seeks to build global awareness about real alternatives to animal-derived products. They explain that these products can be divided into two groups. The first is described as including vegetarian meat, non-dairy milk drinks and egg replacements. These are products that simulate or copy animal-derived products.
The second is “In-Vitro Meat” or “Cultured Meat”, and these are foods that are made of actual meat produced without the use of animals.
While the possibility of a synthesized in-vitro grown burger may not appeal to many, a lot of its real appeal to consumers will be determined by the artificial meat’s appearance. Future 3D printers will be able to assemble easily digestible foods, which not only maintains the shape and taste of the real thing but can also be fortified with specific nutrients and shaped to be appealing. In nursing homes, it is estimated that up to 60% of guests suffer from a condition called dysphagia, which makes it difficult – and even dangerous – for them to swallow their food. They are often fed ‘porridge-like food’ which has been pureed and mixed together from a variety of ingredients. Scientists at Biozoon Food Innovations in Germany, participating in the EU-funded PERFORMANCE project are working on reconstructing food servings into a more digestible form that is also appetizing to the eye. For example, a chicken fillet will be cooked, pureed and strained and the liquid then used to produce a jellified portion of chicken that can be safely digested. The three-year PERFORMANCE13 project hopes to develop 3D food printer technology and specialized texturing systems to make products safe and appetizing meals.
The 3D printer will work in the same way as an inkjet-based printer, using capsules filled with liquefied food: one for vegetables, one for meat and one for carbohydrates. It will create the first layer of the food, for example, the two-dimensional form of a chicken wing, with liquid from the meat cartridge, shaped by the 48 nozzles in the printer head. A jellification agent, currently under development, will be added to the liquid in the cartridges. Layer after layer the desired shape will be applied to the food, which may be that of a chicken wing and yet have any desired flavor.
The Future Food organization’s aim, shared by other similar initiatives, is to bring an end to animal suffering, environmental pollution, starvation, health risks and so on, by no longer using billions of domestic animals as meat, milk and egg machines, and to replace these products with ones which are healthier and are produced via more environmentally friendly and ethical means.
The production of meat, milk, and eggs through the use of animals puts far more strain on the environment than any other kind of food production.
As a result of the increasing world population and a steadily decreasing amount of agricultural land, humanity needs to find viable solutions to satisfy its alimentary demands.
Around 55 billion chickens, turkeys, pigs, cows, sheep and ducks are killed and slaughtered yearly throughout the world. There is a discrepancy between science and awareness of animal welfare in society on one hand and the practice of industrialized livestock farming on the other.
Eating animals means that the food chain, starting with plants and ending with humans, is lengthened and with that we waste a lot of food which could be used to feed people. Paradoxically, the over-consumption of meat is increasingly regarded as one of the major causes of many typical diseases facing humans, including cancer and heart disease.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that the demand for meat is going to increase by more than two-thirds in the next 40 years and that current production methods are not sustainable. In the near future, both meat and other staple foods are likely to become expensive luxury items, thanks to the increased demand on crops for meat production. That is unless we find a sustainable alternative.
Livestock contributes to global warming through unchecked releases of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The increase in demand will significantly increase levels of methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide and cause loss of biodiversity.
Together with appearance, the taste is likely to be the most important key for the success of future foods and, at the same time, one of the biggest challenges. Will we stomach it? We typically “eat with our eyes”, and – as we have seen – printed meat could be fabricated in familiar shapes and textures. Our palate will thus be the dominating factor.
Future Food believes that artificial – or bioficial – alimentary products will have to be cheaper than conventional meat, milk or eggs which are derived from animals. They will also be potentially healthier than animal products, with a number of additional benefits directly related to the possibility of tailoring a meal.
Restaurants might be able to tap information about their diners’ medical history, dining habits and exercise regimens, then whip up meals to precisely suit their health needs, even before they’re ordered. “In five years 3D printed food will be served in nursing homes, says researcher Kjeld van Bommel of TNO. TNO is also working on a 3D printer that makes pureed food attractive for patients with chewing and swallowing problems. “These people can now get real food on their plate. With a knife and fork they feel enabled. They could eat better and enjoy and improvement in their quality of life,” says van Bommel. “It should also be possible that the 3D printers customize meals to meet their specific needs, for example by integrating calcium for patients who suffer from bone deficiencies”.
As has been the case in for every single application of 3D printing, one of its greatest promises is the personalization of production. In the food sector, this would entail the almost entirely new concept of truly personalized nutrition. The elderly, the youngest and those who suffer from disabilities and health deficiencies will be the first to benefit from tailor-made foods, and these benefits may in a second phase be carried out the humanity as a whole. Naturally, it will be a matter of carefully balancing the requirements for a more healthy and sustainable way of life with the human need for a more traditional culinary culture.
This coincides with TNO’s vision of future 3D printed meals composed by “alternative ingredients” for food including algae, duckweed, grass, lupine seeds, beet leaves, and insects.
While there is little doubt that it will have benefits on the world as a whole it remains debatable whether 3D printed food can truly integrate in the global supply chain. The question is whether 3D printed meat can truly be made into an economically viable solution and if consumers will accept it.
The public will want to know whether printed foods are safe for human consumption. As is often the case, many practices that seem “remote” or even “alien” to current generations may turn out to be quite natural for future generations, particularly if their benefits are demonstrated. Multinational interests and conflicts of interest may raise doubts on the benefits of such new practices in the field of food printing however it remains undeniable that the current state of industrial animal farming is no longer sustainable.
Consumers will most likely demand adequate protections to ensure the development of printed foods does not limit their access to or contaminate organic foods. It is reasonable to assume most will want to decide whether they eat “real” meat or try printed meats, so labeling regulation will be important.
To further understand what possibilities lie ahead, Next Nature published the In Vitro Meat Cookbook14. Using the format of the cookbook as a storytelling medium, it is a visual exploration of the new “food cultures” lab-grown meat might create. The book approaches lab-grown meat not just from a design and engineering perspective, but also from a societal and ethical one. Think, for example, of meat paint, revived dodo wings, meat ice cream, cannibal snacks, steaks knitted like scarves and see-through sushi grown under perfectly controlled conditions.
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