The Potential of 3D Printing in the Food Industry

The Potential of 3D Printing in the Food Industry

By Jue Jin

During recent years, 3D printing has been under the spotlight. People are excited and intrigued about the idea that this technique can provide products with mass customization and infinite variety without requiring specialist skills. 3D printing is considered as a type of industrial robot, which represents various processes used to create a three-dimensional object and is operated by stacking successive layers of material under computer control to form any shape or geometry. Although this technique is still looking for an application in industry, it is suggested that it might be the killer application for future food preparation and production.

The potential of 3D printing in the food industry has been recognized from aspects like convenience, customization and cost savings. Convenience is one of the key factors for consumers living a fast pace to consider, when it comes to meal preparation. So 3D printing provides to a way to create fresh food by simply pushing a button. Customization might be the most promising benefit that 3D printing is going to offer to consumers. With the increased attention on health and wellness management, approaches that can personalize dietary choices are appealing to consumers. The 3D printed foods can be specifically tailored for each family member according to their preferences, food allergies and nutritional needs. Further, 3D printing is well fit into the window of food preparation for people with special diet requirements such as low sodium, carbs, sugar and fats. It is even possible for consumers to link 3D printers with fitness devices like Fitbit or the Apple watch, so that consumers can monitor their health as well as cook meals that are appropriate for their needs. For instance, the 3D machine can be instructed to stop printing the food when its total calories reach 500. 3D printing also has promising application in military foods, where mass customization is required. It offers the flexibility and variety to tailor the meals to meet the nutritional requirements for individual soldiers and is free from any assembly, food skills and further cost. Cost savings can be achieved for food companies by using 3D printing in a good manufacturing process (GMP) compliant building instead of giant manufacturing facilities occupied with multiple operating machines.

With all these benefits, some food companies have already joined the competition led by 3D printing technology. Mondelez International used a 3D printer to print customized Oreos with flavors like birthday cake, mint and lime in only two minutes. The gummer 3D printers at Magic Candy Factory created gummy candy weighing between 15 and 20 grams within five minutes using real fruit puree and vegetarian gels. Hershey’s also has collaborated with 3D Systems to develop 3D chocolate and sugar based confectionery. 3D printing is especially promising for making something new, which cannot be achieved with current conventional technology. For instance, Dr. Anshul Dubey, a senior manager in PepsiCo’s global snacks R&D division, suggested that 3D printing can be used for rapid prototyping to either optimize the design of a new product shape such as a wavy potato snack, or to quickly create machinery parts such as extruders to test new product concepts before the mass production of finished products.

Besides the application of 3D printing by food production companies, other companies are also trying to bring the 3D printer into consumers’ kitchens. The most encouraging advancement for 3D printing machines during past years is the cost reduction from tens of thousands to less than a thousand dollars. Foodini, which is manufactured by Natural Machines, will come to market the first quarter of 2016 and retail for $1,500. The company claims that this machine will use all types of fresh ingredients to print varieties of real, fresh and nutritional foods. So far, according to the company, they can print crackers in 20 seconds, ravioli in two minutes and a pizza in 5 minutes. In addition, Foodini is designed to connect to other devices like Fitbit, to print the food with desired calories, or to the internet to find specific recipes. 3D Systems also produces 3D printers called ChefJet, which is already available on the market. The machine comes with a digital cookbook and a variety of recipes, and is considered as a great tool for professional bakers, pastry chefs, as well as event planners. It is just like shrinking down a food manufacturing facility to the size of a box that can fit on the kitchen counter.

With all these progresses, there are still a number of challenges that the 3D printers need to overcome, such as speed of printing, texture and taste, cost, and sanitation issues. And more research needs to be conducted on how to handle different ingredients inside the printer and expand the categories of printer friendly materials. Besides, related regulatory and legal obstacles like how to establish the safety standards for the ingredients used in this new technology also need to be identified. Other questions include how would the FDA oversee the safety of the 3D printing process and how will adulteration be avoided in this process.

Identifying these challenges ahead during the 3D printing development process can help reduce the time to market and maximize future returns on investment. 3D printing gives consumers the power to create whatever they like, how and where they want it. It is very likely that in the next 10 to 15 years, 3D food printers will be in every kitchen just like a microwave today.


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