It’s 2015, and 3D printing, a technology long priced beyond many people’s reach, is quickly undergoing democratization. So much democratization that companies are trying to 3D print all kinds of new things, including food.
Think about the replicators on Star Trek and the many other machines that litter science fiction movies, which prep, cook, and serve meals on command. This could actually be our future. 3D food printing has the potential to revolutionize food production by boosting culinary creativity, food sustainability, and nutritional customizability, but technical and market barriers still face it in the years to come.
3D printing food ain’t easy
Most 3D printers work by slowly depositing layers of material, one on top of the other, until an object is constructed. The process is called “additive manufacturing,” and it uses deposition printers. Others bind layers together with adhesive — they’re called binding printers.
The 3D Systems ChefJet crystalizes thin layers of fine-grain sugar into virtually any geometric configuration, while Natural Foods’ Choc Edge dispenses chocolate from syringes in beautiful, melty patterns. The Foodini uses fresh ingredients loaded into stainless steel capsules to prepare a surprisingly wide array of dishes. Its latest model isn’t a soup-to-nuts solution — it only prints raw doughs, which then must be cooked as normal — but the printer can partially make pizza, filled pasta, quiche, and even brownies.
None of these machines will be next in line for the Bocuse d’Or chef championship, though. Emilio Sepulveda, co-founder of Foodini maker Natural Machines, has said publically that food synthesizers like those seen in Star Trek and The Fifth Element will take “many more years” of development.
The many obstacles ahead
But 3D food printing has many challenges to overcome, chief among them speed. Devices like the recently announced Carbon3D can fabricate a mind-boggling number of objects in minutes, but that level of advancement hasn’t trickled down to food printers yet. The most common designs require successive layers of ingredient to cool, leading to exceedingly long wait times for some foods.
Many food printers have chocolate, dough, and sugar nailed, but more complicated products like meat are tougher to master. “Printing in food materials is a lot more difficult from an engineering point of view than plastic of metals,” said Lipson. “They interact with each other in very complex ways.”
There’s also the issue of expectations. The Star Trek replicator comes to mind when many people think about food synthesizers, but such a device would hardly be practical — a simple vegetable, like a tomato, would likely require tens of millions of different ingredient cartridges alone. “It sounds simple to say ‘we’ll have a fat cartridge,’ but there are hundreds of kinds of fats,” van Brommel explained.
And how does the culinary world at large feel about 3D food printers? I’ll let Tony Tantillo, food expert and contributor to CBS in New York, expresses a sentiment felt by many: “Those two things shouldn’t be together. ‘Printed food’ for a magazine, yes. But to eat? Nah, nah.” Vacarro thinks they might have a place… in cheap in-and-out joints. “If I think about what’s happening in fast food, there might be something there where some fast foods are printed instead of handmade,” he said.
But perhaps like any new technology, 3D food printers just take some getting used to. “When people first heard about microwaves they didn’t understand the technology,” Lynette Kucsama, Chief Marketing Officer at Natural Machines told Fortune. “Now 90 percent of households have microwaves.”
3D food printers may not produce great-tasting food right now, or be able to cook meals from scratch. Or have the wholehearted endorsement of the epicurean elite. But they’re getting better every year, and what they promise — sustainable, nutritional perfection — is worth the pursuit.
Source: 3D Printing