3D Printers for Food: Technology and Applications
The 3D printer is an exciting device that creates three dimensional objects. The printer builds an object by depositing a printing medium in layers. Instead of using ink as a medium, many consumer level 3D printers use melted plastic that solidifies almost immediately after it's released from the printing nozzle. Other printing media are available, however, including a new one—powdered or liquid food material. Sugar, liquid chocolate and puréed food have all been used to create new food items with interesting and complex shapes and designs. In some cases, using a 3D printer to produce an item made of food is easier than producing the item by hand.
3D food printers may have additional benefits in the near future. NASA has partnered with a Texas company to create a more capable type of printer. The printer will be able to combine powdered material with a liquid to make a wide variety of foods. NASA's goal is to increase the nutrition, stability and safety of food given to astronauts while they're in space. This will be especially important during deep space missions. It's been suggested that the new 3D food printer might also be able to reduce world hunger. Another type of 3D food printer has been used experimentally to produce meat.
How Does a 3D Printer Work?
The manufacture of an item by a 3D printer starts with the creation of an object, or model, in a 3D art or CAD (computer-aided design) program. Many free models are available on websites and can be downloaded. This enables people who don't want to create their own models to participate in the fun of 3D printing.
The computer code that produces the image of the 3D model must be saved as an STL file. The STL code must then be converted into G code - a "language" that the 3D printer understands. Free, open source programs that can generate G code from STL files are available. Some CAD programs can also create G code.
A computer sends the G code to the printer through a USB cable. In some cases a computer isn't needed, however. Some printers have a card reader that can read the G code from an SD card.
Plastic filament is the most common printing medium for hobbyists. The filament is fed into the extruder of a printer, which heats and melts the plastic. The liquid plastic is then released through a tiny opening in the extruder head to make the object. The plastic solidifies very rapidly after it's released from the extruder.
The G code controls the movement of the extruder head as the plastic is being released. It "tells" the printer to move the extruder head in three axes as the object is being printed—left to right (X axis), front to back (Z axis) and up and down (Y axis). Since the plastic is laid down in layers, the printing process is often known as "additive manufacturing".
Potential Advantages of Making Food with a 3D Printer
A 3D food printer works in the same general way as a regular 3D printer. However, the printing medium is a food material instead of melted plastic.
It might sound strange and even silly to use a printer to make foods in different shapes when some of these foods can be quickly and easily made by hand. This is especially true when we consider the restricted abilities of the current food printers and the long time needed to print some types of food.
There are potential advantages to producing food in a printer, however. These advantages should become more important as printing technology improves and the speed of printing increases. Some possible benefits of food printers are described below.
Personalized, Precise and Reproducible Nutrition
Since 3D printers follow digital instructions as they print, they may one day be able to make food containing the correct percentage of nutrients required for a particular gender, life stage, lifestyle, or medical condition. The quantity of different vitamins and minerals and the amount of protein, carbohydrate, or omega-3 fatty acids could be controlled, for example.
Unusual and Nutritious Food Composition
Some people who are interested in 3D printed food say that unusual plant or animal material could be ground up and added to the printing powder and cite this as an advantage of the food. For example, insects are rich in protein but aren't liked as food in many cultures. If they are ground into a powder and mixed with other ingredients they may be more acceptable. Some algae are also nutritious and could be added to the mix. Since nutritious powders could also be added to conventionally made foods, however, I don't see this as an advantage of 3D printing compared to regular food production.
Interesting Food Designs, Decorations and Textures
Since the appearance of a 3D printed food depends on the model that was created to instruct the printer, a large variety of shapes, textures and decorations can be produced. Printed foods may resemble those of traditional foods, such as a pizza, or they may have an unusual or even unique appearance. Assuming the 3D models have already been created, foods with intricate designs or decorations may be created more easily by a printer than by hand.
Easy Food Preparation
3D printing may become an easier way to prepare processed foods than traditional methods. This remains to be seen, however. If "print cartridges" (ingredient containers) have to be frequently refilled, or if the ingredient containers and printer parts have to be frequently cleaned by hand, 3D food printing could be time consuming. If the ingredients need to be prepared before using them or if the food needs to be cooked after removing it from the printer, this will also detract from the printer's advantages.
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3D Printed Food Today
As 3D printers within the price range of consumers and small businesses are becoming available, creative people are finding new types of printing media and are making new kinds of products. Some of these products are chocolates, candies and decorations made of sugar, and items made from puréed food. Specialized printers are available for these tasks, although at the moment sone are prototypes used by a limited number of people instead of being generally available.
3D Printed Desserts
Printers for chocolates exist, but they are expensive. They seem to be aimed at professional confectioners and cake decorators who want to create designs in chocolate. This made the announcement of a consumer-level printer from Australia significant. The ChocaByte was on display at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show in 2014. The printers in the initial run of 500 units cost US$99. The cartridges of chocolate medium were priced at $10 for four cartridges.
The ChocaByte was a small device that printed one chocolate at a time. The chocolate medium had to be heated in the microwave or hot water to change it into the consistency required by the printer. A chocolate took "less than ten minutes" to print, according to the company that made the printer. The company and their printer seem to have disappeared, however. The printer's Facebook page currently still exists, but it hasn't been updated since 2014. Interestingly, though, the chocabyte.com URL redirects to chocabytes.com, which announces that 3D printed chocolate is "coming soon".
Printing Sugar Candies, Cake Decorations and Centerpieces
To make sugar candies or decorations, a thin layer of powdered sugar crystals is spread on the build platform of a printer. Water, food colors and flavors are then sprayed on the sugar, moistening it and turning into a solid, continuous layer. The process is repeated as an object is built.
The ChefJet and ChefJet Pro are printers that produce both sugar and chocolate items. The printers are aimed at people who want to create cake decorations and centerpieces, including bakers and chefs. Both printers can produce decorative items with complex shapes.
As its name suggests, the ChefJet Pro is aimed at professional bakers. It has a larger build platform than the ChefJet and has a projected cost of about US$10,000. The ChefJet has a smaller build platform and a projected cost of about US$5000. Unlike the ChefJet Pro, it can't create colored sugar sculptures. Both printers are certified as food grade products.
These printers sound more interesting than the chocobyte for professionals in the food industry. Once again, however, there are problems. A staff problem and an investor upset have caused the project to stall. Functional prototypes of the printers exist, but it's unknown whether commercial versions will become available.
Foodini, by Natural Machines
Printing Items From Pureed Food
The Foodini is a printer that uses puréed food or other thick liquids as a medium and turns them into shapes that may be time consuming to create by hand. Depending on the composition of the purée, the printed food could be very nutritious. However, the fact that a food has to be puréed at home before being used in the printer might be considered a disadvantage by some people.
The Foodini will have five capsules for different liquids. Examples of possible liquids include puréed vegetables, fillings made from well ground meats, tomato and cheese sauces and liquid doughs. The printer will be programmed to use the liquids in the order required to assemble a food item.
A prototype Foodini has been used to create foods such as ravioli, pizza, burgers and cookies. The printer doesn't cook the food, however. According to an article in the Smithsonian magazine, the food capsules will be dishwasher safe.
The company creating the printer says that pre-filled food capsules may eventually be available, which would be a great time-saver. They say that their goal is for the pre-filled capsules to contain nutritious food material, just as whole foods puréed at home do.
The printer is currently in a prototype form. Funds for the printer's production are bring raised in a Kickstarter campaign. The final version of the Foodini will cost around US$1300. The company that makes the printer says that a version is being used by "select early-access customers". As of early 2017, the printer is not yet generally available.
Making a Pizza for Astronauts with a 3D Printer
The NASA 3D Printed Food Project
At the moment, the food available for astronauts isn't suitable for the multi-year, deep space missions that NASA hopes to carry out in the future. For example, the present food preservation system used in space vessels is inadequate for a trip to Mars.
Keeping food frozen or refrigerated in a spacecraft would use valuable resources. Therefore NASA currently provides astronauts with individually packaged and preserved meals that are shelf stable. Nutrients are destroyed in the preservation process, however. In addition, the meals aren't personalized for an astronaut's individual needs. Another problem with the present foods is that they don't provide enough variety and interest for a long voyage.
NASA has awarded a $125,000 grant to Systems and Materials Research Corporation (SMRC) to enable them to build a prototype 3D food printer. Anjan Contractor, an engineer at SMRC, says that in the system that they are creating, the proteins, carbohydrates, macronutrients and micronutrients would be stored on the spacecraft in a powdered form. He says that these ingredients will remain stable for thirty years as long as no moisture is present. Nutrients in the powder could come from a wide variety of sources, including non-traditional foods like insects and algae.
During the space voyage, the dry nutrients would be mixed with flavoring agents and water or oil to create a printing medium. The printer would deposit the resulting paste on a heated bed, which would cook the food. The production of drinkable water and the preservation of the oil needed for the printing medium are two additional factors that need to be considered when planning a long space voyage.
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Printing Synthetic Food
Although it may have only minor value in the present, 3D printed food could become significant in the future. In today's world people may appreciate the need for synthetic, 3D printed food on a long space flight but see no value for it on Earth. Anjan Contractor suggests that the food created for astronauts could also be used to alleviate hunger or to supply the military with food, however. The dried ingredients could be shipped for long distances and stored for a long time.
Some people predict that synthetic food may be necessary in the future as the Earth runs out of sufficient food resources to support the increasing world population. This is a frightening thought, but it may one day become a reality. Anjan Contractor feels that we need to change what we consider to be "food" in order to feed humanity.
Another specialized 3D food printer in prototype form is the bioprinter. Bioprinters print living cells, but not all of them are used to make food. One company—Modern Meadow—is using a bioprinter to create real, 3D printed meat without killing animals. This is possible due to the existence of stem cells in animals. Stem cells also exist in humans.
A stem cell is unspecialized. When it's stimulated in the right way, it can produce one or more specialized cell types. Certain stem cells from a cow can be stimulated to produce muscle cells. Meat is made of muscle cells.
The production of printed meat starts by obtaining the required stem cells from a cow via a biopsy. The stem cells can multiply in a lab, so continually extracting cells from a living cow isn't necessary. In order to make the meat, the stem cells are allowed to produce other types of cells in laboratory equipment. The cell mixture, or "bioink", is then deposited on a special surface by a 3D printer. Multiple cell layers are laid down by the printer. The cells fuse, forming muscle, or meat.
The procedure involved in creating printed meat is far more complicated than other types of 3D food printing. The printer is dealing with delicate, living cells, which must be kept alive. Although this technology is still in the experimental stage and is not likely to become widespread for some time, it may become very important in the future.
Food Ink is a company that creates restaurants in which everything—furniture, utensils, and food—is created by 3D printers.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Current 3D Food Printers
Nutritionists say that eating whole, nutrient rich and unprocessed or minimally processed food is the healthiest diet for us. With this in mind, it's hard for me to see the point of consumer level food printers that use less than healthy printing media, except on special occasions. In addition, some printers may be time consuming to use, which could negate the benefits of owning a 3D printer.
Since new 3D food printers are appearing, however, new benefits of the printers may soon be revealed. In addition, the advantages or disadvantages of devices such as the ChocaByte, ChefJet and Foodini can't be assessed properly, since they aren't available to the general public yet and may be modified before they're sold commercially.
At the moment it seems to me that these are the main benefits of present and soon to be released 3D food printers.
- New technology often builds on old technology. Understanding how the present printers work and discovering their advantages and disadvantages may help people create more useful food printers in the future.
- Creating interesting shapes with puréed vegetables mixed with other foods may encourage children to eat green vegetables. These are loaded with important nutrients but are often unattractive to young taste palates.
- Letting children choose or create their own 3D models may be an effective strategy to encourage them to eat nutritious foods.
- Businesses may be able to create uniquely designed foods that appeal to the public and individuals may be able to create interesting food gifts.
- Creating new food shapes is a way for people to be creative and have fun.
It will be interesting to see if people feel that the advantages of the latest food printers outweigh any disadvantages. It will also be interesting to see how the technology improves over time. As of the first quarter in 2017, there seem to be quite a lot of prototype printers that produce food but not many final versions. 3D food printing may remain a novelty or it may become a mainstream way of preparing at least some types of food. Time will tell.
Food Printer Examples
© 2014 Linda Crampton