Set the Table & Let’s Eat! Researchers Investigate Viability of 3D Printing in the Hospitality Industry  


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engineering_logo3Ding, ding, it’s time to eat–says your 3D printer of the future! How would you like your food, as well as the shape of your fork and bowl, prepared? It doesn’t matter how mechanically inclined and obsessed, scientific and intellectual—or the significant level of technogeek—the way to grabbing virtually everyone’s attention is through the stomach—and that’s no exception in the 3D printing industry, despite the monumental innovations being presented on every front, many of which of certainly more important that what’s on the dinner table. (Back to eating though!)

One really can’t help but perk up when the subject is delectable chocolate, hot pancakes–or one that always elicits great curiosity—futuristic space food. But what about that cool table setting too?

As the technology of 3D printing begins to seep in and offer massive positive transformation to so many areas of industry around the world, it’s obviously just a matter of time before it also begins streamlining the hospitality industry—an area definitely focused on speed, saving on the bottom line, and using the most efficient tools during food preparations—especially for large volumes.

mae_logoResearchers from both Cornell and Columbia University recently released a detailed study regarding 3D printing and the hospitality industry in their paper, ‘Demonstrations of Additive Manufacturing for the Hospitality Industry,’ authored by Lipton Jeffrey, Witzleben Jenna, Green Valerie, Ryan Craig, and Lipson Hod. Realizing not only the current popularity of 3D printing, but also its feasibility for real applications in food service, the team went so far as to create a completely 3D printed table service and dinner as a comprehensive demonstration. Their main focus was in fabricating the tableware for the meal through 3D printing, and addressing potential, as well as current limitations within the technology regarding process control and food safety. As they delved into the subject, the focus became how the hospitality industry can take advantage of this new market via technology, as well as overcoming the current obstacles.

In their paper, the team has a very clear view of 3D printing and its benefits in terms of cost analysis and realistic use, as well as when traditional processes are still the best route.

“In general, items are 3D printed because they need to be geometrically complex and/or produced in small numbers. Three-dimensional printing superiority in low-volume runs and complex geometry arises from its cost structure,” state the researchers in their paper. “The cost of producing an item using 3D printing is fixed with the quantity of the item; therefore, it costs roughly 100 times more to produce 100 identical items on a printer than to produce a single item on a printer. This is unlike mass production where the cost per item tends to decrease with the quantity of items produced.”

They point out realistically that often it’s just cheaper to machine a simple part rather than to use 3D printing just for the sake of it. Conversely, it’s often a better idea financially to 3D print the complex parts.

For their study, the university researchers produced two table settings, consisting of:

  • Placemats
  • Utensils
  • Plates
  • Bowls
  • Wineglasses
  • Food

To pull together such a meal and all that it included, the researchers had to employ more than one 3D printer and, of course, a variety of materials. Using a basic desktop printer, the wineglasses were easily produced and then coated with silicone to assure that they would be food safe and watertight. Items like the placemats however, required a $250,000 Objet Connex 500 Polyjet printer, with two materials, allowing for both rubbery and more rigid textures. The utensils were fabricated through metal 3D printing with stainless steel, which the team then had to finish by coating manually, and even sharpening themselves.

“The intricate designs would be difficult to produce using traditional processes,” stated the team. “The unique design was made for a germophobic audience, having food contacting surfaces not resting on the table.”

“The bowl was produced using a ceramic printing process and designed to adjust its angle with the plate based on the soup content. This caused the bowls to tip away from the user and enforced proper etiquette.”

The bowl was also quite an aesthetic feat otherwise, as it was made to look like a mask from the Carnival of Venice to match an Italian-themed dinner. This of course demonstrates the latitude of options allowed in 3D printing, as they could have their exact design fabricated and delivered for just $120.


[The placemat (a) was produced on a Polyjet 3D printing system out of ultraviolet-cured resin. The system was then made food safe using a coating of silicone. The fork (b), spoon, and knife (c) were produced from stainless steel and coated to be food safe. The intricate designs would be difficult to produce using traditional processes. The unique design was made for a germophobic audience, having food contacting surfaces not resting on the table. The bowl (d) was produced using a ceramic printing process and designed to adjust its angle with the plate based on the soup content (e). This caused the bowls to tip away from the user and enforced proper etiquette. The wine glass (f) was produced using a fused deposition modeling system and coated with silicone to be watertight and food safe. Images: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times/Redux.]

With this project, the researchers were able to see firsthand what the benefits of 3D printing are, as well as demonstrating them in their ‘dinner.’ They enjoyed all the facets of customization, which allowed them to get so detailed with the soup bowl, as well as ergonomics in the silverware, going so far as to tailor something like a fork to a user’s hand. The future implications for this idea are that eating implements could be easily designed for those with disabilities—making a big difference when it comes to dining.

“Three-dimensional printing of adaptive dining ware would allow patients to have utensils fitted specifically to their hand, allowing them the freedom to pick up and put down their silverware while still having it securely in their hand. Three-dimensional printing’s customizability would also permit the utensils to be angled to their wrist and for the handle to be weighted according to their specific needs,” state the researchers.

UntitledThe next benefit they established as being very relevant to food service is that of small markets and producing items on demand. The researchers looked into and cited evidence from the aircraft industry, which indeed uses additive manufacturing for a wide range of small parts. Translating this to hospitality, making small print runs of items like utensils would result in high value, and small sales volume.

“Our utensils are meant to be an example of this concept. The utensils had only the handle touch the surface they rested on. These are more sanitary than traditional utensils because the portion that went in the user’s mouth never touched the table. This is ideal for highly germophobic individuals. Such specialized utensils may only sell a few a month, if on the market, but could be sold at a premium because of their unique functionality,” state the researchers.

UntitledThird, the team saw great advantage in being able to use 3D printing for testing markets, harkening back to its uses in prototyping, making small batches, and being able to evaluate market responses. They point out that several hundred pieces can be printed, marketed, and tested—allowing for a company to dip their toes in the water before going full force with a particular product, and investing large sums.

As the team points out, there are also just times when 3D printing allows for processes that traditional methods do not—most importantly, in terms of complexity and intricate detail.

“If the items from the dinner were to be machined, the cost of production would be prohibitive,” stated the team. “Three-dimensional printing has made the items affordable for high-end restaurants.”

“Complexity can be useful in industrial equipment design since industrial equipment is often sold in small numbers, allowing 3D printing to be cost-effective.”

The issue of food safety has surrounded 3D printing as makers and users would like to see easier fabrication of cups, dinnerware, etc. The researchers realized that at this point, the best way to overcome that obstacle is to use coatings, as demonstrated in their project. They did note, however, that the coating would wear away with time, meaning it could only realistically be used in prototyping. Permanent coatings or materials would have to be continuous, obviously, and conform with FDA regulations.

“As more designers begin to make design tools, users will be able to generate their own custom food safe designs for fabrication,” concluded the team.

Food was evidently part of the final presentation, but their focus was almost completely on the tableware portion of the meal, and we are assuming none of the food for the purposes of this study was actually 3D printed. While this study shows what can be done with 3D printing in food service, obviously the number of machines and materials they had to use, as well as a coating only suitable for prototyping, shows that there is much more progress to be made before it can truly become a viable and affordable process in larger venues. The technology, as the team points out, will need to mature further before finding many true applications in food science.

“Much work needs to be done to develop certified machines and bureaus to support these potential markets. It will draw on regulatory agencies, mechanical engineers, chemists, and more to ensure that the right materials, process, and standards are in place,” stated the research team in finality.

Do you think the researchers showed the potential for additive manufacturing here? Discuss in the 3D Printed Dinner forum over at

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