3D printed food has caught chefs’, journalists’ and the general public’s attention for a number of years now. There is however a lot of disinformation around the subject as well as confusion. To help clear that up a bit we’re going to be looking at overview post detailing the broad strokes possibilities in 3D printed food.
It is important to realize that when talking about 3D printing food, people are talking about very different things. If we take the time to categorize all the different types of current and possible future developments in 3D printed food then grosso modo we can divide them up such as this:
- Using existing 3D printers to print food items
- Using syringe extruders mounted on existing 3D printers to print food
- Developing new 3D printers
- Developing new 3D printing technologies
- Using inkjet or another technology to print food
- 3D printed molds for food
- 3D printing cells/material to generate structure for new foods
- Creating food through 3D printing by mixing ingredients and printing them
- Creating food through 3D printing nutrients
- Whole new “3D printed food” supply chains
Using existing 3D printers to print food items
A few years ago a surefire way to get yourself on the local news was to become the “local man invents 3D printed chocolate.” In this time period a lot of experimentation was done with trying to 3D printed food using regular desktop FDM (FFF) 3D printers. Desktop FDM machines work with filament and food filament didn’t really exist so this experimentation came to naught mostly. People have made coffee and other foods filled filaments but generally a food filament that works (on the printer and to feed you) has not been developed yet. Cellulose or starch type filaments and materials for inkjet printers would be possible so they may yet be developed.
Using syringe extruders mounted on existing 3D printers to print food
Because of this most 3D printed food projects and startups have been built around syringe extruders. Syringe or paste extruders were already possible on Fab@Home open source desktop 3D printers over a decade ago. With these paste/syringe extruders one can extrude a wide variety of materials including pastes such as peanut butter and chocolate. Generally these startups have not made their own machines from scratch but have concentrated on making paste extruders and simply adding them to existing 3D printers. By using already available FDM/FFF 3D printers as a motion stage food 3D printing companies have sped up their time to market and been able to launch products quicker than they would have without doing this. This is a notable trend that may continue in many other technology areas and would accelerate research and company behavior in 3D printing. This lets a company focus its efforts on the extruder, material or their ecosystem which could be better in the long run as well as faster.
Developing new 3D printers
As in the rest of the 3D printing industry few if any startups are really developing new machines. There may be 500 or more FDM/FFF 3D printing startups out there but the vast majority of their designs are straight slavish copies of or lean incredibly heavily on the Prusa, MakerBot and Ultimaker designs. “New” 3D printers still are coming to market that are essentially reworkings of the Ultimaker or i3 with a new case. If the licensing has been done properly then there is nothing wrong with that, save for the fact that it gives us the wrong impression about how our market is developing. Fundamental research and fundamentally better printers are only developed sparingly. The vast majority of our market consists of clones in drag. That means that few researchers and engineering people are working on solving fundamental technology problems. The nozzle is the core element of a 3D printer and we can see MakerBot, Ultimaker and E3D working on improving nozzles. Everyone else just copies them or buys nozzles from E3D. On the one hand this retards fundamental development in the key areas in 3D printing that are difficult such as nozzle development. On the other hand we don’t expect a new electric car startup to reinvent the battery.
Developing new 3D printing technologies
We haven’t so far (to my knowledge) really seen fundamentally new technologies in food 3D printing. Tinkering around technologies such as inkjet, FDM has been the norm. Evil Mad Scientists CandyFab project many years ago is still a rare example of someone at least coming up with a new material to print. They developed a sugar sintering method to make candy. Other technologies have re-appropriated or reused 3D printing technologies in new ways as well but no one has come up with something fundamentally new. This means that most players in food 3D printing are relying on using other people’s IP or are living on expired patents. Companies are forgoing the cash and time investment needed to develop something completely new but instead are approaching the market quite quickly.
Using inkjet or another technology to print food
A few startups have been using inkjet to make 3D printed food. Some of them simply 2D print food-safe materials using inkjet printers and then call it 3D printing. 2D printing inkjet for food has been done for a while and is not interesting. Inkjet itself however is a very powerful technology with many years and billions of dollars invested in it. Inkjet as a depositing technology can very accurately lay down many different materials in a coherent way. Inkjet itself could be the perfect technology for adding colors to food, adding nutrition, depositing binders for other materials or by adding a surface finish to FDM/FFF parts. Apart from the 2D pattern making startups it has not been looked at sufficiently at this point.
3D printed molds for food
This is something that I am wholeheartedly excited about and that is to do with the fact that it is totally possible and useful today. With your desktop FDM printer you could 3D print a pattern in PETG for example. You can then with silicone cast a new mold from that pattern. The resulting mold is food-safe and can be used to mold all manner of things. You could reliably make chocolate or make any kind of paste into a mold. A restaurant could easily do this themselves with the help of a 3D modeler and a modicum of interest in 3D printing. The cost per mold would be very low, $10 or so, depending on the materials and labor used. For this amount the restaurant could every day have new shapes of chocolates or any number of other concoctions. Much quicker per item than 3D printing, using silicone molding in food production is a tried and true safe process that is inexpensive and easy to do. Could someone please do me a huge favor and do a startup around this? I’m sure there is huge potential and it’s just silly to let Jeanne Kyttanen have this area all to himself once again. He’s a great guy, I totally love him, but come on he must be getting bored by now.
3D printing cells/material to generate structure for new foods
Modern Meadow and other startups are looking to create lab grown meat. Other companies are looking at lab grown nutrients in many different ways. By 3D printing fiber startups could add structure to lab meats and also print them to resemble many different meat items. I’m still a bit skeptical about lab grown meat because from a marketing perspective it’s all a bit icky. Would much prefer a new term be used (tech meat, New Protein?, whatever).
Besides 3D printing fibers analogous to what Markforged and Impossible Objects are doing for food one could also 3D print cells directly. Cell printing and bioprinting technologies could be repurposed for food printing in this way. This would let Modern Meadow and the coming many different types of lab grown protein get made into palatable parts for sale.
3D printing universal nutrient solutions
One could also see this approach bearing fruit together with a substance such as Soylent. Soylent is supposedly a completely nutritious solution for all of your eating needs. In and of itself it can be quite boring to eat the same thing all day every day. 3D printing in combination with materials such as Soylent could give them structure, color, texture and make them interesting. One approach would be to try to mimic traditional foods. It may be far easier to instead create wholly new food shapes and types to keep it interesting in a kind of new food design method.
Creating food through 3D printing by mixing ingredients and printing them
One could also envision a multi-head syringe extruder that combines different substances to create a wide array of foods. Several concepts such as this one have been suggested over the years. A multi-head system may be able to have many different inputs and would have a wider variety of foodstuff and finishes.
Creating food through 3D printing customized nutrients
We could of course 3D print the same food for everyone but the greatest value would be unlocked if unique nutrient/food combinations would be 3D printed for each of us. There are several startups that claim to offer mass customized nutrition unique to each person, sometimes in combination with a DNA test. Even though such a test makes it sound definitive much of the research and science sounds shady. The idea however is solid. Customized nutrition from Multiply labs and others is coming on the market but still has a ways to go before it actually delivers value to the user.
Whole new “3D printed food” supply chains
We waste a significant amount of our foods in transport to us. We also currently throw away 40% of the food we buy. A complete food supply chain end to end that close to the point of creating the nutrition (via vertical farming/aquaponics/etc.) would turn it into reusable packaging that could be shipped to the end customer would reduce food wastage significantly. This would also, if successful at scale which would be difficult, severely affect the world’s food supply chains. With billions of more mouths to feed many solutions have been found and continue to be developed in increasing yields. By being more mindful and frugal with the food that we do have food security may be much easier to achieve.
Food is of course a gigantic business and many entrepreneurs will be salivating over the possibility of doing a Nespresso-like play for food. The idea of cutting out the Cargill to Unilever to Wal Mart supply chain and directly selling foods that you’ve produced to consumers along with a lock in of some sort through a razorblades model would be very enticing. I’m sure that we will see much experimentation and investment in this area. The technical challenges in 3D printed food are surmountable, however there are two problems and these may not be. Firstly do people even want 3D printed food? Is this a platable idea? Frozen foods were alien to us but seem normal now so it would seem that a similar thing could be done for 3D printed food. But, is there value add for the end consumer in 3D printed food? And can this value be made apparent to this end consumer? Secondly, the Juicero. The Juicero was a monument to overengineering that just blew up in a lot of prominent investors’ faces. The $400 internet juicer was found to work as good as pressing the juice packs by hand. This clusterfuck may deter investments in hardware and specifically food printing. I would be of disservice to you if I do not lead you to Ben Eppstein’s teardown of the Juicero. There are huge lessons in engineering things to be learned there.