The State of Food 3D Printing, Part 1: Beginnings

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When 3D Systems showcased the ChefJet at International CES 2014, the concept of food 3D printing left audiences with a mixture of awe and confusion. Upon its acquisition of Sugar Lab, 3D Systems began showing off massive and ornate, full-color cake toppers 3D printed using binder jet technology. They were beautiful and seemed impossible to make, but what purpose might food 3D printing serve in the grand scheme of things?

We soon learned that, in the case of 3D Systems, the ChefJet was not going to make it to market anytime soon. For that matter, a number of food 3D printing initiatives didn’t seem to be making a significant impact, despite demonstrating otherwise exciting processes. Has the technology died out? What is the purpose of food printing and is it anywhere near reaching that goal? In this series, we hope to answer these questions. But, first, let’s start with a brief history of the technology.

Though it’s often hard to pinpoint an exact inventor of a given broad technological concept, we can roughly associate the invention of food 3D printing with the Creative Machines Lab of Hod Lipson. It has since moved to Columbia University, but, while at Cornell, the lab developed one of the first two open source 3D printers in 2005. Like the RepRap project, the lab’s [email protected] system was meant to allow anyone to build a 3D printer at home.

Early on, the lab began experimenting with 3D printing food. Teaming up with partners like the French Culinary Institute, the researchers 3D printed cookies with letters baked inside, scallops shaped like rocket ships, chocolate, frosting, cheese, turkey paste, and more. The process was a simple one: extrude food paste out of a syringe-like printhead using a gantry system similar to fused deposition modeling (FDM) 3D printers.

The [email protected] 3D printer.

While chocolate can be eaten right off of the build plate, some foods require “post-processing”, i.e., cooking in an oven or on the stovetop. The lab has developed some interesting methods for cooking food, which we will cover in part three of this series.

Beyond the fun and novelty of the idea, food printing was billed as opening up the possibility of delivering personalized eating options, including custom shapes, flavors, and ingredients. If two people ordered an algae “steak” from the Star Trek replicator, one could have it taste like veal, look like Mickey Mouse and made up of significantly more insect protein and the other could have it look and taste like a New York strip, with just the right amount of insect protein. The exact nutrients could even be tailored to the day-to-day physiology of each eater to account for any daily deficiencies.

Other benefits suggested to be offered by food 3D printing include: the ability to prepare fresh food on-demand, decentralized production of fresh food, and a unique social experience, such as the ability to share 3D printable recipes on social media.

Since the Creative Machines Lab pioneered the idea, the concept of food printing grew. Among the earliest initiatives were chocolate 3D printing from a U.K.-based company called Choc Edge. The technology was created through research at the University of Exeter that debuted publicly in 2011 before Choc Edge was spun out in 2012, releasing its first commercial chocolate 3D printer the same year.

Another early project was a pizza 3D printer developed by Anjun Contractor. The technology was brought about by a $125,000 NASA grant meant to enable food printing in space. The original prototype was able to print using shelf-stable powdered food and oils, suggesting that it might be possible to print food with a minimal amount of waste. The system printed dough onto a heated build plate, baking the bread in-situ. The next layer is printed using a tomato base made from a tomato powder mixed with water and oil.

In addition to these fused deposition modeling-style approaches, laser sintering has been used to melt sugar and binder jetting has produced prints made from sugar and powdered chocolate. One of the first pioneers of binder jetting sugar was Julian Sing, who had modified a Zcorp printer, meant for 3D printing full-color gypsum models, to print with his own sugar formulation. Sing continues to perform sugar printing services.

A sugar cake topper 3D printed using the ChefJet Pro. Image courtesy of 3D Systems.

Similarly, an enterprising Los Angeles couple took the same approach as Sing and developed Sugar Lab, subsequently purchased by 3D Systems. The 3D printing company planned to sell the technology in the form of the ChefJet, a printer capable of printing large, full-color objects in a variety of flavors. However, during that time, 3D Systems ran into managerial and financial issues that prevented the ChefJet and a number of other systems from being released.

From 2005 until now, a variety of companies, researchers and artists sprung up to pitch food printing to the masses, including several that we will discuss in the part two of our series. Designer Chloé Rutzerveld worked with Dutch research group TNO to 3D print biscuits from a combination of dried fruits, vegetables, nuts or algae. Filled with yeast, bacteria, fungi, seeds and sprouts, the biscuits were designed which grow and flavor the biscuits over time.

The Edible Growth project by Chloé Rutzerveld. Image courtesy of Rutzerveld.

Some companies seem to have disappeared from the market. These include: the Pancakebot, XYZprinting’s food printer, and 3D Systems’ chocolate printer, created in partnership with Hershey. Their absence perhaps demonstrates that either the world wasn’t ready for food printing or food printing wasn’t ready for the world.

While we may not all have a food 3D printer in our kitchens and may not have even seen one up close and personal, the technology has not vanished. If food printing were a tray of chocolate chip cookies, it would have just been placed in the oven at 325 about a minute or two ago. We’re still waiting for it to rise.

In part two of our series, we’ll be looking at the food printers available on the market and, yes, there are food 3D printers you can actually buy.

Join the discussion of this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com.

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