Tuesday, February 3, 2015

3D Printing Good Enough to Eat

By Michael Valenti 
Senior Consultant 
Technical Insights Division, Frost & Sullivan

3D printing offers a palette of advantages that designers, engineers, and manufacturers have been able to leverage in the past several years. Also known as additive manufacturing for these processes that add layers of material, made of either melted plastic resin filament or powder, or more recently, powdered metal sintered into layers by laser beam, 3D printing uses the optimum amount of material to fashion single or even multi-material parts or objects from computerized designs.

The speed in making complex parts has made 3D printing valuable for rapid prototyping that speeds design cycles and ultimately time-to-market of new components. The technique is also moving into the production of small, precise, value-added parts, such as aerospace fasteners. Because each part can be customized by loading a fresh computerized design, 3D printing is also being used to craft dental and bone implants tailored to the bodies of individual patients.

These characteristics are bringing 3D printing into another emerging application: the food industry. Some of the benefits in this novel application reflect those in industrial part manufacture, i.e., optimal use of valuable materials, such as chocolate. The quick translation of computer designs into finished food products will also speed up production

Additional benefits that 3D printing will offer specifically to amateur and professional chefs as well as food processors include creating visually pleasing foods, speeding their production, using valuable materials more efficiently, and providing more nutritious meals for an aging population.

3D printers for foodstuffs most closely resemble inkjet printing in their technique. They hold containers of pre-selected soft ingredients, including chocolate, frosting, food pastes, and/or liquefied food. Using a computer design, the printer will emit the selected material through nozzles in layers to build up the finished design.

In some cases, these nozzles are heated in order to impart greater flow rates for thicker materials. Some of these edible printing materials can incorporate an adhesive agent, for example, gelatin, to make the finished product sufficiently firm to the consumer.

Thus far, 3D printing food stuffs appears to be following the classic boutique application of emerging technologies where price is less of an object before reaching the economies of scale for widespread use. This is illustrated by the first commercially available printers working in chocolate, which can go for $120 per pound in the case of Godiva's G premium chocolate, which is not the most expensive in the world.

Chief among this is Choc Edge of the UK whose Choc Creator 3D printer combines a heated nozzle and syringe to build layers of chocolate into artistic forms, ranging from snowflakes to human profiles. The Choc Creator can be purchased for £3,888 or $6,082.50. While this will likely restrict its use to higher end chocolate shops, its ability to make custom shapes, such as a calligraphic script saying Daniel Loves Brooke for Valentine's Day, would be a key differentiator for the store customers would pay for.

A sign of how seriously the industrial 3D printer makers takes the idea of entering the food market is 3D Systems, a pioneer and leading printer maker, signing a joint development agreement for several years with The Hershey Company, the largest chocolate producer in North America. 3D Systems has also developed its ChefJet three-dimensional food printer, which makes striking, multi-colored, lace-like confections out of sugar, but has delayed its commercial release as of this writing.

While Choc Edge and 3D Systems are trading on the aesthetic appeal of printed foods, the Nederlandse Organisatie voor Toegepast Natuurwetenschappelijk Onderzoek, or Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research that is better known as TNO, hopes to use 3D printing to manufacture more nutritious meals. The nonprofit applied science company  is developing 3D printers that will enable operator/chef (cheferators?) to print meals to suit individual dietary requirements and preferences. The Dutch scientists are exploring using novel ingredients such as proteins derived from algae, beet leaves, and even insects, as well as more prosaic fare.

TNO effort is not quixotic; the organization has partnered with Barilla, the number one pasta maker in Italy to 3D print next generation macaroni, and with food designer Chloé Rutzerveld to 3D print biscuits from ingredients such as dried fruits, nuts and vegetables, that are filled with fungi, seeds, sprouts, and yeast.

Bremerhaven, Germany based BioZoon Food Innovations was founded in 2001 and is scheduled to launch its 3D food printers this year. Their printer will be equipped with a  48-nozzle printing head designed to emit liquefied food materials that BioZoon mixes with a gelatin agent for adhesion. The resulting softer foods will be easier for senior citizen residents of assisted living facilities - the company's target market - suffering from dysphagia to swallow. The problem is widespread in nursing homes where  health authorities estimate this problem 60% of residents are afflicted with dysphagia. 3D food printing is a global concept, with XYZ Printing of Taiwan developing two small food printers to convert food pasts into cookies, small pizzas, and other snacks.

As was the case with the rapid prototyping that ushered in 3D printing for aerospace, biomedical, and other manufacturing applications, the initial food printing applications will give printer designs needed field experience on material flow rates, nozzle maintenance, setting times, ingredient resident times in the printer. This data, plus economies of scale, would make more efficient and lower cost "counter top" 3D printers, similar to the desktop 3D printers used by hobbyists, and turn tuna casserole into a masterpiece. 

3D Ventures 

Niche applications could be the thin edge of a wedge to open opportunities for 3D printing of foods 
  • Following the progress of 3D printing in industry, starting with rapid prototyping through the manufacture of finished medical implants, aerospace and automotive parts, this additive manufacturing technology may start small, collect needed field experience, and improve to where it can be more widely used. 
  • This is borne out by the first commercial 3D food printers working in chocolate, where consumers can be found who will pay $120 per pound of the Godiva G chocolate, not the most expensive in the world. 
As in rapid prototyping, these initial applications will provide valuable field experience on material flow rates, nozzle maintenance, setting times, ingredient resident times in the printer, and the like that will be used to make more efficient and lower cost 3D printers.

The first 3D printers for food applications are making their commercial debut in high end boutique applications, i.e., chocolate candy. After establishing boutique niches, 3D printing will move into wider commercial applications such as cake frosting. 

Using 3D printing, food manufacturers would use their materials more efficiently, reducing waste.

By making more artistic food shapes, 3D printing supports the increasing sophistication of the consuming public that wishes to spice up their eating experience. 3D printing will enable the additive manufacturing of softer, more easily digested meals for senior citizens suffering from dysphagia.
  • United States has been the major developer and adopter of 3D printing by private sector and government clients. Leading stakeholder 3D Systems, is entering the food printing sector, however, it is important to note that the release of its ChefJet food three-dimensional printer has been delayed. The US Army is pursuing the 3D printing of ready to eat meals, and its Capable of printing striking objects of sugar in full color, there may be technical hitches yet to be worked out. 
  • In Germany, the health benefits of 3D printing appear to be the main focus. Biozoon Food Innovations GmbH will be launching its 3D printer for the printing of softer meals made of Natural ingredients that can be digested more easily by elderly persons suffering from dysphagia. Health and Wellness could trump artistic appeal for 3D printing. 

UK is a major adopter of 3D printing technologies in industry and leads other countries by making the first commercially available food printer, the Choc Creator. This machine follows the trend of emerging technologies to fill a niche application – premium chocolate objects, before entering more widely commercial applications.
  • The Netherlands leading national research organization TNO has partnered with major pasta and biscuit makers to research 3D printing of products from healthier ingredient


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