Can You 3D Print Food?

3D printing has been advancing at incredible speed throughout the latest years. As we try to define its boundaries, new groundbreaking applications expand the spectrum of possibilities. So, where does it go? We might be just at the mere beginning …

Alejandro Auerbach

September 28, 2021

3D printing has been advancing at incredible speed throughout the latest years. As we try to define its boundaries, new groundbreaking applications expand the spectrum of possibilities. So, where does it go? We might be just at the mere beginning of a decisive shift on how we make stuff. And, something we always have been making is food.

In a recent article, “Food-Safe 3D Printing: Are 3D Printed Products Food-Safe?” we examined safety considerations when printing food-contact items. Now, we’re going a little bit further: What about printing edibles? Is it possible? The answer is, definitely, yes! But, going beyond in detail, we’ll explore the following questions: What are the benefits? Is it actually worth it? Countless questions may arise, but first, let’s see how it works.

How Does It Work?

Just like non-edible 3D printing, various technologies can make it possible. The primary and most developed approach is undoubtedly through material extrusion, a process similar to FDM but with paste extrusion throughout a syringe-like head instead of filament extruders. There’re, surprisingly, a bunch load of commercially available food printers available in the market based on this technology, but it’s pretty remarkable to note that FDM printers can be modified to print food. Ceramic extrusion machines, like WASP 2040 and ZMorph, can be repurposed for food 3D printing by ensuring their components are food-safe.

Food powder-bed printing, like SLS and binder jetting, also has great potential in the industry, especially for making complex sugar confection structures with the benefit these technologies offer. Some notable examples are the CandyFab project (Which melts the sugar with a laser) and business services like Sugar Lab (A company owned by 3DSystems that uses water as a binding agent). Another noteworthy food printing technology is by leveraging inkjet technology, like this one, to apply digitally designed toppings.

For the remainder of this article, we’ll focus on the more established material extrusion approach by going deeper into its capabilities and uses.

Popular 3D food machines work similarly to FDM 3D printers

Design: Freedom Vs Constraints

Let’s get the obvious out of the way, 3D printing grants a whole lot of design freedom despite its intended use. Just like engineers, manufacturers or craftsmen, this technology allows chefs to create food presentations with geometries and textures that would otherwise be problematic by traditional means. However, to what extend? How does design rules apply here? We’re not entirely dealing with engineering standards, and end-uses can drastically change here; so, let’s flip the switch for a moment and see the issue gastronomically from two key perspectives: Consumables and post-processing.

Consumables

Food making is a particular 3D printing variant where rather than dealing with materials, we’re working with ingredients this time. So how do you make food pastes as predictable as plastic filaments? The key here is to find the matching points between parametric engineering and culinary art. When it comes to dealing with pastes, rheology becomes essential. Printing profiles or, more fittingly, printing recipes must predict how the paste will behave in density and viscosity. Mostly, pastes must follow these rules:

  • Thickness: If the paste is too runny, it could cause leaks and weak structures; layers should maintain their structure at least throughout the whole duration of the printing process. However, too thick of a paste would generate flow issues within the extruder.

  • Smoothness: Solid particles, lumps, or bubbles can make your paste flow unpredictable and even clog the nozzle.

Some pastes require a heated print bed in order to control flow properties. The most representative example of this I can think of is chocolate 3D printing. Since chocolate has properties similar to thermoplastics, many companies like Choc Edge and Hershey’s (In collaboration with 3D Systems) have dedicated systems for chocolate printing.

Lastly, multi-material printing becomes more of a necessity in food 3D printing than traditional printing, a plate with variety is, of course, essential for gastronomers. For instance, Natural Machines’ Foodini, can carry up to five 100 ml capsules simultaneously. Again, every ingredient behaves differently; thus, software settings can increase complexity as you add ingredients. Thankfully design and slicing software like Choc Edge’s web-based services offer ideal interfaces for both beginners and advanced users.

Post and Pre Processing

As it generally happens with 3D printing, post-processing is essential for any endeavour. In this case, and thinking as a gastronomer, it would mainly translate to cooking your print. Most food 3D printers won’t tackle this directly. However, there’re some fascinating approaches like the PancakeBot, which directly prints pancakes over a griddle. Additionally, systems, like this prototype at Columbia University, that cooks via laser as it prints. Nonetheless, what I consider to be one of the most exciting post-processing concepts is the Edible Growth Project, which consists of printing fermentation-based ingredients like yeast, sprouts, and fungi that would enable the growth of new structures under certain conditions within days.

Now, perhaps being more critical than post-processing, we also have to consider pre-processing. In contrast to plastic filaments, you most certainly have to work on preparing the paste. So, how do you know you’re doing an appropriate mix with the right consistency. Through experimentation and by taking into account established design rules, it should work fine. However, recipe repositories are available online like this one made by Natural Machines to significantly facilitate the process. For those who want to skip the hassle of preparing mixes, other companies like Stampa3D offer pre-designed food cartridges, though it can become quite limiting and might not be the healthiest option.

Is Food 3D Printing Worth It?

Now, is food 3D printing really worth it? More than just a fancy tech novelty, does it potentially provide impactful solutions to authentic needs? Let’s see its benefits from key perspectives and applications.

Easy reproducibility: By automating the culinary process, you can share and upload digital recipes into your printer, given that you have compatible pastes and hardware. Ultimately, by leaving your machine with repeatable tasks, you can create dishes with less human error, reduce the need for labour, reinvest your energy on other tasks and reduce costs.

Lead times: The process is indeed slow. According to Choc Edge, a six-layer flat design can take 7 minutes to print, while more complex structures can take more than 45 minutes each. For businesseses like restaurants that require agility to deliver, this is a significant drawback and major increase in costs per dish; perhaps more development might be needed here.

Customisation: The reach of personalisation of a food 3D printer goes beyond just shapes and textures. More importantly, 3D printers are also precise dosifier machines. In practice, it has potential value when the aim is to control flavours, nutritional values and to reduce waste. With current increases in food, health and nutritional crises at alarming rates, 3D printing might contribute as part of the solution. For instance, the Nourished company prints customised gummies packed with all the nutritional value a specific person might need.

Applications

Finally, what better way to see the worth of food 3D printing than directly checking current innovations taking place around the world? We’ll take a look at some of the most representative concepts; however, possibilities remain endless.

Gourmet Businesses

I’m sure we’ve all witnessed to some degree how creative gourmet businesses can get. Chefs always strive to take a step further with their art, and by having a 3D printer involved in their processes, they got an attractive tool to explore their creativity. Wouldn’t it be a great spectacle going to gourmet events, weddings or caterings and topple yourself with a machine replicating fantastic confections you can eat afterwards? There’s great potential in business.

Now, can we take a step further and apply it to restaurant business models? Well, it’s entirely possible, and many entrepreneurs are increasingly incorporating 3D printing into their establishments. Perhaps the most famous instance is that of Food Ink, certainly a restaurant with quite an unorthodox approach. However, dining in these restaurants is known to be expensive, and the reason is the economics of scale. To make it profitable, you must quickly produce considerable amounts of food to reduce costs per dish. And, as we know, 3D printing is often a slow process.

3D Printing a Steak?

As we get increasingly aware of health and sustainability issues, it is no secret how problematic meat consumption is in this regard. The solution is straightforward: Stop eating meat, right? Well, who doesn’t like a nice slice of steak? After all, it is unrealistic to think enough people would simply cut meat out of their livelihood. Companies like NovaMeat and Modern Meadow have been developing 3D printing solutions for a while to replicate meat textures and flavours through in-vitro bio-printing. So far, NovaMeat has managed to print a detailed copy of a steak and its components (Muscle tissue, fat, blood).

Undoubtedly, the best part of these developments is that none of the source ingredients come from actual meat but from alternatives like cellular growth, vegetal sources, and insects. While insects might not sound very appetising at first (Especially for western cultures), it’s undeniable that they can be an excellent protein source and a more sustainable option than traditional livestock.

A well done Novameat 3D printed steak.

3D Printing Food in Space?

NASA, alongside partners like SMRC, has been developing 3D printing alternatives to traditional space foods. Why? Consider that space travelling comprises tight logistics and strict diets mainly consisting of packed pastes and bars. These practices can become a burden for astronauts and their livelihood, especially those going through extended missions. According to developers, 3D printing has the potential to deliver precise rations, thus reducing waste efficiently. Ultimately, these solutions can provide more appealing alternatives in space, making missions more bearable.  

The Future of Food 3D Printing

This is basically the current state of food 3D printing up to date, so we can surely expect further developments in the future. The aim for many companies is to bring 3D printers as commonplace at homes and restaurants; imagine buying a 3D printer as a kitchen appliance just as you would with a microwave oven. And taking it further into gastronomical circles, could this become a legit new form of culinary art? Recipes could become a matter of paste preparation and software programming. Perhaps we might see edibles based on vat photopolymerization in a near future? That would be great! Who knows?

SolidPrint is here to help you make the best choices. For more information, please call SolidPrint at 01926 333 777 or email info@solidprint3d.co.uk.

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