A couple weeks back, I was shocked when I learned of the rapid advancement and application of additive printing. To my surprise, it had already developed the ability to combine various materials and manufacture complex products in one run. Take a pair of sunglasses for example—without the need to mold and assemble separate pieces, 3D printers can now make the earpieces soft and flexible, while making the rims holding the lenses hard and durable. The technology’s cost-efficiency and ability to produce highly customizable, quality products have already begun to change the eye-wear industry. And as the capabilities of additive printers continue to evolve, there is no doubt that it will disrupt an infinite number of other industries too.
What about the food & restaurant industry?
3D food printing is real and it’s here. The Foodini is one of the most advanced 3D food printers in the market that can use “fresh ingredients load into stainless steel capsules” to make candy, brownies, pizza, spaghetti and so much more. Commercial kitchens and even Michelin star restaurants (like Miramir in Spain) have already begun to use them for two primary reasons. First, it allows for an infinite number of possibilities for food design and shapes—the machine can achieve a level of detail and sophistication unmatchable by the human hand. Especially in high-end restaurants, where presentation is highly valued, restaurants can impress the diners by providing chefs with the tools to bring their wildest and most creative food ideas into fruition.
Second, it saves time, and lots of it. Yes, the most talented of chefs can make delicate deserts by hand, but it requires a significant amount of time. With the 3D printer creating perfect circles and printing layers as thin as half a millimeter, the chefs can focus on other tasks—like making sure the steak is cooked to a perfect medium rare.
While I expect the impact of additive printing on commercial kitchens to grow exponentially, I personally find the implications for retail use at home even more fascinating. Foodini is currently being rolled out exclusively to professional kitchens, but will be targeting home users as well. In an era where fewer and fewer people are willing to cook at home or spend a substantial amount of time sitting down for a meal, this could have a huge market potential. In the US and around the world, the quick service restaurant industry has prospered precisely because it has catered to this shifting trend in the customers’ eating habits and their inclination towards fast, convenient food. Well, 3D food printers will make preparing and eating food even more convenient.
Let’s explore how Foodini makes pizza for instance. Foodini is android-powered, and users can choose recipes from the company’s community site, accessible on a smartphone or tablet with Wi-Fi. Once pizza has been selected, users may choose any shape of pizza from the library, or customize and create their own. The printer’s cartridges are filled with the necessary ingredients, and the nozzle begins to layer liquid dough, tomato sauce, melted cheese, and toppings in chronological order. This process takes a total of 5 minutes. The pizza does still need to be tossed in the oven, but there will undoubtedly come a day when the printer can also heat and cook food in one run.
Some may be skeptical of eating food created from a printer at first, and rightfully so. The reason the growth of fast-casual restaurants like Shake Shack, Panera, and Chipotle has been dominating that of the traditional fast food chains like McDonalds in recent years is the public’s increasing concern of health issues. But the 3D food printers are in line with this healthy trend—in fact, some experts believe they would improve the nutritional value of meals. Hod Lipson, a professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia, told The New York Times that “food printing could allow consumers to print food with customized nutritional content, optimized based on biometric and genomic data.”
At first, I would expect it will take some time for people to adjust to the idea of eating a food out of a printer. But just like the microwave, I think it has the potential to become a must-have appliance in every household’s kitchen, once the retail price reaches a reasonable level.
What are other uses for 3D food printing?
- Safe and appealing food for those with ailments or allergies – In Germany, retirement homes have invested in printers that can puree vegetables like broccoli into soft molds of their original shape, making it not only easy-to-chew, but also physically appealing to the elders who are tired of liquid food. Meanwhile, a 3D printing company in Italy (WASP) is testing a printer that can produce gluten free foods to serve those with food allergies.
- Cost savings for grocery stores – replacing perishable whole ingredients with “food cartridges” for printers that can last for years can save grocery stores shelf space, transportation, and storage costs. At the same time, we may see a sharp decline in frozen, microwaveable foods.
- Space meals will become a whole lot more interesting – American start-up BeeHex is set to launch its 3D Chef Robot, which will allow NASA astronauts to have food in space that not only tastes good, but also looks just like a meal cooked on Earth (rather than freeze-dried pre-packaged meals).
3D food printing still is in its premature stages. It’s too slow for mass production, it’s expensive, and the range of food textures it can produce are still limited. But it has a tremendous potential—it will change the way professional kitchens prepare their food, and it can even challenge the very existence of instant home-made foods. There may come a day not so far from today, when America’s beloved microwaveable Easy Mac goes extinct.
Click here to admire some of the beautiful 3D printed foods of today.