Feature image: Food created on the Focus 3D Printer – image courtesy byFlow
3D printed food is a unique approach to food preparation that is still in the early stages of mass adoption.
Some of the reasons that 3D printing food has not taken off as fast as 3D printing polymer filaments are printer cost and material properties of the printing media – namely food.
Most consumer 3D food printers are still on the higher end of the price range. There are, however, 3D pancake printers that lay down a layer of batter in custom patterns that are within some family budgets.
With conventional fused deposition modeling 3D printing, the polymer filament material enters the printer’s extruder mechanism as a solid and transformed into a semi-liquid before being laid down in the predetermined pattern where it quickly solidifies. The ability of polymers to be readily melted and re-solidified makes them perfect for consumer fused deposition 3D printing.
Food, on the other hand, is not nearly as easy to print into intricate 3-dimensional shapes. As we know, most food cannot be readily melted and resolidified so it needs to be in a semi-liquid form before being introduced into the printer mechanism.
The other issue is that most printed food has to be cooked before it can be eaten. You cannot just pull the printed food object off the print surface and pop it in your mouth. You have to either remove the printed object (or the entire print surface) and place it in the oven or somehow cook the printed item within the build chamber.
As with many industries that started out slow, there are visionaries out there who are not letting the challenges of printing 3-dimensional food creations stop them.
In this post, I highlight a few of the visionary companies in this burgeoning aspect of the 3D printing revolution.
3D Food Printers – Different Approaches to Common Challenges
There are a number of manufacturers offering 3D food printers. In this section I highlight printers from three such companies.
The Foodini 3D food printer from Natural Machines in Barcelona, Spain retails for $4000, has a 2 year warranty and uses a multi-canister system to extrude food product onto a 10″ diameter rotating printing surface.
Natural Machines was founded by Emilio Sepulveda and Lynette Kucsma in 2012 with a vision of marrying technology and food to enable people to take control of the food they put in their bodies with a creative flare.
The Foodini weighs around 45 pounds and at 16.9″ high x 16.9″ deep x 18″ wide is the size of a countertop microwave oven. With a print volume of 4.3″ high x 10.1″ in diameter, printed objects are sized for easy placement within your oven.
Natural Machines designed the Foodini with five individual 3.4 ounce food canisters. The food canister holders each have their own independent heating mechanism and canisters are exchanged automatically during the printing operation giving you freedom to design and print multi-color and/or multi-food items.
Multiple nozzles sized at 0.8 mm, 1.5 mm, 4 mm allow you to print objects with different textures and fine design detail.
Other features of the Foodini include a large, 10″ user interface and wi-fi connectivity for readily accessing the proprietary Foodini Creator software. In addition to pre-loaded designs, the Foodini includes an onboard camera that can be used to take pictures of items that can then be codified for printing or you can download images directly for printing.
To simplify clean up, the only components that come in contact with food are the canisters and print surface. You can print onto any surface that fits within the build chamber such a bake pans or cookie sheets. Natural Machines also offers additional silicone print surface mats to move multiple creations right from your printer into your oven.
Intended to promote healthy eating, users are free to prepare their own printable formulations. Essentially any food that can be mixed into a semi-liquid, extrudable consistency can be printed from cookie dough to mashed potatoes to meat loaf.
Natural Machines has 3 pending patent applications: one covering independent heating of food canisters; one covering homogenizing food mixtures via ultrasound to improve flowability and one covering laser-based cooking of 3D printed food which is slated for an upgraded version of the Foodini.
The company is also working with retailers and food manufacturers to develop pre-filled canisters.
The Focus 3D food printer from byFlow retails for €3300 and is similar to the Foodini in that you prepare and load your own printed food mixture into a canister for extruding onto the print surface. Some key design differences include a single food canister and an open gantry design to enable full access to your creations during the printing process.
The Focus also folds for easy transport from one kitchen to another and comes complete with ten 30 ml, polypropylene, food grade canisters and 4 color-coded extrusion nozzles in 0.8 mm, 1.2 mm and 1.6 mm diameters. With 10 food canisters, you will be able to readily switch materials and colors to create truly unique 3D printed edibles and the different nozzle sizes enable you to print with materials having differing thicknesses and/or differing levels of detail.
The Focus has a print volume of 190 mm wide x 220 mm long x 140 mm tall and a print surface that can be heated to 80 Celsius. The printer weighs about 8 kg and takes up a space of 340 mm x 440 mm v 470 mm in its open position.
Over 50 designs are available for download from byFlow’s website and they all take only minutes to print.
Located in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, byFlow was founded in 2009 by Floris Hoff and the Focus 3D food printer was developed in 2015. The Focus 3D food printer is a favorite of acclaimed, visionary 3D food printing establishements Food Ink and Restaurant Smink, both described below.
At the other end of the 3D food printer price spectrum is the PancakeBot which retails for $199.99 on Amazon and has a 6 month warranty.
PancakeBot was founded by Miguel Valenzuela and is backed by Storebound who helped commercialize the product for consumer use throughout the world.
The PancakeBot prints batter directly onto a heated griddle surface for creating custom pancakes. With a 12″ x 24″ print surface, you will be able to print a wide variety of custom pancakes.
Their are hundreds of designs available for ready download and printing or you can create your own designs with the included PancakePainter software from imported images, which you can then trace, or with the easy-to-use drawing feature.
Once designed, you simply copy your designs onto an SD card, load the card into the printer and away you go.
The printer uses air pressure to extrude your pancake batter through the nozzle onto the griddle. You can make your own batter as you would for conventional pancakes though users are advised to add a bit more milk and run through a strainer to remove clumps and make the batter more flowable.
Shading of your printed pancakes is controlled by a combination of deposited batter thickness and cook time on the griddle.
The PancakeBot is easy to set up and use plus it’s readily disassembled for easy storage.
Dash, a company dedicated to simplifying preparation of real food at home, also offers a set of four batter canisters for use with your PancakeBot providing users with options to create cakes with different colors and flavors.
Commercialization Of 3D Food Printing
Food Ink, founded by Antony Dobrzensky and based in London, collaborates with high-end restaurants around the world to offer pop-up events focused on 3D printed food.
Their motto ‘taste tomorrow today’ embodies their vision. Their pop-up dining extravaganzas feature 3D printed chairs, utensils and, of course, food.
Food Ink has collaborated with a number of fine dining establishments including YOURS in Barcelona, Spain; La Boscana in Lleida, Spain and Villa Flora in Venlo, The Netherlands.
Future collaborations are planned in such iconic cities as as Las Vegas, New York, Dubai, Toronto, Rome, Moscow. Tokyo and Sydney.
Food Ink events are designed to immerse participants in an unforgettable, futuristic culinary experience through a combination of the latest technologies such as 3D printing and virtual reality.
The chefs at Food Ink use byFlow Focus and Foodini 3D printers. The company also offers their own brand of 3D printed flatware.
3D Systems, a world leader in metal additive manufacturing systems has developed their Culinary Lab in the heart of Los Angeles to explore how the company’s ChefJet Pro 3D food printer can be used to take culinary innovation to the next level.
The goal of the Culinary Lab is to shape the future of 3D printed food and hosts events and symposiums for thought leaders in the food industry.
3D Systems has partnered with a number of well known players in the food industry.
The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and 3D Systems have created a lab to explore the potential of 3D food printing at CIA’s campus in Hyde Park. Through the partnership, a series of seminars for the CIA community will be developed along with internships at 3D System’s Culinary Lab.
Another partnership includes one with Duff Goldman. You may recognize the Mr. Goldman as the Ace of Cakes from the Food Network. Duff and the Culinary Lab have worked to create a multi-tiered wedding cake with elaborate and complex 3D printed design features.
Jan Smink, proprietor of Restaurant Smink, a high end eating eatery located in Wolvega, The Netherlands has partnered with byFlow, maker of the 3DFocus 3D food printer to create unique 3D printed food experiences for his guests.
Smink believes that 3D printed food is the future and leverages his knowledge of 3D printing to create novel food designs and also conducts master classes on the subject.
One famous collaboration between Smink and byFlow was for the State Visit of the King and Queen of The Netherlands to the United Kingdom. Chef Smink created 3D printed food for a networking reception held during the visit on the HMS Belfast; one of the Royal Navy’s historic ships. This single collaboration is, to me, testament to the future of the 3D food printing revolution.
Since 2013 there have been patents filed for over 80 inventions related to 3D printing food. The majority of these patents and published patent applications were filed in the last 2 years signaling that development of 3D printing food technology is moving beyond the theoretical. In other words, designers and manufacturers are getting into the finer details of making their 3D food printers operate.
Some of the players in the 3D printed food patent game include known suspects such as 3D Systems and Foodini developers, Natural Machines. Other players may surprise you like Xerox, IBM, and Electrolux.
Xerox has a number of patents and patent applications related to 3D printing chocolate suggesting that their designers have a bit of a sweet tooth.
Other inventions for which patent protection is sought include systems for printing latte art from edible ink on coffee; edible 3D printer filament; made-to-order 3D printed food and 3D printed food texturing agents.
My favorite patent is US9744721 issued to Electrolux in August 2017. This patent is directed to a stylized, hour-glass-shaped tabletop 3D food printer. The device includes two reservoirs: one for 3D printable food and one for a binder to hold the printed food object together.
For ease of use, the patent describes blister packs, not unlike Keurig’s k-cups, that are simply inserted into the top of the printer. The blister packs include an RFID-chip to communicate specific printing instructions to the printer.
As far as I know, the Electrolux food printer is still in the conceptual phase but the fact that the company has an issued patent for the device indicates they are serious about commercializing the invention.
3D printed food is garnering more and more attention as world-class chefs and entrepreneurs embrace and leverage the technology to showcase their talents.
While most 3D food printers are at the higher end of consumer budgets, the pancake printers are within the financial reach of most. Thanks to visionaries such as Jan Smink, Natural Machines, byFlow and 3D Systems, the price of 3D food printers will continue to drop as more as more restaurants and consumers adopt the technology.
In addition to being able to print some really cool edible objects, you will also be able to create more healthy options for your family. Young, finicky eaters will be more likely to eat healthier foods if they prepare the ingredients and print the food into a design they created. Imagine how fun your Saturday morning breakfasts will be when your children design and print their own pancakes.
I also expect more restaurants to offer 3D printed food in the future. The trend will most likely start with 3D printed desserts and then move into more mainstream meals as customer’s interests grow. I, for one, would readily order a 3D printed dessert instead of a conventionally prepared one for the novelty aspect alone.
Who knows, there may come a day when every major city in the world has at least one restaurant with a full menu of 3D printed food or when every home has a 3D food printer sitting right next to their microwave oven.
What will you create?
I’d love the read what you all think about 3D printed food or if you have used a 3D food printer. Please offer your comments below.