Miguel Campos explains whether 3D printing could make its way into mainstream food production

Remember the Replicator? In the Star Trek franchise, this fictional device could create objects from any molecule, originally being used to produce meals on demand. We’re not quite in the age of synthesizing pizza in outer space, but 3D printed food is becoming reality.

According to reports by Research and Markets, the global 3D food printing industry is projected to reach a colossal $525.6 million by 2023 — impressive statistics for a relatively new technology.

The process of ‘printing’ food was first attempted in 2005, the same year the low-cost filament printer emerged onto the world stage. The technology had limited success. Typically using sugar paste to create printed shapes and patterns, the results certainly were not desirable for consumption. However, in 2017, the technology re-emerged onto the global food technology scene.

Like typical additive manufacturing, 3D printing for food works by preparing a meal in an automated, additive manner, using one or more syringes. This methodical process ensures the machine can systematically layer ingredients on top of each other, in order to create food products that we are familiar with.

Until recently, 3D food printers were widely considered as a novelty, typically invested in by technology enthusiasts to live out their Star Trek Replicator fantasies. However, we are beginning to see commercial applications for their use.

In a German nursing home, for instance, 3D food printing is used to create customised food for residents that have difficulty chewing. The printer combines a perfectly balanced nutritional mix for each resident, and prints this combination into a congealed meal using edible glue. Not the most appetising of meals, but successful, nonetheless.

Following the launch in one residential home, over 1000 German facilities adopted the technology. There are clear advantages to using 3D printed food for this kind of application. For instance, hospitals could also benefit from the ability to customise foods and adapt ingredients for each patient. But, does this technology have a role in the larger food manufacturing realm?

To determine this, we should consider how 3D printing, as a manufacturing process, is used in other industries. Automotive production, for instance, has long had access to 3D printers to additively manufacture parts and components. However, it isn’t common for this technology to be used to mass produce parts.

Instead, automotive manufacturers primarily use 3D printing for rapid prototyping — creating dummy versions of parts for testing, before sending the part for mass manufacturing on the production line. This allows manufacturers to test and examine parts design, before embarking on a costly production lot.

Similarly, 3D food printers can only provide advantages for testing food recipes, ahead of mass production. Put simply, if 3D printing food cannot improve on the speed, precision or quality of traditional manufacturing methods, these devices are unlikely to be used in large-scale food production.

For food development chefs, 3D food printing could provide an inexpensive way to experiment with new meal ideas, designs and food combinations. Similarly, medium-sized enterprises, like hospitals, schools or residential homes, could benefit from the customisation they allow.

Much to the dismay of the Star Trek fans among us however, fully synthesised Replicator-style meals aren’t on the menu any time soon — at least not from large-scale food producers.

Miguel Campos works at food packaging manufacturer Advanta, one of the leading foil food container manufacturers in Europe. The company headquarters in Cannock, United Kingdom is purpose-built and establishes new standards for the whole packaging industry. The business operates globally and is able to offer regional support in Australia, Asia, South America, Africa and the USA.