This article originally appeared on VentureBeat on April 17, 2016.
“Food 3D printing” is something of a mythical creature. It’s been talked about a lot, and there have been a few sightings of it, but no one’s quite sure if it’s real or not. Well, I think it’s about time someone takes a shot at cracking open the case.
In essence, food 3D printing is this: you take a standard 3D printer, replace the non-edible material (like plastic filament) with something edible, and voilà, you have a food 3D printer! In reality though, the results have been less than amazing. What you typically get with a food 3D printer is a purée of perfectly good food extruded into an odd-looking shape. Today there are a few companies trying to pave the food 3D printing path.
The PancakeBot is a nifty machine that takes advantage of the fact that pancake mix is the perfect consistency to print with. This machine works by extruding pancake mix out of a syringe-like assembly onto a hot griddle. Really, it’s more of a 2D printer than a 3D printer, since what you actually print are pancakes that resemble 2D images as opposed to 3D structures.
More on the prosumer or professional side of the spectrum, a company called Natural Machines makes a printer called the Foodini. Their target user is more of the experimental chef who wants to mix and match flavors by blending food into printable purées, and then print them out into novel shapes with interesting textures. I’ve never tasted the result of this process myself, but my general perception is that it has a while to go before I see it in a restaurant or in my home.
Lastly, there is 3D System’s ChefJet. This machine was born out of an experiment based around switching the typical plastic powder of a SLS 3D printer with sugar and replacing the binding agent with something a little more natural: water. The ChefJet produces amazing three-dimensional sugar sculptures that you can surely imagine being used in a variety of ways. Think the most expensive coffee sugar-cube you’ve ever tasted, or intricate sugar sculptures, maybe to put on a wedding cake. It even prints in full RGB color, and can inject various flavors into the sugar! Again though, this seems to be a very niche application of food 3D printing that has barely begun to be used by professional bakers and the like.
Examples like these leave us asking one important question about food 3D printing: what is it good for? As with most technologies, the number one factor that determines its success is the degree to which it creates value for the end user or application. With food 3D printing, it’s not yet apparent. Could it be an ability to intricately and tastefully combine flavors, textures, and shapes into sought-after edibles? Imagine the future donut (probably what they were eating aboard the Starship Enterprise), where the outside has a delightful crisp to it, the inside is as doughy and delicious as you could ever want, and at the core of the torus is a heavenly crunchy center that melts in your mouth the way your grandmother’s homemade toffee might. Oh, and I forgot the swirl of explosive chocolate flavor variations that change depending on what part of the donut you’re biting into. Maybe that’s the use case, but otherwise I (along with many others) am left struggling to see what’s going to come from food 3D printing.
But hold on a sec — who ever said combining the word “food” with a separately amazing technology is going to result in the future of food preparation? Let’s look past food 3D printing and take a peek at some other technologies that could change the way food is made, much, much sooner.
The first most obvious technology (and the one I’m personally the most optimistic about in the near-term) is robotics. With robotics, it could become possible to prepare and cook food faster, with more sophistication, and more hygienically than ever before. In fact, this is something that’s already being worked on. A company called Momentum Machines is making a robotic “chef” that’s a good bit more complex than your average college “cocktail-bot” project. Momentum Machines, though they have remained somewhat secretive to date, seems to be making a robot that can prepare fully cooked hamburgers starting only with fresh, unprepared ingredients. In this example, we’re not talking about humanoid robots that may look like robo-Gordon-Ramsay (although, he may actually be a robot) — we’re talking about more industrial robotics that may look closer to a conveyor belt assembly line or multi-axis robotic arm. This technology has the ability to change the food industry, most likely starting with fast food. Will there be job loss? Probably. That’s a discussion for another time. However, when there’s tremendous quality to be gained, money to be saved, and possibly the coolest Benihana-esq food show you’ve ever seen, technology is likely to be adopted.
Moving beyond robotics, the high-tech biofabrication company, Modern Meadow, is working on growing cell cultured meat and other organic tissues. This brings the possibility of a more environmentally-neutral way of producing meat. Though as of today they’ve only created the most expensive, zero-percent fat (which means it doesn’t taste very good) hamburger you’ve ever had, it’s not hard to imagine and hope for the day when they figure out how to program the perfect cut of meat. I’m talking about the kind only the gods are allowed to enjoy. At that point, even if it’s expensive, there will surely be a market for it. Similarly, companies like Orgonovo are working on ways to 3D print biological tissues. It seems the main use here will be organs, but who knows — they could end up partnering with Modern Meadow to produce steaks in the shape of the Statue of Liberty.
Lastly, more traditional forms of creating food, like farming, are being brought into the 21st century through companies and efforts like Click & Grow and MIT’s Open Agriculture Initiative. These technologies are focused on making it viable to grow food locally and economically while producing the damn best tomato you’ve ever tasted. Although these technologies are less focused on the preparation and cooking of food than they are the growing of it, when you’re producing delicious food locally, I expect we’d all be more excited to take a bite straight from the source rather than create some extraneous food purée sculpture.
Recently, I had the chance to chat with the man behind the PancakeBot, Miguel Valenzuela. Aside from replacing your Sunday morning pancake ritual, Miguel hopes to make the PancakeBot an educational platform. He envisions the machine as a tool to teach students and all who are interested about the basics of 3D printing. Towards the end of my conversation with Miguel, I stared him straight in the eyes and asked, “Now really, in your opinion, what does the future hold for food 3D printing?” He replied with a somewhat warming statement, saying “Well, if you ask me, the real and original food 3D printer is nothing other than the ‘seed’.”