Can Additive Manufacturing (or “AM”) be used to create a taste sensation? To find out, some food & beverage companies have been experimenting with “printing” food. But is it just a novelty or can AM actually create new business opportunities for food companies?
Additive Manufacturing has been one of the hottest topics in manufacturing over recent years. Also known as industrial “3D printing” (a name with which you’re probably familiar), Additive Manufacturing refers to the process or technologies that build objects by adding layer upon layer of material, such as plastics or metals. AM’s benefits are multiple: it allows more design freedom, improved costs for manufacturing small quantities, and more customisation opportunities, to name but a few.
However, up until recently, the manufacturing technique has been focused on plastics and metals, meaning the headlines have been dominated by 3D-printed medical and automotive innovations.
Successes in these fields have pushed exploration into a wider array of materials, including edible ingredients. Australia’s Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) recently announced it is investigating 3D-printing red meat with a view to reduce waste, increase the value of off-cuts, and reduce processing costs. The MLA says the technology could be used to print layer upon layer of “meat ink” (made from meat extract) to create red meat products. As the ABC reported, this could be used to create food that is as soft as butter and packed with nutrients – ideal for aged care homes and restaurants.
So could Additive Manufacturing be the future of food? Let’s take a closer look.
Additive Manufacturing & food: the basics
There are two options for AM-enabled food applications: direct printing and mould printing. Direct printing means growing an object layer by layer (through extrusion or “binder jetting”), while mould printing is creating a mould that can be used to cast the food material.
To date, experiments have shown that direct printing methods works best for food that can hold its shape, meaning it’s possible to create food shapes that would otherwise be too delicate or difficult in moulds. Technically, almost anything that can be extruded through a nozzle and maintain its structure after extrusion, could be suitable for direct printing.
This method also opens the door to printing more intricate designs, because the item doesn’t need to be removed from a mould. Unsurprisingly, chocolate is already proving the most popular food for direct printing, allowing imaginative designs and branding. The University of West of England recently printed intricate chocolate doilies, as well as shapes with cream cheese and mashed potatoes.
Mould printing offers just as many opportunities. Companies are experimenting with creating moulds by scanning customers’ faces and then creating customised chocolates.
3D printers for food
Additive Manufacturing has been especially successful for dough-based meals, such as pizza. In fact, a Spanish company, Natural Machines in Barcelona, has already introduced a 3D printer for food, the “Foodini”. Instead of plastics, the machine “prints” with edible ingredients out of stainless steel capsules, taking into account the different temperatures, consistencies and textures of ingredients.
Targeted towards professional kitchen users, Foodini is designed to take over the time-consuming, challenging processes of food preparation, and can print anything from filled pasta to cake decorations. The company is also working with food manufacturers to create pre-packaged plastic capsules that can be loaded into the machine as ingredients to make food.
Additive Manufacturing: a game changer for food?
While it’s early days, it’s unlikely that food manufacturers will start replacing their production line with AM printers. However, AM does allow them to explore product customisation with more gusto and develop a true edge on their competition. For example, US confectionary brand Hershey’s used a 3D Printer to show consumers the endless possibilities of 3D printing for chocolate. Consumers could create tiny, detailed figurines of each other on Valentine’s Day, rather than a box of chocolates.
3D printing of equipment
Additive Manufacturing is not just about the 3D printing of food; it can benefit food manufacturers in other ways too. Remote farmers could access new technologies and print spare parts for their machinery to reduce downtime, for example.
The future of AM and food
There are still barriers when it comes to AM and food, especially around regulation, food safety and the availability of ingredients. However, Additive Manufacturing has the potential to disrupt the food industry – so long as food manufacturers can identify clear value for their consumers and business, just as the MLA did. Until then, it may just remain a novelty.
Speaking of “disruptive”, meet the disruptive innovations ready to rock your supply chain, and you may also find this article on Industry 4.0 interesting in how it brings together the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence and data science in a digitalisation of industry.
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Image credit / Sebastien_B