At the moment, 3D printing is the hottest topic in the tech world, but over the last few weeks, 3D printed food has seemed to take front stage with announcements from 3D Systems and Hershey. The topic of 3D printed food is so big in fact that NASA is even testing the technology to see how they can utilize it in space travel and on the International Space Station. At CES this year I saw several companies showing off 3D printers designed around sugar-based fabrication, but this technology is not as new as everyone would have you believe.
As early as 2007, projects like CandyFab were popping up on the internet. Granted, many of these projects failed or never really took off into anything more than a dream, but CandyFab did succeed in creating a machine that would print out three dimensional objects using molten sugar. Around this time the RepRap project was just beginning to take off and Bre Pettis founded Makerbot. When Makerbot released its first 3D printer, the CupCake, you could purchase a frosting extruder that could be used to frost cupcakes. While the actual practice never really took off due to a buggy design, it did prove that there was a market and viable solution for 3D printed edibles.
The hard truth is that the concept of “3D printed” food has been around for decades now, and those who say that extrusion technology will revolutionize the food industry are not as well-versed in the concept as they would have you believe. Manufacturers have been using extrusion methods for years to create everything from cookies to McNuggets, and food manufacturers are coming up with new ways to turn mushy food paste into something that resembles it’s pre-ground up form every day. At the moment, 3D printed food is simply not practical in environments other than the industrial space or niche kitchens that serve up expensive and artsy creations.
Take the ChefJet line from 3D Systems, their first model uses water and powdered sugar to form a 3D object. The water is sprayed over a layer of sugar through a simple inkjet cartridge, and then another layer of sugar is added. This process is repeated may times over in much the same way powdered plastic and resin is used to print large objects on printers such as those made by Shapeways. There is no doubt that the results are simply stunning, and when their larger CMYK colored version is released things will get much more interesting. With the colorless ChefJet costing upwards of $5000 and its colored counterpart being close to $10,000, 3D printed food is simply too expensive for it to enter the home market and become a mainstream item found in every kitchen.
I feel that the big kicker will be Hershey’s 3D Printer that it is designing in conjunction with 3D Systems. If the chocolate company can manage to convince 3DSystems to keep the cost down, then I see this taking off and ending up in every bakery and restaurant as well as many homes in America . "Whether it is creating a whole new form of candy or developing a new way to produce it, we embrace new technologies such as 3-D printing as a way to keep moving our timeless confectionery treats into the future," said William Papa, Hershey's vice president and chief research and development officer. "We fully intend for this to come to the consumer as well," he added when asked about the consumer market and 3D printed chocolate. As someone who has spent a lot of time writing about both 3D printing and consumer electronics, I feel that Hershey and 3D Systems will need to bring the cost of the printer down to the $1200-$1800 range before mass adoption will begin to take place.
Other 3D Printing companies are beginning to take notice as well and are working on several sugar and chocolate based 3D printers as well, which should work at driving the price down to something more affordable, but I still feel that the technology is still a few years out before things get really cheap. At the moment you can pick up a small 3D plastic printer for about $400, but the cheapest 3D Food printer I was able to find online still runs $4000 and is still in the alpha design phase.
Do not take my apprehension for early adoption of 3D food printers as hostility towards the industry segment though, as I really do hope these printers become mainstream in the next few years. I have already begun a savings account for the Hershey printer and hope to have one shortly after it hits the market. I simply wish to inform everyone that the market is not anywhere near it’s prime yet, and we still have years to go before the technology really catches up with the concept. With NASA, 3D Systems, and the Open Source Community all working towards taking 3D printing food to the next level, things will begin to develop rapidly, and as processes become more refined and efficient, we will begin to see 3D food printers enter the market at prices that rival many smartphones.