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Vol 22, No. 09, September 2018   |   Issue PDF view/purchase
The food revolution
3D printing has become a phenomenon in recent years. With an extensive history and many variations of it, 3D printers have permeated various manufacturing industries, and surprisingly, even the food industry. Tan Guan Chwen explores 3D printing and food printing.

Whether it is the manufacturing industry or the food industry, 3D printing is taking the world by storm. Championing efficient, low-waste methods that leaves room for innovation, many sectors are turning to 3D printing to aid their production process. Major fashion and jewelry brands from Cartier to Nike are using this as part of their manufacturing process, allowing them to create intricate designs whilst saving time. Cited to increase cost savings1 and concurrently help with the green movement,2 3D printing is also involved in the creation of vehicles such as Urbee’s car body and NASA’s rocket parts.

In recent times, we also see the use of 3D printing in a surprise sector - food. With the widespread usage of 3D printing and new uses for it emerging every day, let us look into this incredible technology and more importantly, what it means for the future of our food.

How does it work?

Broadly known as an additive manufacturing method, 3D printers generally use less material than the traditional subtractive manufacturing method,3 making it a popular choice amongst manufacturers. Within the field of 3D printing, users get to choose from a variety of printers belonging to two main categories: deposition printers and binding printers.4

Deposition printing layers materials on top of one another, which is hardened with a light source or laser until the object is constructed. The oldest method of deposition printing is stereolithography (SLA), which uses heated liquid resin cured by ultraviolet (UV) light or laser beams to form the desired printed object. As an economical choice, SLA is favoured by an extensive variety of industries, ranging from automotive to consumer goods.

Similar in nature to SLA, two other commonly used methods are selective laser sintering (SLS) and selective laser melting (SLM). While SLA uses a liquid photopolymer, both SLS and SLM uses powdered substances as their base, allowing a wider selection of materials to be used. Between SLS and SLM, SLM is preferred by the aerospace and medical orthopedics when using certain metal materials - stainless steel, titanium and aluminum to name a few - as a full melt by SLM creates a stronger product than the sintering done by SLS.5 However, despite the slightly weaker products formed, SLS is selected when alloys or other materials are used, especially with the additional perk of allowing porosity control for the product.

The most common deposition printing method, however, is fused deposition modeling (FDM). Used by brands such as BMW and Nestlé, FDM differs from the above printing methods as it builds the object by depositing a thermoplastic filament onto a base, printing the object layer by layer. Easy to build and cost-efficient,6 it is no wonder that this is the most popular 3D printing method, especially in aiding product development.

Contrary to deposition printers, binding printers secure layers of materials together with an adhesive liquid. Dubbed binder jetting (BJ) or inkjet printing, this method was pioneered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).7 Today, inkjet printing is not only used for industrial manufacturing, it is also widely used alongside FDM in food printing and bioprinting.

History of 3D printing

Surprisingly, 3D printing is not a recent marvel - its roots can be traced back to the 1980s.8 The idea came from Dr Hideo Kodama, who called it rapid prototyping. Unfortunately, Dr Kodama was unable to obtain a patent for it in 1980 leaving it to be further developed by and coming to fruition in 1986 under an American inventor, Charles Hull. Dubbed stereolithography (SLA) by Hull, he created the first machine and became the first to allow designers to use digital data files to create their 3D models. However, the costliness, slow production as well as problems with intricate designs led to a lack of buzz.

Fast forward a few decades, the machinery has seen much improvement. Over the years, many researchers have added their input to this sector, creating different methods of 3D printing. These methods improved the accuracy of 3D printers and opened its use for different sectors. The first breakthrough was in the medical sector, where the first artificial organ - a kidney - was printed in 2000. 3D printing started gaining traction when people started to see the possibilities this technology presented. This was furthered by Dr Adrian Bowyer in 2005, when he launched an open source project, the replicating rapid prototyper project (RepRap). Dr Bowyer invited anyone to partake in the creation of a 3D printer that could replicate itself, hence perking the interest of many. As a result, 3D printing gained massive media coverage and has remained a hit amongst the public.

3D printing in food - More than just art

Since its inception, 3D printing had a focus in the manufacturing sector. This changed with a team at Cornell University ([email protected]) in 2005, when they created an application for the 3D printer that no one foresaw: printing food. What started out with a bias towards culinary art has expanded beyond our imaginations. Today, 3D food printing not only boosts culinary creativity, it also stands for both nutrition customisability and food sustainability.9

Food printing and the aesthetics

The [email protected] team first experimented with the 3D printer to create interesting shapes for food, namely a space shuttle shaped Cheez Whiz. Experimenting with other mediums like chocolate and hydrocolloids, the culinary potential of 3D printers was realised. Boasting an accuracy that humans are not able to attain, the 3D food printers can print any intricate food design. This introduced a new design space for the gourmet world, leading to the opening of 3D food printing design and culinary art restaurants like Food Ink.

Food printing and nutrition

Beyond that, research into food printing has also highlighted how it may help with controlling nutrition intake. In 2010, German company Biozoon engaged the use of 3D printing to recreate appetizing meals for the elderly. Mixing powdered texturizers with pureed ingredients to form a paste suitable for 3D printing, the smooth foods are reshaped to resemble solid food with an appropriate texture for consumption.10

With a significant number of elderly suffering from dysphagia, 3D printing can help solve the problem of food avoidance amongst them, which stems from the unappealing liquid foods and purees.

Other than the elderly, food printing can also help with nutritional intake amongst the general population. Coupled with artificial intelligence (AI), individual nutritional needs can be monitored, and this information can be translated into customised food products for every individual.11

Food printing and sustainability

Here to address other world food issues, food printing is a solution for one of the world’s biggest problems - food wastage. This is especially so in Asia, where food waste from production to consumption makes up 50 percent of world food waste.12 More than half of this food waste comes from the production to distribution chain. Using 3D printing technology, these food scraps and rejected products can be reprinted into the food’s original form, thereby reducing the amount of food wasted. The customizability of food is also made easier with the 3D printer, which can allow consumers to determine their portion sizes, hence cutting down the possibility of food wastage on the consumption end as well.

3D printers also present a solution to food shortage by unlocking a new outlook for sustainable food. Developments such as Edible Growth13 presents opportunities for the future of food. With a unique carbohydrate structure that harbours a mixture of seeds, spores and yeast, the printed food will be left to grow and “harvested” as and when one desires. A simple yet nutritious meal can hence be prepared without the shortfalls of the production process, such as natural disasters and environmental degradation.

Another benefit that comes with food printing is the abundance of ingredients that can now be used. Gone are the days where the only greens we can eat are from vegetable farms and meat from resource-intensive production chains, 3D printing allows us to make use of our plentiful ecology. Perhaps once unpalatable, nutritionally adequate resources such as grass and insects can be reprinted into familiar foods and presented for consumption.

One other issue that plagues Man’s food is the ever-looming expiry date that comes with every food item. Dispensed as a paste from the nozzles of the 3D printers, these printed foods can be originally produced and stored in powder form. This makes it compact and gives it a longer shelf life than any other food products.

Food for thought - Challenges in food printing

Despite the progress made in food printing, its future is uncertain and not short of challenges.

The foremost concern will be the willingness of people to ingest printed food. Whilst the reception to the use of 3D printing in culinary art is widely accepted, the problem lies in the idea of “unnatural” food sources. Whether it is food scraps or grass, the origins of our future food will take some getting used to.

Another issue with the food produced by such a technology is its likeness - or lack thereof - of the actual food we consume now. Experiments with lab-grown and 3D printed meat has resulted in an edible and delectable product, yet the texture of the printed food resembles nothing like the original,14 which may be off-putting for many.

A more technical issue with food printing is the long waiting time. As efficient as 3D printers are nowadays, food printing is a relatively slow process - and that has yet to include the time required to cook certain types of food.

In addition, food printing is currently used for relatively simple foods only. Flavourful food will still require in-depth research into the components that make-up the food, which may require a mixture of different ingredients and cartridges to print, making it a troublesome process.

4D printing? – The future of 3D printing

3D printing has seeped into various facets of society in the past few decades, making it a necessity for many industries and bringing with it a sister branch-off, 4D printing. The 3D printing technology is now used as a stepping stone for this new form of technology - self-assembling, reshapeable objects.

This smart assembly revolution15 - where disordered parts can build an ordered structure through only local interaction - has also permeated the food industry. MIT recently introduced a 4D shape-shifting pasta: it comes as a flat shape which will then take on a pre-programmed “pasta” shape when it is boiled, a result of the edible cellulose layer 3D printed on it. Other than making cooking more interesting, this flat pasta will also make it more economical for the packaging industry as it consumes less space than the typical pasta.16 With this technology, the students at MIT have also provided colour and transparency options for their pasta - creating new experimental opportunities for food.

In the meantime, 3D printing in food is going through a phase reminiscent of the introduction of the microwave, where people are unfamiliar with and doubtful of its products. But, who knows? 3D printers may well become a staple in the kitchen of the future.


  1. https://www.nasa.gov/exploration/systems/sls/nasa-tests-3-d-printed-rocket-part-to-reduce-future-sls-engine-costs
  2. https://3dprinting.com/what-is-3d-printing/
  3. http://3dinsider.com/3d-printer-types/
  4. https://www.element.com/nucleus/2016/06/29/dmls-vs-slm-3d-printing-for-metal-manufacturing
  5. https://www.livescience.com/39810-fused-deposition-modeling.shtml
  6. https://www.exone.com/Resources/Technology-Overview/What-is-Binder-Jetting
  7. http://3dinsider.com/3d-printing-history/
  8. https://disruptionhub.com/disrupted-food-why-3d-printed-food-is-the-future-of-food/
  9. https://biozoon.de/en/products/seneopro/
  10. https://www.techrepublic.com/article/heres-how-3d-food-printers-are-changing-the-way-we-cook/
  11. http://globalasiablog.com/2016/08/05/how-food-is-wasted-in-asia/
  12. http://www.chloerutzerveld.com/edible-growth-2014/
  13. https://www.profitablehospitality.com.au/blog/3d-printed-meat-real-deal-sustainable-eating/
  14. https://www.ted.com/talks/skylar_tibbits_the_emergence_of_4d_printing
  15. https://3dprinting.com/food/mit-produces-4d-shapeshifting-printed-pasta/

Tan Guan Chwen is studying Arts and Sciences (BASc) at University College London (UCL).

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