Imagine stepping into the kitchen of the great smart home of the future. Sitting between your connected stove and IoT-enabled toaster is a 3D food printer, able to print and cook your favourite meal with a single touch of a screen.

According to 3D food printing company Natural Machines, this concept is not far from becoming a reality. Others, such as pizza printing specialist BeeHex, believe it is a matter of years before it becomes a common feature of not only the home, but in restaurant kitchens and commercial enterprises as well.

TechRepublic spoke to some leading companies in 3D food printing to find out more about the process of 3D printing food, its benefits, and how long before we come home to our 3D-printed dinner.

The road to 3D-printed meals

Until 2014, 3D food printers focused predominantly on intricate, sugar-heavy confections. Then one Barcelona-based company made strides towards 3D-printing something you could actually eat for dinner.

Natural Machines is a 3D food printing and IoT company and the maker of the first 3D food printer to make both savoury and sweet foods with fresh ingredients. Established in November 2012, the company originally focused on 3D-printing sweets and snacks before shifting focus due to COO and co-founder Lynette Kucsma’s healthy eating habits.

On discovering the concept of 3D food printing, Kucsma wanted to know why they couldn’t use their own fresh, wholesome ingredients rather than a pre-filled food capsule for printing confections. Additionally, her co-founder owned a bakery and wanted to distribute her product around the world, but was held back because it was too expensive.

“The expense was not the ingredients or the labour that went into those cakes, but it was the packaging and preserving, the freezing, the shipping, that made those cakes quite astronomical in terms of price,” Kucsma told TechRepublic.

The company needed a solution that could enable mass manufacturing in several countries around the world, as well as something that could print a wider range of foods than just confectionery.

In 2014, Natural Machines launched Foodini, a 10kg, 4.7 inch high, Android-powered 3D food printer, which is currently in production and available for select customers. Foodini users just need a Wi-Fi connection to choose recipes from Natural Machines’ community site, which they can also do remotely from a smartphone or tablet. They can choose from a library of shapes or create their own to print.

Up to five food capsules can be loaded into the printer at one time. It also has different nozzle sizes to accommodate different textures, Kucsma said, which means additives such as maltodextrin aren’t needed in the food to hold its shape.

“From day one we designed Foodini to work with food, and we’ve always designed it to work with fresh foods,” Kucsma said. “So a lot of the systems we built in, a lot of the software we’re using — it’s customised to work with food; we have food-grade food-safe materials. You can print whatever you want without adding anything — you don’t need gelling agents, we don’t need any types of additives.”

Foodini isn’t suited to print every type of food, nor was it ever intended to; rather that there are certain foodstuffs that a 3D printer excels at, such as crackers or certain pasta shapes — Foodini’s smallest nozzle size can print as thin as 0.5mm, which would be hard to achieve by hand.

“We actually use a lot of artificial intelligence and artificial vision to watch what’s happening so we can adjust things as necessary and print as fast as possible,” Kucsma said. “If you’re talking about flat crackers, you can do that in 20 seconds, you can do a personalised pizza in five minutes.”

SEE: Research: 3D Printing 2017: Benefits, trends, enterprise applications (Tech Pro Research)

Foodini is currently a B2B product being rolled out gradually to professional kitchens and other enterprises. Based on market feedback, Natural Machines will then adjust the product with the aim of targeting home users as well.

Once Foodini reaches home kitchen users, it will be beneficial for people who don’t enjoy cooking or otherwise cannot. Even for those who cook frequently, it will still be an attractive proposition for the times when they don’t have the time. Natural Machines isn’t suggesting that 3D-printed food should replace traditional cooking methods, but with fresh and healthy ingredients it should certainly be an option, and one that will produce more appetising results than food from a microwaveable tray.

Foodini will also enable home users to manufacture certain foods that are similar to those made by mass producers, but this time with ingredients with less salt, oil, and artificial additives. Kucsma has likened a 3D food printer to “a food factory shrunk down to the size of a box that sits on your food counter” or “a mini manufacturing plant in your kitchen”.

She also thinks we are “at the mercy of what food manufacturers decide to produce for us,” and that by opting for printed food over the processed food in the shops, we can be healthier. Manufacturers are also aware of how 3D food printers could affect their business, and could change their products accordingly.

3D printing could also reduce food waste, as it enables the reproduction of “ugly” food. Natural Machines showcased Foodini at September’s World Seafood Congress in Reykjavik, Iceland, and its ability to reprocess cuts of fish into more appealing shapes. The company is working with Matís, an Icelandic food and biotech institute, to 3D-print nutritious cuts of fish that often get left on their bone and are thrown out during mass manufacturing.

Kucsma said that there’s a concept of “ugly” fruits and vegetables, meats, and fish that people don’t want to eat because they look unconventional. This means that they often don’t pass quality control and are thrown away, despite being perfectly good produce.

With the global population set to reach 9 billion by 2050 — at which point agricultural systems will be unable to supply food to everyone, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation — combating food waste could help sustainability going forward. It could also cut down on plastic packaging if we were ever able to take our own reusable food capsules to a store, fill up, and take home to print.

“I think we’re going to have a lot of different things coming together to make sustainability work, but I do think 3D printing will be a big part of that,” Kucsma said.

In search of perfection: High-end restaurants

Users of the Foodini printer include La Enoteca in Barcelona, headed by Michelin-starred chef Paco Perez. For one particular dish he prints a seafood puree into an intricate, flower-like shape that resembles sea coral, topped with caviar, sea urchins, hollandaise sauce, and a carrot foam.

Michelin-starred chefs such as Perez use Foodini for two main reasons, according to Kucsma. Firstly, there’s the presentation factor: A 3D printer can construct intricate shapes and achieve a scale of precision that the human hand could not to wow the diner.

“I know people discount food presentation a little bit, but we all gauge our food the minute we look at it,” Kucsma explained. “There’s a lot of chefs, especially the higher end ones right now, that are always competing [to do] something new and innovative and creative. So this is another tool that helps them do that.”

“We eat with our eyes as much as our mouths,” Kucsma has said. “Food presentation is very important.”

Secondly, 3D printers are capable of more consistent prep work at a mass scale, freeing up the chef to do less menial tasks. Kucsma gave an example of a chef who uses Foodini for a quiche that involves printing circles on top of each other.

“Can he do it by hand? Probably. Would he get perfect circles? Probably not. But why should he spend his time doing 50 or 100 of those by hand when he can do it by machine and automate it and go do other things. So even though some things might be fairly simple, if the machine can do it faster and automate it, that’s what chefs tend to fall into.

“Everybody’s fearful of robots taking over jobs and everything to that effect. At the end of the day we look at Foodini being a kitchen appliance, so I don’t think anybody’s fearful of their stove or oven taking over their jobs.”

Netherlands-based ByFlow calls itself the “expert” in 3D food printing, having been specialised in 3D printing since 2009. Its portable “Focus” 3D food printer is currently sold as a B2B product, optimised for desserts, including chocolates and meringues. The company told TechRepublic that chefs and patissiers use Focus on a daily basis “to experiment with textures and shapes, save time and money, create new designs, and amaze their customers”.

ByFlow’s clients in the restaurants space so far include La Boscana in Barcelona, headed by Joel Castanye and Mateu Blanch. The restaurant uses both Focus and Natural Machines’ Foodini, not only in the kitchens, but in front of the customers so they can see their dishes come to life.

Blanch and Castanye also worked as culinary advisors for Food Ink’s 3D printing project last year: a pop-up restaurant in Shoreditch, London where key elements of the dining experience — the furniture, utensils, and the food — were 3D printed. Dinner guests were treated to nine courses made in front of them by the Focus printer.

The pop-up was also open to the public to sample 3D-printed snacks, “get hands-on” with 3D printers, and explore their “exciting futuristic environment”. Food Ink now wants to expand operations outside of pop-ups, and has had discussions with businesses based in Singapore and Dubai regarding setting up permanent 3D-printing restaurants.

Whether or not this gives a glimpse of future dining or not is unknown, but given 3D printers have been used in front of the customers for the experience might suggest part of the attraction is the novelty of having your food printed before your eyes. Once 3D printing is more ubiquitous and the novelty wears off, will there still be a use for 3D food printers in kitchens?

Josiah Citrin of two Michelin-starred Melisse in Santa Monica is one chef with reservations regarding the practicality of 3D printers in restaurant kitchens. In 2015, Citrin partnered with 3D Systems for the opening of their “culinary lab” in Los Angeles, which the company describes as “part showroom, part culinary education space” to demonstrate 3D Systems’ ChefPro printer.

At the lab, “culinarians can experience what 3D printing offers for their craft and their business proposition,” the company told TechRepublic. “We’ve also worked with chefs to develop and print with confectionary recipes, but also dehydrated fruit and vegetable-based formulations, as well as spices, starches and proteins.”

For the opening of the lab, Citrin and 3D Systems wanted to produce ChefPro’s first ever savoury dish, having previously focused on confectionary. Citrin told TechRepublic that the savoury dish had to still include maltodextrin in the ingredients to maintain a certain thickness, and so came upon the idea of a 3D-printed cruton for a French onion soup.

“We made this 3D-printed crouton and used onion powder and a little caramel colour and sugar,” he said. “Then we made a really rich beef broth with no onion flavour in it. We put the crouton in a bowl and poured the broth over it. It slowly melted and broke apart the 3D-printed crouton and as you mixed it in, the onion flavour completely blended in with the beef broth.”

Another idea was a hot dog bun with sweet relish, which ended up being too hard to do. Citrin said that while he learnt a lot from working with 3D printers, they would not be cost effective enough to use every night.

“I’m a small restaurant … you can do one course with it … it’s great for one course but in a multi-course menu, if I’ve got five things out, it’s kind of like: ‘I’m a little done with this’. I’m sure it takes a lot of space and they’re pretty expensive for me to use it for one course every night.”

Citrin also doubts whether we’ll see 3D printers in kitchens like microwaves are, and believes 3D-printed food will be used for presentation purposes rather than any practical application.

“It’s all about the shock and the impression of it, when you see it the first time. They were making Stormtrooper heads for the release of Star Wars; you can put it on a drink and you can mix it in; there’s a lot you can do with cocktails. You can do so much customised and individualised deserts for events, parties, weddings, events. I really think that’s where the future of that is, as opposed to small restaurants.

“I don’t see it becoming a huge thing in small restaurants. It’s a gimmick to the dish; it’s not a substantial part of the dish.”

Fast food that’s out of this world

Way down the other end of the dining scale, Silicon Valley-based BeeHex is working on pumping out pizzas for the masses.

Last year, the startup launched Chef 3D, a 3D-printer that can print a 12-inch pizza in less than five minutes. The following March, it landed a $1 million investment led by Jim Grote and Donatos Pizza, and has been developing commercial production models of Chef 3D with the ultimate aim of applying it to high volume pizza chains.

Chef 3D connects to a computer that tells it which ingredients to use. It then relies on pneumatic systems to move around a multiple head extruder — three nozzles that dispense liquid dough, tomato sauce, and cheese — based on patterns stored in software.

Pizza was chosen as it was well suited to the robot’s layering capabilities, according to the company. “The structure of pizza is natural for a 3D printer — it’s a layer-by-layer process,” BeeHex COO Benjamin Feltner told TechRepublic. “We also printed cauliflower dough pizza, which was the best of all, and obtained perfect layering, which is almost impossible by hand.”

BeeHex has also trialed its own mobile app, through which customers can customise their pizza to different shapes and sizes. Once an order is placed, it will be sent directly to the computer for printing and cooking.

BeeHex wants Chef 3D rolled out to theme parks, festivals, and sports arenas to print customised pizzas quickly at a large scale. For instance, if you’re watching your favourite sports team at their stadium, you’ll be able to order a pizza shaped like the team’s logo via the app while in the stands. 3D-printing stations around the stadium will print the pizza and the app will then tell you when it’s ready to pick up.

Chef 3D may even end up on spacecraft. NASA astronauts are already printing a range of tools and utensils in zero gravity; now the space agency is focusing on developing alternatives to freeze-dried pre-packaged meals for astronauts.

NASA had originally envisaged “really boring” food pills and food bars for astronauts to eat during the five-year return trip to Mars, before looking to BeeHex for some better alternatives. They proposed an idea of making pizza ingredients in powdered form, rehydrating them, and recreating the texture using a 3D food printer.

Powdered and dehydrated ingredients used in the printing capsules would last longer and be easier to store, cutting wastage. The company also plans to keep the Chef 3D software open-source, with recipes added and traded by its users.

It’s likely a 3D-printed pizza would taste better than any existing space food. But back on ground, would industrial-scale 3D-printed pizza taste anywhere near as good as the handmade version?

It depends on the ingredients you use to print, according to Feltner.

“We can make it taste the same as you’d expect or very unique. For example, we printed a Neapolitan-style pizza that had a unique crispiness due to our control of the dough layer height,” he said.

“The only question that people ask us is how 3D-printed food is different from handmade food,” BeeHex’s CEO previously said. “And it is no different. It’s a robot that’s making the food. In fact, it’s cleaner, it’s quicker, it’s more efficient, and it’s consistent.”

According to ByFlow, it’s just “a matter of time and R&D work” before 3D-printing solutions are used at theme parks and sports arenas. And the end results won’t necessarily taste any different.

“[3D printed food] tastes exactly the same as food prepared in any other way,” ByFlow told TechRepublic. “3D-printing of food, it’s just a method of preparation and there are no artificial ingredients used. It’s all fresh and tasteful.”

Smooth foods

According to a Harvard Medical School study, one in 25 adults annually are affected by chewing and swallowing difficulties, a condition known as dysphagia. The condition, which is particularly common in the elderly, can lead to pulmonary aspiration, pneumonia, dehydration, and anxiety. A patient’s health is often compounded further by wanting to avoid meals altogether, leading to malnutrition and weight loss.

As a result, in 2014 the European Union started funding the “Performance” project, aimed at improving the quality of meals for care home residents across Europe. The project gathered together 10 private partners and four research institutions, one of which, German company Biozoon, specialises in a range of texturisers that change the consistency of food.

Biozoon’s SeneoPro powders can be mixed with pureed ingredients to form a paste or a gel. Once inserted into a cartridge in a 3D printer, these “smooth foods” can more accurately be reshaped to resemble solid food. This means that rather than relying on unappetising liquids and purees to get required vitamins and minerals, a patient can once again enjoy a solid meal that is easy to ingest at the same time.

Mathias Kück, coordinator of the Performance project and owner of Biozoon, told TechRepublic that the look and taste of the end product matches the original food item.

“Basically a piece of liquid food is printed like an ink. When leaving the print head it solidifies and can be reheated for consumption without losing the texture,” he said.

“When eaten by a patient, the food can be destroyed without teeth and flow like a gel through the throat.”

Performance also allows each meal to be customised for each patient, taking into account their condition, their favourite food, and their required vitamin intake. Any kind of supplement can be included in the ingredients — proteins, vitamins, and minerals — with the purpose of improving their condition.

Over 1,000 care homes have implemented the smooth food concept, according to the European Commission. At each one, food and nutritional requirements of a patient is recorded on a handheld or local IT device. This info is then sent to a database at a local food production unit where a QR code is printed onto a plate. The meal is 3D-printed before being sealed, frozen, and delivered to a nursing home. Once it reaches its destination, the meal is placed into a “performance pod” and then warmed in a microwave.

A similar initiative was implemented in the US in April at the University of Utah Hospital, which started using Natural Machines’ Foodini to create more enjoyable meals for dysphagia patients.

According to director of Nutrition Care Services at the hospital Laura Robson, the food they serve using Foodini is an improvement on the “baby food”-like purees that came before, and patients are more inclined to eat as a result.

The future is cooking

Natural Machines wants to upgrade Foodini with an additional piece of functionality before it starts targeting home kitchen users: The ability to cook. Coupled with artificial intelligence (AI) and big data, this will usher in a whole new level of autonomous cooking.

“The current version of Foodini that’s out on the market can heat the individual food capsule, so that’s good for keeping chocolate at a good melting point, or printing warm mashed potatoes,” Kucsma said. “But if you were printing raw fish or raw meat, you would have to take that out and cook it some other manner right now. So the next generation device — which is real, it’s not just an idea on paper, we have prototypes in our office — when that generation device comes out, that’s when we really know we can target home kitchen users as well.”

Once this version is on the market for home users, Kucsma sees three main options for how you will get the ingredients to print and cook your food.

Firstly, you’ll be able to make your own ingredients and print them yourself. That will always be an option with Foodini, Kucsma said, as the device will always come with empty food capsules.

Secondly, fresh food retailers or even big supermarkets will have 3D-printable food freshly made on-site, just like when you go to a cheese counter or a deli counter today.

“An example of that is if you want to print ravioli but you don’t want to make the dough and the filling yourself, you can go to a supermarket and pick different fillings and different dough and mix and match to get your own customised ravioli,” she added.

Thirdly, there’ll be companies that specialise in pre-filled food capsules at regular supermarkets. Natural Machines is working with a number of large food manufacturers on pre-filled food capsules at supermarkets that have longer shelf life but don’t include additives and preservatives.

Aside from the ingredients, the entire process of making a food idem could be initiated solely by a single click of the mouse or a single tap on a touchscreen on a website, Kucsma suggested. We’ll be able to browse thousands of recipes in the cloud; fill up food printing capsules at a local store with the required ingredients, or our own pre-made ingredients; and insert the capsules into the 3D food printer, which would not only print, but cook and plate our meal.

Kucsma mentioned Pinterest as an example of where people will head to for printable recipes.

“A lot of people look on Pinterest to get Christmas cookies. You’ll not only see a ‘pin it’ button, but you’ll see a ‘print it’ button — and that’s not just to print the recipe, that’s to print the cookie, cook the cookie, and ice the cookie without you touching the device.”

Natural Machines is working with a number of companies to work towards this vision. One of them, the food service group Elior, is looking to create “the restaurant of the future” with a focus on customised portions, Kucsma said.

“With 3D food printing, once you start talking years out, it’s not just about the pretty designs and the automation aspect — it’s about the customisation and nutrition aspect. So for example, you and I can go out to lunch today and order the same thing from a restaurant and we would get the same exact dish, the same potion sizes. But in the future they’re looking at customising that, so maybe I get a little bit less and you get a little bit more, or maybe I want a breakfast bar this morning. [The 3D printer] knows from my wearable I went on a 5km run and I’m low on vitamin D and iron, and can pump up the nutrients in my breakfast bar.

“Artificial intelligence/artificial vision will watch that as it’s printing to automatically adjust the different aspects of the printer to make sure you end up with that end result,” she said. “This is an IoT device, so we can update the software at any time, it’s like your phone or your Tesla car, for example, that can get new features overnight.

“This sounds very futuristic, but in reality the technology is there to do it. A lot of players are just figuring out how to do that and how we can manage all that with the data.”

In a restaurant setting, this could mean a touchscreen on your table for you to place your order, which the software processes and sends to the machines in the kitchen. The 3D printers would then print, cook, and plate your meal.

Kucsma also thinks the technology has room to get faster in the future.

“Is 3D food printing the fastest way to get food? No, the fastest way to get food is get something that’s pre-packaged, rip it open and eat it, or throw it in the microwave, heat it up and eat it. That’s the fastest way. But again we’re trying to get people away from those packaged types of food. 3D food printing is a faster proposition than doing it by hand or with any other kitchen appliance.

“As with all technologies, you know, we’re only five years old. I say only — it’s still relatively young in technology world. It’s fast today; can it get faster in the future? I’m sure it can.”

Natural Machines, ByFlow, and 3D Systems are all currently targeting professionals over private consumers. For a machine like Foodini, which is currently priced at $4,000, the price will drop as the technology develops — at which point it will be a more realistic proposition for the home.

While scepticism of the tech may be a hurdle to mass adoption, Kucsma said people warm to the concept when they realise that Natural Machines is trying to fix a broader issue with the food industry.

“When I first heard about [3D food printing] I thought it was artificial ingredients, it was more false food in the market, more processed food. So I totally understand when people think that, because it does sound negative outside of the Star Trek references.

“There is an educational process that needs to happen, so that’s why we’re targeting also the B2B user. Once you start seeing 3D food printers in restaurants or eating 3D-printed food, and it is all fresh real food, and you get food manufacturers and food service providers engaged and you’re seeing it out on the market, then it’s not such a huge jump to say ‘You know what? I actually want one of those in my home too so I can make my own fresh foods with it’.”

Kucsma likened the uptake of 3D food printers to that of microwaves in the 1980s; the technology originally faced a certain amount of scepticism based on whether it emitted harmful radiation, or whether we even needed one in our kitchens.

“It took 30 years after microwaves went into the consumer market to get 90 percent market penetration. We see that being halved for a 3D food printer just because technology’s advanced a lot, so we’re a much more tech savvy audience, and plus we can build things out a lot faster.

“Our big vision is that in 10 to 15 years, 3D food printers will become a common kitchen appliance like an oven or a stove is in today’s kitchen, both professional and home kitchen use. We’re pretty realistic about the fact that it does take time for technology to evolve in order to become mass market.

BeeHex’s Feltner sees the 3D food printer’s prominence in households as the final step of mainstream adoption.

“I think you will see them at all mass food production facilities and in novel settings first,” he told TechRepublic. “Then you may start to see them in restaurants and grocery stores. The final destination is in your kitchen as a domestic appliance. The purpose of this technology is to make lives easier. To achieve that, we will need to advance the technology, make food delivery easy and simple, and reduce costs. That may take quite a while.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to University of Information Technology (UIT) instead of University of Utah Hospital.

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