Bioeconomy Food

Is 3D Food Printing a Disruptive Food Manufacturing Technology or Just Hype?

Eating food made by a printer sounds like science fiction, but it might be reality sooner than you think. On-demand products are coming to a vending machine near you, because there is a need for healthier, customized snacks.

Written by: Pekka Pekkala 2017 — 

3D Printing

 

The first thing that comes to mind from the words “3D printing” are the different shapes and forms you can make with the technology: car parts, hobby projects, or extraordinarily shaped chocolates that would be impossible to make by hand.

However, 3D printing is much more than what is visible to the naked eye. Not only can you customize the outside, but also the inside, like the nutritional composition of these structures. 3D-printed food can be customized to each user with the right amount of nutrients and calories. VTT is developing the protein bars and snacks of the future: they will be tailored according to individual needs as they are manufactured with a 3D printer.

VTT is developing the protein bars and snacks of the future: they will be tailored according to individual needs as they are manufactured with a 3D printer.

Unique, custom-made food from 3D-printing materials

Selecta is the leading vending and coffee services company in Europe. Business manager Jyrki Immonen from Selecta Finland is looking forward to 3D-printed products.

“You can already tune products like coffee in our vending machines: would you like to have sugar, steamed milk or some syrup with your coffee? Every cup is made individually after it has been ordered, so the on-demand printing model is very familiar to us” stated Immonen.

People are snacking more and more in offices and at school. Therefore, offering them healthy, customizable options instead of the current products would be a surefire hit. Selecta Finland has participated in VTT showcases, where researchers have shown what is possible with current 3D-printing technology and robotics. Real-life applications are still years away, but Immonen sees a bright future for customized snacks.

“Imagine a mobile app for ordering a healthy snack from your office vending machine. Choose all the ingredients and it would be prepared for you, ready to be picked up in 15 minutes.”

“Imagine a mobile app for ordering a healthy snack from your office vending machine.”

Challenges in manufacturing and ingredient technology

Nesli Sözer, principal investigator at VTT, sees 3D food printing as a part of a larger “prosumer” revolution, where people take part in product design and the whole idea of the passive consumer is changed.

“People will have the ability to print their own food, according to their nutritional needs and tastes. 3D printing will also add diversity in products, which is something that consumers love. Every item will be different and unique, from the texture to the flavor. From a technological point of view, 3D printing is great for making something only once. It is perfect for custom made products,” said Sözer.

These issues are being tackled in an ongoing VTT coordinated TEKES project 3DSurprise in collaboration with Aalto University, Finnish companies from various sectors such as ingredient (Valio, Polttimo), equipment manufacturing (3DTech), HORECA (Ravintolakolmio),  software & online services (DeskArtes) and retail (Selecta).

VTT is looking into additive manufacturing, the process of joining materials to make objects from 3D model data, layer upon layer. Printer technologies vary from binder jetting to paste extrusion or even familiar inkjet printers, like what are used in homes right now for traditional printing.

These technologies require a wide knowledge of material science, such as shape stability with thickeners and enzymes. VTT has developed 3D-printed high-protein or high-fibre foods by using various ingredients such as rye bran, oat and faba bean protein, cellulose nanofiber, starch, and skimmed milk powder. Some of these ingredients have been functionalized by various techniques by VTT to enable their use in food printing. Besides ingredient technology, manufacturing technology is another key issue, with multiple challenges to be tackled such as safety, throughput and printing speed.

Online shopping goes from global shipping to local 3D printing

3DTech is one of the 3D-printing pioneers in Finland, offering one-stop solutions within the industry. Tomi Kalpio is the co-founder of the company and has been working with VTT in different projects from printing spare car parts to the current EU project NOVUM, which aims to manufacture a pilot line for cellulose-based materials. 3DTech has its own technology development project in bio-printing with the team FutuRena, which aims to print kidney transplants.

“3D on-demand printing, or tuning, is already here for industrial applications. For consumer use, it will take a while. However, we can visualize a world where things are produced locally with 3D printers instead of being shipped from the other side of the world. You can see the opportunities, starting with no need for storage, cardboard boxes or excess products,” stated Kalpio.

According to Kalpio and Sözer, there might not be a 3D printer in every home. And there might not be a one-solution printer that makes everything. However, for the 3D-printed future revolution, you will need one type of printer at the car repair service, another at the local supermarket, and a third at the health center, for example. With locally produced, recycled, or biomass-based ingredients, this will make a big impact on our global use of resources.

With locally produced, recycled, or biomass-based ingredients, this will make a big impact on our global use of resources.

From a Finnish perspective, projects like cellulosefromfinland.fi are an interesting aspect of 3D printing. Wood cellulose has a remarkable role in Finnish industry, but the products have little added value with no design involved. VTT has studied using cellulose materials to print 3D objects, exploring the potential of cellulose to be the future green 3D-printing material. Cellulose is a renewable, carbon-neutral, and non-toxic material—which are all highly desirable in any product.

Further information: Principal Scientist, Principal Investigator Nesli Sözer, nesli.sozer@vtt.fi, +358 40 1523875

Read more: 3D Food printing conference, Nesli Sözer

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