Will 3D printing transform future product launches?

Applications for 3D printing in the food industry are rapidly expanding, so where might it lead and how might it affect  the way big brands launch new products…
The technology for 3D printing has been evolving for many years, but recently appears to be picking up speed. Throughout the world companies are evaluating 3D printing to determine if there are opportunities to leverage the technology within their businesses. The medical industry is already finding good uses for it, by printing 3D versions of veins and blood vessels to aid training in operative procedures.
In this article I aim to discuss some of the current applications across the food industry.


Many applications have emerged recently, in rapid, iterative prototyping. Some examples of this are the production of tooling and moulds used in the manufacture of products, and the customisation of producing much more personalised; and therefore short-run, finished goods for sale.
3D printing is beginning to replace the more labour-intensive handcrafting, and it accomplishes this with supporting computer-aided design (CAD) software that makes it possible for anyone to design unique pieces. Nevertheless, 3D printing is certainly not a replacement for long established, high-volume production methods. It can take a very long time to print and can then take a number of hours for the printed ‘product’ to stabilise. Some machines report taking 5 minutes to ‘print’ a sweet and some report taking up to an hour for the same result. Clearly not for a mass market production yet….
There are currently a number of different 3D printing processes that can print a range of materials (plastics, metals, chocolate, wax and more) at varying speeds, quality, finishes and price points. The printers used in these processes are primarily distinguished by the materials they use to produce parts and vary widely in size, quality, ease of use and cost.


Food Applications

In recent years it has been possible to print using ingredients such as chocolate and pasta, but these are small scale applications that are used more for gimmick marketing campaigns than for any real nutritional or supply provision purposes.
PepsiCo have used 3D printing to illicit responses from focus groups about possible new products; where members of an invited focus group are given 3D printed plastic prototypes of different shaped and coloured crisps, to look at and comment on. It was felt that using the 3D printed shapes made it much easier for the focus group participants to provide a more accurate response than just using pictures.
{Editor’s note: It might have been even better, not to mention easier, if they had just produced the actual crisp in the shape and colour choices for the participants to see and hold – and perhaps even taste?}
Unilever Italy have used 3D printing to make injection molds, blow molds and vacuum molds for accelerated prototype development without the need for conventional tooling. This is probably a very good use of 3D modelling, which really could have useful applications in the food industry. I would expect many more companies to explore this kind of 3D printing to make improvements in producing the machines that are used in manufacture and production processes.  
Here is a rather more useful application in the Social Care arena for older people, where 3D prints of complete meals were used to engage older people in wanting to eat healthier food.
With methods of 3D printing food on the rise, the European-based PERFORMANCE (Personalized Food for the Nutrition of Elderly Consumers) concept is taking advantage of the technology to help recreate the elderly’s favorite dishes not only in taste, but in texture and nutritional value as well. The initiative has already showcased 3D printed foods for nursing home elderly in the past, but their latest endeavor uses 3D printing to recreate the actual form and feeling of classic dishes.”
The full article is here:
Another example is Katjes, the confectionery company, who have created 3D printed sweets,  Katjes creates first-to-market 3D printed gummies By Hal Conick+, 03-Sep-2015
The first commercial 3D printer for retail will be used to create gummies in different shapes, sizes, colors and flavors, says creator Katjes Fassin UK.
Other examples are available on the BBC website

Problems with using it in the food industry

Terry Donahoe of the FSA is worried about these highly complex pieces of equipment that can take in substrates or ingredients, and then “squash out food” He told delegates of a London Conference in September. You can listen to his speech on this link:
3D food printing among four challenges of tomorrow 3D food printing presents one of the top four food safety challenges of tomorrow, according to the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
We have all read Science Fiction books where the protagonist stands in front of a machine and chooses a personalised dietary supplemented meal by pressing buttons waiting for the machine to ‘print it out’.  
The cost of being able to produce just one jelly sweet to order – round, square, red or yellow – will therefore be ridiculously outweighed by the cost of each individual sweet. Better to choose a packet of them in the supermarket.
It is currently difficult enough to control ingredients during production processes in-house and the thought of having vending machines that will print an edible chosen goodie to order, without incurring any ingredient issues is mercifully still, we think, a very long way away.

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