2014 – The Year of the 3D Printer?

A question posed in a survey that I took for the UT Austin Foodlab really got me thinking: What will your lunch look like in 2050? . One of the answers was: “ 50% 3D printed”, and from there my brain shot off into the stratosphere, like fireworks on New Year’s Eve. I just couldn’t compute this as even a remotely possible reality. It seems so space age yet could it be possible?

To answer this question I turned to my friend GOOGLE to help me out. A search for “can we print 3D food?” listed many articles with buzz words like Oreos, SXSW, pizza, astronauts, Hershey, spinach and sugar diamonds.

A little further digging and I find that the 3D printer is the brainchild of Chuck Hull, the Co-Founder of 3D Systems. The first 3D printer was large and clumsy and could set you back a couple hundred thousand dollars. Early innovation with the technology was centered on the automotive industry. Today’s 3D printer is more affordable and more approachable across all sectors of the industry. The year 2014 promises access to the technology by chefs and home cooks alike.

Most recently, 3D printing technology was showcased at SXSW, where Mondelez was producing 3D printed Oreos in 12 flavors and colors. And right down the road from them, 3D Systems were using their ChefJet to print 3D candies for SXSWers.

A high price tag is not stopping big names such as NASA from getting on the 3D printing bandwagon. They awarded a 125,000 grant to Systems and Materials Research Corporation to develop a 3D printer that can print pizza in space. Remind you of any fancy device on the Enterprise? Anjan Contractor of Systems and Materials envisions a 3D printer in every household and an end to the world’s food shortages. What is neat about their technology is that the pre-filled food cartridges are shelf stable and can be used up to 30 years later.

And then there is Hershey, who recently signed a multi-year contract with 3D Systems to print 3D chocolate and sugar-based confections. A pretty big deal considering Hershey is the largest chocolate manufacturer in the country. While development will take several years, this agreement puts Hershey’s well ahead of its competitors. They could be the first large-scale manufacturer to print in 3D.

Barilla Pasta is bringing 3D pasta printers to a restaurant near you. They have been working with TNO (a Netherlands based Applied Research Facility) to develop a pasta printer that can print customized pasta per a customer’s request. Think about how cool it would be to order your custom pasta and have it served to you only minutes after ordering? They hope to accomplish this by using dough cartridges that are sent to the restaurant pre-filled.

The idea of 3D printing goes a step further at Modern Meadow. Here, they develop meat and leather products from tissue cultures grown in the lab. This approach takes the raising, slaughtering and processing of animals entirely out of the equation. While the product is still facing challenges with texture and taste, that problem will eventually be solved.

The 3D printing of meat is endorsed by PETA who has offered a million dollars to the 1st person to create a viable in vitro chicken alternative by March 4th, 2014. While this deadline has passed, great strides were made by several organizations to meet this goal. Dr. Mark Post developed a 3D printed hamburger from beef muscle that was cultured in a lab. The cost? $325,000. Sergey Brin, founder of Google funded the project. And Bill Gates of Microsoft is a major investor in Beyond Meat, a company that produces vegan chicken strips. According to his blog, Mr. Gates was unable to distinguish the difference between real chicken and this meat-alternative.

So when will this technology be available to you? 3D Systems will release 2 models of its version of the 3D printer this year. The ChefJet (up to $5000) and the ChefJetPro ($5000-10000) are the two of the first 3D printers on the market. These are designed for pastry chefs who are looking to craft intricate confections from sugar and chocolate.

Natural Machines, out of Barcelona, Spain, will soon start selling the Foodini. This gadget is geared towards the home cook, and makes preparation faster, without compromising quality. This printer holds 5 cartridges and since it uses an “open capsule model”, the Foodini can print a range of products in the savory and sweet categories. This system allows the consumer to prepare the cartridges themselves. They also plan to sell pre-made cartridges for convenience. Current estimate for availability is the 2nd half of 2014.

As we dive deeper into 2014, keep your eyes peeled for further innovation in this category, it’s only going to get more exciting as time goes on. One thing is for sure: 3D Systems will be leading the way.

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