Agriculture Technology

3d Printing (With Food)

Source: Timothy Lee Photographers

3d printing is no longer a new technology. With the advent of this technology, we’ve seen its rise in manufacturing industries and medical science, which is good, considering these are one of the most important fields of our time.

In conventional 2d paper-based printing, what a printer does is print with the help of an ink nozzle in a base or paper. 3d printing is just like that, but the ink is replaced with building materials like resin or plastic and is printed layer by layer on top of each other until complete model forms, just like building a house with layers of bricks. This is called additive manufacturing. There are other ways of 3d printing that are faster and efficient but that’s another topic.

As 3d printing is becoming more advanced and cheaper, it is being used increasingly in different domains like medical science, where prosthetics are being printed for amputees at affordable prices. Not only that, scientists are turning to 3d printing the functional organs (yes, the functional biological organs). Moving on from this, there’s another domain where the pioneers are starting out with 3d printing – Food Industry.

The food industry is one of the largest and probably the most important of all. Despite this fact, there’s a lot more to achieve in this industry, and fusion of technology seems to be a difficult task for scientists and engineers of this particular industry.

You might be wondering why on earth would you want to print foods but there are a lot of good reasons why. First of all, let’s talk about how to print foods. As I mentioned already, 3d printer uses building materials like resin or plastic layer by layer to print the 3d models. Instead of these materials, a food printer uses raw materials to make edible food. Let’s say you want to print a model airplane, but with chocolate. Now, what we have to do is give the software counterpart of 3d printer the model airplane file you want to print, then the actual printer prints the model layer by layer with melted chocolate squeezed through the nozzle, just like the ordinary 3d printer but every part that comes in direct contact with food is made of food-grade materials.

You ate the airplane, your inner child is happy, now what? you may ask. There is a lot more to 3d printed food than it meets the eyes. First of all, 3d printing foods means each and every ingredient of the food can be precisely controlled. Every ingredient has its nutritional value, if that can be added to the as per the requirement, the concept of a balanced diet can be easily achieved. Let’s say you need X amount of carbohydrate per meal, and Y amount of some vitamin per day, with 3d printing technology, you’ve got it. It’s the feat nutritionists have been trying to achieve for years. Each and every food you take can be tailored according to your requirements.

Food printers if effectively used can reduce food waste by many folds. We have many sources of nutrition around us but we barely notice them. These include grass, algae, insects (yuck! right?), but people rarely would want to eat them. Although you might cringe at the idea of eating insects, with time, people have started to accept these as alternatives to conventional sources of food, which is going to reduce the environmental impacts of traditional resource-intensive methods of food production.

In the food industry, one of the major problems is the chemicals and additives associated with the processed foods. This technology can just cut down on the additives and preservatives used in food. If one could get access to the raw materials and prepare meals locally, there’d be little to no chemicals that’d be going down your throat.

Apart from these, scientists are now trying to create vegan meat, that looks like the real meat. While it might sound fairly simple, it’s not. To make something that isn’t meat look like actual meat takes a lot of science. A piece of meat looks like, well a piece of meat, because of the fats, veins, muscles, and other things arranged at the microscopic level, which can only be achieved using 3d printing technology. This idea is expected to reduce the carbon emissions from the meat industry significantly if the idea is successful.

While 3d printing sounds fun and easy, there are certain limitations to this technology. While you might expect this technology to be in your kitchen as the microwave, it might not be soon. Also, it takes a few hours to print the appetizer-sized food with current technology, which isn’t pleasing. Also, the technology itself is expensive. By expensive, I mean thousands of dollars for a unit of 3d printer. ChefJet Pro from 3d systems can print with multiple nozzles at once, and hence multiple food materials at once, but costs above $10,000. At this price point, 3d printers can be more sensibly used in fine-dining, which justifies the price. Another problem with 3d printing is the perception of people. The majority of people wouldn’t even want to taste the food that is printed and it’s according to a survey conducted among few hundred participants.

These issues are likely to be addressed by technology in the near future. With more sophisticated technologies, we might come across other benefits that would help humanity a little more. Although we might overcome these issues, it is less likely that you’d be eating 3d printed food for breakfast anytime soon.

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