In just a few short years, the most ubiquitous form of 3D printer will be one that prints food.
That may seem like a bold claim; while regular 3D printers have been a growing market for some years, food-based 3D printers are barely out of development, and, with a few rare exceptions, are not yet available to consumers.
However, food-printing devices have something that other 3D printers don’t: mass appeal. While makers, cosplayers and tech-savvy yet exhausted parents have embraced 3D printing, for most people they are cumbersome objects that print pointless stuff you neither need nor want.
Food printing, on the other hand, is different. Quite obviously everyone eats, but it’s more than that. The rise of competitive cookery programmes, exciting new flavour combinations and Instagram feeds is getting more and more of us to experiment with extravagant and visually appealing food, and as a result, a slew of weird and wonderful kitchen gadgets are vying for space on our countertops.
3D food printers fit that demand so perfectly that it’s no wonder consumer electronics retailers are falling over themselves to stock them. When 3D printer makers XYZ Printers showed off their prototype 3D food printer for the first time last year, they were inundated with requests to stock it from some of the biggest electronics retailers around.
The product was nowhere near ready for consumer release, but the perceived market is so strong that retailers want to get such products on their shelves as quickly as possible. And it won’t be long before they get their wish.
No 3D printing in the home
The first widely available, mass-produced 3D food printers are likely to hit stores in time for Christmas this year, and in 2017 we’re expecting them to become a relatively common sight in home kitchens.
Bocusini, the self-styled “world’s first plug & play 3D food printing system”, for example, will start shipping in March, priced at €1,199 (£900 / $1,300), while rival Foodini is set for release in the next few months with an anticipated price tag of $1,500 (£1,050 / €1,370).
For the most part, these will be in the form of printers you place pre-mixed ingredients into, before watching in awe as the printer shapes these into weird and wonderful forms normally only achieved with vast amounts of time and specialist food preparation tools.
However, while such printers certainly save time on styling, they will do little to cut down the time it takes to actually cook a meal. Foodini, for example, requires all food to be prepared in a printable form before it can be loaded into the machine, and after it has done its thing, many dishes will still need a stint in the oven to render them edible.
It’s a pretty similar story with Bocusini, and although the company does supply some pre-filled cartridges for marzipan and other sweet ingredients, if you’re looking to create something with a healthier spin, you’ll need to do a fair bit of prep first.
As a result, these printers are unlikely to see major adoption beyond food styling junkies – they provide appealing results, but do little to make the process more convenient. And their makers are well aware of this; Foodini’s first offering, for example is “targeted mainly towards professional kitchen users”, according to co-founder and CMO Lynette Kucsma.
Print to plate
The true dawn of the 3D food printer as a ubiquitous gadget in the home will be when it comes with a built-in oven, because at this point, it could viably replace some traditional cooking appliances.
Kucsma has confirmed that Foodini is already working on a version with cooking capabilities, and it’s undoubtedly also the goal of many of its rivals. Some companies may hold off on commercialising their 3D food printers until they get to this stage, because according to Kucsma, this is the point where the product becomes appealing to consumers.
“Our first version of Foodini is shipping the first part of this year, and this version is targeted mainly towards professional kitchen users,” she wrote in an email to Factor. “With the availability of our cooking 3D food printer (available post-2016), we will focus on home kitchen consumer users.”
As common as a microwave
I don’t know about it being the only appliance needed in a kitchen. I for one like my dishwasher!
Will the 3D printer become the only kitchen appliance we actually need?
“I don’t know about it being the only appliance needed in a kitchen (I for one like my dishwasher! I don’t think Foodini will wash dishes anytime soon), but I do think that in the near future Foodini and 3D food printers will become a common kitchen appliance found in many kitchens, similar to how ovens and microwaves are seen in many kitchens today,” says Kucsma.
While it’s highly unlikely that everyone with a 3D food printer will be ditching their ovens and microwaves, it could become the gadget of choice for those living in accommodation without full kitchens, such as students and low-income workers. Obviously this would require a hefty drop in price, but that’s almost certainly set to happen in much the same way that other products have seen price drops with growing popularity.
A sharp projected rise in urban populations is also going to mean more and more of us are living in smaller spaces, and any product that can save significant space will prove popular in that scenario. In cities where accommodation demand is outstripping supply, we could certainly see micro apartments outfitted with 3D food printers instead of ovens as time progresses.
Increasing the flow of flavour trends
3D food printers are, however, likely to have some other consequences for how we eat, most significantly around the subject of food trends.
While trends in food used to take a few years to shift and disseminate, the internet has significantly sped up this process. When news of the cronut first spread, for example, it was just a matter of weeks before bakeries on the other side of the world were serving up the same product.
However, if 3D food printers become ubiquitous this could change to a matter of hours. It’s easy to imagine someone posting the details of a weird yet appealing recipe to Reddit or its contemporary equivalent, and having it replicated by people all over the globe shortly after. Tweaks and iterations would quickly appear, and within days people would move onto the next food trend.
Food trends, then, would become more like memes, with shorter lifespans and potentially more bizarre combinations. And with food being so transient, people would be more willing to experiment and try unusual ideas.
This in itself would be great for food fans, but perhaps less so for food manufacturers. Many are incredibly reliant on trends to keep their businesses growing, and with this kind of pace it’s hard to see how they would be able to keep up unless they got in on the 3D printing act.
Trends aren’t the only thing likely to shape the food we choose to 3D print. One characteristic of many emerging technologies is the possibility of personalisation, and 3D printing has enormous potential in this area.
At the end of last year, a study published in the journal Cell Press determined that different people require different diets in order to eat healthily.
“In contrast to our current practices, tailoring diets to the individual may allow us to utilise nutrition as means of controlling elevated blood sugar levels and its associated medical conditions,” said study co-author Eran Elinav of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.
While 3D printers clearly can’t determine what diet an individual needs, other devices and services are certainly likely to be developed to provide this information, and a 3D food printer would be the ideal way to produce the resulting bespoke meal.
It even offers an advantage over conventional cooking methods for this purpose, as people in the same household could easily need completely different diets. With a normal oven, this would be time consuming and far from practical for day-to-day use. But with a 3D printer, entirely bespoke meals could be generated in minutes.
And with so many of us keen to eat healthy, this really could prove to be 3D food printings killer selling point.
Of course, bad diets might not be the only thing that 3D printing kills. 3D printing could catch on in a big way, and if it does, the restaurant industry is set to suffer.
Restaurants have boomed in recent years. Similarly to high street stores closing due to internet-based competition and the fallout from the recession, restaurants thrived, as people turned to food rather than large purchases as a means of treating themselves.
Home delivery services such as Deliveroo and Just Eat have taken this further, but a 3D food printer offering a similar level of convenience could put a serious and in some cases bank-breaking dent in this industry. Sadly, many restaurants could close as a result of 3D printing, unless they find a novel way to keep people coming through their doors or ordering their offerings online.
By exploring and implementing technologies such as 3D printing, this may avoid food shortage, inflation, starvation, famine and even food wars
Despite the potential damage that 3D food printing may cause, it could also provide a lot of good, by lowering food production costs and thus tackling food shortages.
When NASA first proposed the use of the technology for long-term space missions, the agency also highlighted the potential it had for alleviating famine.
“With the anticipated world population of 12 billion by the end of the century, the current infrastructure of food production and supply will not be able to meet the demand of such a large population,” the agency wrote.
“The conventional technologies can only provide marginal efficiency, which is not enough in keeping food prices at affordable levels for the population growth. By exploring and implementing technologies such as 3D printing, this may avoid food shortage, inflation, starvation, famine and even food wars.”
Replicating the replicator
For many, however, 3D food printing is the first step towards a Star Trek replicator, allowing them, like Piccard, to order an “Earl Grey, hot” in the not-too-distant future. But is that really possible?
“A true Star Trek replicator is quite far in the future as it creates both non-food material (ceramics for dishes as an example), and food-ingredients,” says Kucsma. “We’re focused on the food ingredients aspect.”
However, most of us would probably be prepared to place a mug under a 3D printer if the rest of the scene was possible, and still feel like science had reached Star Trek’s level. But this will require machines that contain a complex mix of potential ingredients without needing them to be individually pre-prepared or refilled too often, and that is some way away.
The most likely organisation to reach this goal is likely to be NASA. The space agency is trialling the technology to feed its astronauts bound for Mars, and so these requirements are likely to be fulfilled far quicker than if left to companies making printers for our Earthly kitchens.
At present, researchers are focusing on delivering macronutrients such as starch, protein and fat into the printer, which will form them into appealing shapes and textures, while adding appropriate flavours and smells.
In time this approach is likely to grow in sophistication, and could, like many NASA technologies, find its way into our homes. And at that stage, the Star Trek replicator of our dreams will finally be a reality.