Hershey among companies testing 3D printing

Hershey among companies testing 3D printing

What impact could the 3D printing of food have on the sector? It's one of the most-discussed issues among product developers. While there are chefs experimenting with using 3D printing to customise dishes or add some automation to their kitchens, some of the food industry's packaged food giants are also looking closely at the technology. Mandy Kovacs, Poorna Rodrigo, Kitty So and Kathryn Wortley report.

Notable names in the packaged food sector have been looking more closely at the concept of 3D printing in recent years but, while major brands are still investigating the technology, it is yet to become an integral part of their production systems and business models.

US confectionery giant Hershey is one still probing 3D printing. Its efforts so far have included working with US 3D printing company 3D Systems to on a potential commercial printer. In late 2014, Hershey showcased a printer on which the two companies had worked at its Hershey's Chocolate World Attraction in Pennsylvania.

However, Hershey says it is not yet ready to move to full commercialisation on any of its tests. Nevertheless, Jeff Mundt, the senior marketing manager for technology at Hershey, outlines why the Reese's maker is interested in the technology. He tells just-food 3D printing would enable the company to produce personalised chocolates and form them into shapes difficult to make via traditional manufacturing techniques.

"Hershey is focused on a number of innovations that consumers are seeking, like more engaging shopping experiences and new ways to celebrate special occasions such as birthdays and holidays," Mundt says. "3D chocolate printing is unique in that, unlike a traditional manufacturing line, which makes many of exactly the same thing, every item that comes out of a 3D printer can be different than the one before it. So, for this reason, 3D printing allows for a high degree of personalisation. 3D printing is also unique in that you can create things with a 3D printer that cannot be made any other way; interlocking rings, for example, could not be moulded, but you can print them with a 3D printer."

Nestle is also still in the research phase, with the world's largest food maker Man exploring 3D printing in a programme it has called Iron Man. A spokesperson for Nestle says the company is looking at whether Iron Man might be able to help "identify people's specific micronutrient needs, analyse and measure levels of many essential nutrients and ultimately offer nutritional solutions tailored to an individual's needs". The spokesperson says Nestle expects "this research will help to provide the scientific basis for more targeted nutrition in the future".

Click here to read our interview with Italian food group Barilla about the development of its prototype of a 3D pasta printer.

Public research funds are available for such studies. The EU-funded PERFORMANCE project says it has created a 3D printing system that can create personalised food for elderly consumers with chewing and swallowing difficulties.

The EUR3m project has managed to "print complete meals for the elderly", says Sandra Forstner, project manager research and development at German food company Biozoon Food Innovations, which co-ordinated the project with 13 other partners, including Netherlands-based FoodJet Printing Systems; Italy's Femto Engineering and Germany's Roth & Rau. 

The development of the prototype new 3D food printer was based on what Forstner calls the "smooth food concept", ensuring that easy-to-eat food components are printed, with ingredients based on individual files allowing the addition of macronutrients such as protein or carbohydrates, as well as micronutrients like minerals and vitamin during production, she explains. The resulting food is layered with the ingredients, Forstner says, with the time window between printing one layer and the next very short. Materials need to be sufficiently malleable to be printable but stable enough to hold or carry subsequent layers, which was another challenge. Forstner admits "it will be some time" before the prototype reaches the market. More work is needed, for example, to achieve maximum production speed, she points out.

Food manufacturers are also being encouraged to explore becoming suppliers to home-based food 3D printing systems, just as coffee companies have been creating pods for capsule-based coffee makers. Spain-based Natural Machines manufactures the Foodini home-use 3D printer, which has been regarded as a trailblazer in the segment since 2014. It has received approaches from major food manufacturers to explore the supply of food ingredient capsules.

Foodini is an Internet-connected device on which users can browse recipes on its built-in touchscreen. Once a recipe has been chosen, the Foodini instructs users which ingredients to put in empty stainless steel food capsules, which it then uses to begin printing food.

"We want to make consumers their own manufacturers," says Lynette Kucsma, co-founder and CMO of Natural Machines. The company's current system is geared toward professional users with its US$2,000 price tag but less pricey options are coming soon. Kucsma claims there is interest from branded food manufacturers to create pre-filled food capsules, similar to how K-cups are pre-packaged coffee pods for the Keurig machine on sale in the US. Natural Machines is working with food manufacturers to develop preservative and additive-free capsules, Kucsma says, although she declines to the company's potential partners.

Whatever form these 3D food printing projects are taking, technical teething troubles are invariably a challenge. Japanese food retailer FabCafe, for instance, is planning to install two new 3D printing machines at its retail outlet in Tokyo this month. FabCafe has partnered with Musashi Engineering Inc to develop the application and software.

FabCafe COO Toshimasa Kawai says his company is planning to offer 3D food printing on a project basis once trials are completed  The move follows earlier trials in 2013 and 2014, when FabCafe offered customers a 3D scanner and printer to make chocolates modelled from their own face. Next came gummy bear replicas of customers - using 3D full-body scanning technology - and cookies. Despite receiving good publicity, FabCafe suffered technical difficulties and suspended the service in 2014 because of problems around temperature control and data conversion.

"Food 3D printing is still experimental so the quality is really difficult to maintain and a stable environment is needed," Kawai explains. He still believes in the technology and hopes with the new printer these problems will be solved. "It is becoming more popular and common, especially to make chocolate and pasta," he said. "3D printers are going to become standard in production, and even cooking."

In 2015, Yoshihiro Asano, a researcher at Tokyo's Keio University, created a 3D food printer Lunchbot, which printed designs of furikake (dried food) on boxed rice. Asano has been working on the system's accuracy ahead of any commercialisation. Nonetheless, Asano believes "the evolution of 3D food printing can help deliver taste and nutrition" to the food sector.