Image: The Foodini is the printer is claimed to be the first 3D printer to render fresh, nutritious food. Photo: Courtesy of Natural Machines.

To most, the name Chuck Hull will mean very little, if anything. But in 1983, Hull created the first working 3D printer. Three years later he founded 3D Systems (3DS) to better market the machines, and the company now offers two 3D food printers. With a focus on printing sweet rather than savoury, the idea that a printer could be used to form edible products was formed when Liz Von Hasseln and her husband Kyle forgot to bake a birthday cake for a friend. After tweaking their 3DS printer they used it to print sugar layers. The couple’s company Sugar Lab was purchased by 3DS in September 2013, and the pair now work as the creative directors of food products for 3DS.

The technology has made considerable advances in the past few years; however companies developing 3D food printers have by and large stuck to printing sugary products, including chocolate, icing, and sweets. These foods in their liquid form are easy textures to work with when it comes to 3D printing, and so naturally this is where early development was concentrated. However, why shouldn’t the machines be able to print different foods and different food textures?

Healthy and fresh printed produce helps drive innovation

"Top restaurants around the world are already using 3D food printers to create culinary masterpieces."

This is where Foodini comes in. The launch product of Barcelona-based Natural Machines, the Foodini 3D food printer is the first to print all types of real, fresh, nutritious food – from croquettes to crackers, and breadsticks to burgers. Describing the machine as a “new generation kitchen appliance promoting cooking with fresh, real ingredients”, co-founder Lynette Kucsma saw a gap in the market for a printer that had the potential to encourage more people to eat healthier, fresher foods.

Natural Machines targets both professional and home kitchen users. Professional users – including Michelin-star chefs – enjoy the printer for the fact that it opens up a whole new world of food presentation. Top restaurants around the world are already using 3D food printers to create culinary masterpieces. And this interest from chefs stems from two main reasons: customisation – enabling the creation of dishes that cannot be done by hand; and automation. Automation in this industry removes what Kucsma describes as the ‘pain point’ in certain food preparation processes. While simple, one-pot meals don’t need a food printer, any process that is time-consuming, repetitive or intricate – such as rolling breadsticks or making individual ravioli pieces – can be done by a 3D printer. So the technology enables chefs to innovate, and speed up preparation times.

Lending a helping hand – speeding up the cooking process

"The technology enables chefs to innovate, and speed up preparation times."

Consumers are similarly being encouraged to adopt the appliance as a time-saving and hassle-avoiding healthier option. Kucsma hopes that it will encourage people to eat fewer pre-processed meals and snacks. And for the sceptics, or those who simply can’t get their heads around eating ‘printed’ food, the company explains that if you eat anything from a food manufacturer, like packaged food you can buy in a supermarket, you are essentially already eating 3D printed food. A food manufacturer “takes food, pushes it through machines, shapes it, forms it,” while Natural Machines has taken the same concept and shrunk the facility down to the size of a kitchen appliance.

But Kucsma is under no illusion that the Foodini will replace every preparation and cooking process in the kitchen. Instead she sees it as a kitchen appliance that takes on the difficult parts of making food that is time-consuming to create by hand. By using a 3D printer, you automate some of the assembly steps of home cooking, making it easier to create freshly-made, healthy and nutritious meals and snacks. The company is not trying to replace traditional ingredient preparation and cooking methods, but instead wants to offer a kitchen product to help people in the process. “From shaping pretzels, to forming gnocchi, to layering ravioli, to forming crackers [the Foodini] is designed to help get people back into kitchens, cooking with fresh foods, and getting away from buying processed, packaged, pre-made foods,” the company assures us.

Using 3D technology to develop food for long range space missions

"In the future, you’ll see a range of 3D food printers from Natural Machines to meet all types of budgets and functionality requirements."

Being able to print food at the click of a button certainly has its advantages. And outside of the kitchen, 3D food printing is cooking up a storm in outer space. In 2013 NASA, in partnership with Texas-based Systems and Materials Research Consultancy (SMRC), started exploring the possibility of using a 3D printer in space missions to manufacture food. SMRC was awarded a $125,000 grant to conduct a study into the feasibility of a 3D printed food system for long-duration space missions. The company’s senior mechanical engineer, Anjan Contractor, used the grant to produce the world’s first 3D pizza printer that could be used in space. He later founded the company BeeHex to bring the invention to the market as a commercial technology, which now uses clean robots to make pizza in less than four minutes that would otherwise take a human nine minutes.

As space exploration advances, NASA will need to continue to make improvements in life support systems, including how to feed spacecraft crew members during long space missions. The aim of the 2013 study was to help to determine the capability of 3D food printing to enable nutrient stability and provide a variety of foods from shelf stable ingredients. “Long distance space travel requires 15-plus years of shelf life,” Contractor told Quartz in 2013. “The way we are working on it is, all the carbs, proteins and macro and micro nutrients are in powder form. We take moisture out, and in that form it will last maybe 30 years.” Plenty long enough for a mission to Mars.

Microwave of the future?

So while the technology clearly has a place in the professional food environment, will 3D printers one day sit alongside the toaster as a common kitchen appliance? In a word, yes, says Kucsma, who believes that 3D food printers will be the microwaves of the future. “We believe that in 10 to 15 years, 3D food printers will become a common kitchen appliance in both home and professional kitchens, similar to how an oven or a microwave are common appliances in kitchens today,” she explains.

Priced at $2,000 – the equivalent to a high-end food processor – the Foodini 3D food printer will be available to select customers this year. And with the promise of a cooking version of the machine post-2016, the company plans to widen the product’s availability to the consumer market. “In the future, you’ll see a range of 3D food printers from Natural Machines to meet all types of budgets and functionality requirements,” Kucsma promises.

“Stay tuned. It’s going to keep getting better and better. We envision that 3D printing technology will continually evolve, so we will always be investing in research and development,” Kucsma concludes. Time will tell whether her vision for 3D food printers will become a reality.