Technology | June 2016 | By Jessica Lee

Printing for Your Palate

Is 3D printing the future of the food industry? These companies think it has potential.
QSR chains consider 3D printer technology to make creative new food items.
3D printers like the PancakeBot can create confections of iconic structures—like the Eiffel Tower—or user-created designs. The PancakeBot

In quick service, the ultimate goal is to deliver great-tasting food as efficiently as possible. Given this basic tenet, the prospect of 3D technology drastically trimming throughput is an intriguing prospect. The industry is not there yet, but new appliances and developments hint that it could soon become reality.

Take the BeeHex 3D Pizza Printer as an example. The printer was developed after NASA granted the company’s founder, Anjan Contractor, $125,000 to develop technology that could print food items.

The printer uses a piston-like instrument to layer 3D-printed edible materials. When printing a pizza at its simplest form, the BeeHex 3D printer first ejects dough, then tomato sauce, and finally cheese. Once printed, the pizza is ready to be baked.

BeeHex CMO Jordan French says the quality and freshness of the 3D-printed pizza depend entirely upon the quality of the ingredients used to prepare the food. “We’ve printed pizzas with vodka sauces and garlic-infused sauces made with Mediterranean canned plum tomatoes,” French says. “We’ve also 3D-printed Burrata and very fine, wet Mozzarella cheeses. Because these inputs taste so good, our 3D-printed product, once baked, tastes similarly amazing.”

Each food comes with its own challenges, such as viscosity, heat transfer, surface tension, and stickiness—all issues that haven’t totally been ironed out in the food 3D printing world. While the BeeHex printer is solely designed to print pizzas, Contractor and French have also 3D-printed chocolate, cakes, biscuits, scones, and muffins.

BeeHex is working to make this 3D-printing technology more commonplace in the restaurant industry. “Three major advantages of BeeHex’s 3D-printer technology are space saving, consistency, and speed,” Contractor says. “We’re in the early stages of exploring deals for a number of arrangements, [including] a kiosk-type setup for cafeterias, airports, hotels, dorms, and malls, where consumers can order and receive fresh food on the spot.”

French and Contractor see value in printing pizzas because of the way consumers have reacted to other comparable brands. Around Valentine’s Day, brands like Pizza Hut and Papa Murphy’s bake heart-shaped pies. The success of these campaigns leads French to believe that BeeHex could capture a good portion of the market share. The company can print pizzas of all shapes quickly and consistently, allowing it to sell all kinds of themed pies, such as a U.S.–shaped pizza around Independence Day.

The plans don’t stop there; Contractor and French ultimately want to make the 3D printer a common appliance.

“Like ovens and microwaves, we see 3D food printers in practically every kitchen in the near future,” French says. “BeeHex plans to focus initially in two key areas: pizza and chocolate. Both are very popular food items and lend themselves well to the reliability, consistency, and customization that people demand, and that demand can be met with a 3D food printer.”

The PancakeBot, a food printer that dispenses pancake batter directly onto a hot griddle, includes user-friendly software, which allows consumers to trace an image on their computer and print that image in pancake form. At this year’s International Home + Housewares Show in Chicago, the PancakeBot was hard at work printing the faces of the consumers admiring it. The product’s inventor, Miguel Valenzuela, partnered with product innovation company Storebound to further develop the printer into a refined version that could go to market. In 2015, the PancakeBot found success on Kickstarter, where it raised more than $460,000.

Storebound executive producer Slim Geransar says the product’s success is a sign that consumers and food purveyors are intrigued. “It’s designed for at-home use, but we’ve already had small caterers, hotels, and airport lounges inquire about it,” he says.

The PancakeBot sells for $299, a price that is comparable to other kitchen appliances such as professional stand mixers and blenders. Geransar believes the affordability of the product is one of its key selling points.

At the Culinary Institute of America (cia), faculty and students are working with the ChefJet Pro, the world’s first professional-grade culinary food printer. The printer uses a combination of sugar and a binding formula to print complex edible 3D objects.

Ted Russin, the CIA’s associate dean of culinary science, says the school has begun experimenting with the printer by blending different types of sugars to see if it can influence the speed at which the creations melt in the mouth, the perception of sweetness, the amount of crunch, and other qualities.

When contemplating the future of 3D printing in the culinary world, Russin says foodservice will ultimately have to find the right balance and appropriate applications.

“If we wanted to have a carrot on a plate, we could theoretically dehydrate carrots, blend them together, and print a 3D-printed carrot, or we could make a carrot purée and extrude a 3D-printed carrot on a plate. But quite frankly, it’d be way easier to have someone peel a carrot and put it on a plate,” Russin says. “So the question becomes one of, where is the sweet spot?”

Russin says 3D food printing will take some time to enter the commercial kitchen. The technology requires an advanced skillset because the user must be able to interface with the design software and think scientifically about the food being created. Having a culinary background could also be important, as the formulas are not intuitive.

“It’s not something you can just sort of tinker around with and get to the right answer really quickly. You really have to be pretty thoughtful about that,” Russin says.

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