3D food printing: Precision and accuracy an obstacle to fulfilling potential

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

Printing precision and accuracy, process productivity and the production of colourful, multi-flavour, multi-structure products remain the biggest challenges to wider industry adoption of 3D food printing. 

Findings from a review of this emerging technology point towards a lack of focus on how to achieve accurate and precise printing in order to construct delicate and complex edible structures.

Although 3D printing has uses in areas such as military and space food, elderly food, confectionary and chewing gum, the research team believe more is to come once these challenges are overcome.

“There are many potential advantages of 3D printing technology applied to food sector, such as customised food designs, personalised and digitalised nutrition, simplifying supply chain, and broadening the source of available food material,”​ explained the team, led by Dr Zhenbin Liu, researcher based at Jiangnan University in China.

“Food printing technology will also broaden the source of available food material by using non-traditional food materials such as insects, high fibre plant based materials, and plant and animal based by-products.”

Technology growth

Market research has predicted the value of the 3D food printing market to reach €357.8m ($425m) by 2025, driven by growing demand in customised food and from healthcare applications.

3D printing techniques available in food sector generally include four types: extrusion based printing, binder jetting, selective sintering printing (SLS) and inkjet printing. 

Not only are the types of printing important, the properties of food material, such as the moisture content, rheological properties, specific crosslinking mechanisms and thermal properties, are critical to a successful printing.

Success has been found in printing confectionary and bread products due to the rise in demand of customised chocolates and cakes from the consumers.

The fabrication of cake frosting, processed cheese, and sugar cookies using extrusion based printing, a technique that deposits material in liquid or semi-liquid form in successive layers within the 3D printing volume has been particularly popular.

In 2015, US chocolate and dessert giants Hershey collaborated with industrial 3D printer specialists - 3D Systems to develop an extrusion-based chocolate printer called Cocojet, which can print various shapes in chocolate.

Consumers are able to order designs via an iPad that include complicated hexagon and intricately laced patterns.

3D Systems’ ChefJet Pro binder-jetting printer uses powdered materials deposited layer by layer. The binder selectively ejects each material layer at certain regions.

The binder fuses the current cross-sections to previous and afterwards fused cross-sections. It can be used to print both sweets and food decorations using food materials like sugar, chocolate and cheese.

Complex structures such as interlocking sweets, various sugar sculptures and entire wedding cakes have also been created using this system.

The Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) has used this technology to fabricate foods using traditional materials and non-traditional ingredients such as algae and insects.

Another extrusion-based printer, the Foodini Printer has been created by Natural Machines to be used for surface filling and graphical decoration.

3D food for the elderly

The researchers also highlight 3D food printing’s value among countries facing a growing aging population such as Japan, Sweden, and Canada.

“About 15%–25% of elderly people over the age of 50 and up to 60% of nursing home residents suffer from chewing and swallowing difficulties,”​ the review explained.

“People suffering from this disease are often provided with unappealing ‘porridge-like food’, which cause the loss of appetite and even nutritional deficiencies.”

To tackle this issue, the European Union’s PERFORMANCE project, looks into designing an automated manufacturing method to offer 3D personalised and specially textured food.

The project has also investigated simulation foods, such as peas and gnocchi, in which the soft, pureed texture is easier for the elderly to swallow.

In addition, the personalised nutritional requirements of each person can be met based on age, physical condition, and energy requirements.

Source: Trends in Food Science & Technology

Published online ahead of print: doi.org/10.1016/j.tifs.2017.08.018

3D printing: Printing precision and application in food sector”

Authors: Zhenbin Liu, Min Zhang, Bhesh Bhandari, Yuchuan Wang

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