3-D shape
In today’s reality and tomorrow’s possibility, 3-D printing offers ways to create imaginative, intricate food shapes.

KANSAS CITY — The possibilities for 3-D food printing might bring to mind a scene in the 1971 movie “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” While Mr. Wonka (played by the late Gene Wilder) sang “Pure Imagination,” children marveled at yard-high lollipops sprouting from the ground and at trees with gumball-filled balloons in place of leaves.

After the song ended, Mr. Wonka plucked a candy flower, its petals shaped like a cup. He took a drink and then a bite out of a petal.

In today’s reality and tomorrow’s possibility, 3-D printing offers ways to create imaginative, intricate food shapes. There are additional potential benefits as well. Replicating culinary art may save on labor costs, and 3-D printers could personalize nutrition in food products through ingredient selection.

3D Systems Corp., Rock Hill, S.C., and BeeHex, Inc., Columbus, Ohio, are two companies pioneering the use of 3-D printing.

3D Systems offers engineering software, 3-D printers and printer materials to companies in various industries, including aerospace and defense, automotive, and health care. The company’s presence in the food industry increased in August when CSM Bakery Solutions and 3D Systems Corp. announced an agreement to collaborate in the development, sale and distribution of 3-D printers, products and materials for the food industry. Atlanta-based CSM Bakery Solutions will support the development and have exclusive rights to utilize 3D Systems’ ChefJef Pro 3-D printer for food products for the professional culinary environment.

Sebastian Siethoff, CSM Bakery Solutions
Sebastian Siethoff, CSM Bakery Solutions

“We saw a clear opportunity to really lead the charge in baking as a company and then as a sub-set, or as a broader set, ultimately in foods all together,” said Sebastian Siethoff, senior vice-president of corporate strategy and chief marketing officer for CSM Bakery Solutions. “We’re thinking very big on this. We’re being quite entrepreneurial and visionary on this, together with 3D Systems. The potential to monetize this is there and is getting more and more exciting every day.”

The ChefJet Pro 3-D printer uses powdered sugar and hydrated food coloring to create products. Initially, CSM Bakery Solutions will target how 3-D printing may assist chefs creating high culinary art in such venues as casinos and cruise lines.

3-D cake

A ChefJet Pro 3-D printer from 3D Systems uses powdered sugar and hydrated food coloring to create products like cake decorations. Courtesy of CSM Bakery Solutions

“We’re really thinking of this as a high culinary platform that then ultimately can go into food service and retail,” Mr. Siethoff said.

Replicating chef creations potentially may save on costs.

“Today, there is a lot of labor and time spent with bakers to decorate cakes and cupcakes,” he said. “What (3-D printing) will do is essentially allow a chef or a baker to replicate high culinary art, on a push of a button.”

3-D printing could involve flavor selection as well. Mr. Siethoff pointed to the Coca-Cola Freestyle machine as a benchmark.

“Just as much as it is modular and incredibly impactful in terms of detail and color and size and shapes, (3-D printing) can be just as versatile and modular in terms of flavor combinations,” Mr. Siethoff said.

Read on for more 3-D printing possibilities.

Pumpkin cookies
The 3-D printing systems could replicate in the bakery what workers and chefs do by hand. Courtesy of BeeHex, Inc.

Pipings and pizza toppings

BeeHex, Inc., a robotics company that builds fresh food 3-D printing systems, seeks to offer automation benefits for its customers, which could range from in-store bakeries to pizza chains. Last March, BeeHex completed a $1 million seed round led by Jim Grote, the founder of Grote Co., which manufactures food processing equipment. 

“There has to be a return on investment for our customers,” said Benjamin Feltner, chief operating officer and co-founder of BeeHex. “We’re automating one or more of their processes that go on in their kitchen or in their food production facilities.”

Benjamin Feltner, BeeHex
Benjamin Feltner, BeeHex

The 3-D printing systems could replicate in the bakery what workers and chefs do by hand, like hand-piping for icing and frosting on cookies, cakes, cupcakes and donuts.

Food cartridges may be plugged into free-standing 3-D printing machines. Technology may automate dispensing of dry ingredients and toppings on food products. 3-D printing could also automate the placement of toppings on pizza for one example. Eventually, a 3-D printer might print a whole pizza, Mr. Feltner said.

BeeHex has a prototype 3-D food printer that is about 5 feet high and about 4 feet by 4 feet, Mr. Feltner said.

“Any alternative to what we’re doing is a $1 million machine, or something in that ballpark,” he said. “It’s huge and needs to be run in a large production facility where they would make hundreds of thousands of pizzas a day or thousands of cupcakes an hour. We’re able to do the automation but on a much smaller scale, right there fresh.”

BeeHex offers several options for purchasing its 3-D printing technology.

“Our goal is to offer the most cost-effective way to utilize customizable automation with a small footprint -- ideal for grocery stores and bakeries,” BeeHex said.

Barilla 3D pasta printer

Transforming pasta

The pasta company Barilla, which is headquartered in Italy, but has its U.S. offices in Northbrook, Ill., is using a 3-D printer to create custom pasta shapes. Barilla has partnered with TNO, the Dutch Research Center (Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research) to develop a 3-D pasta printer that is able to produce fresh pasta in 2 minutes using dough prepared with durum wheat semolina and water. Pasta shapes such as vortices, moons and roses are possible.

The Tangible Media Group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., has developed a concept called “transformative appetite” in which edible 2-D films made of common food materials like protein, cellulose or starch are transformed into 3-D food during cooking. Water absorption triggers the transformation.

A “flat packaging” concept may reduce shipping costs and storage space. Pasta, for example, may be flat during shipping and then transform into shapes like macaroni or rotini upon water hydration.

Smart Cups

Beverage innovation is possible, too

Smart Cups Technology, a proprietary process, allows Smart Cups, L.L.C., Mission Viejo, Calif., to 3-D print Katalyxt, or microencapsulated ingredients that provide flavor and energy. The company incorporates the Katalyxt into the bottom of its Smart Cups. Adding water unleashes the ingredients, turning the product into an energy drink with no calories or carbohydrates.

The drinks come in four flavors: “tropical recess” features pineapple, coconut and lemon lime; “pucker up brain boost” features lemonade and berry flavors; “magna cum latte” blends coffee taste with latte; and “nerdy lemon-T” blends tea lemonade and fruit flavors.

3-D coffee sweetener

Imaginative coffee sweeteners

Lampados International, Ltd., Caesarea, Israel, in 2017 launched Liteez, a 3-D stevia-based sweetener for hot drinks. The vegan meringue kiss, a plant-based treat, is free from allergens like eggs, gluten, lactose or nuts.

“It’s a fun, 3-D, easy-to-use sugar replacer that doubles as a sweet treat,” said Noam Kaplan, chief executive officer of Lampados International. “You can eat it as a treat when drinking tea or coffee, or, if you need sweetness in the drink, just stir it right in. It will completely dissolve in about a half a minute.”

Pop-up restaurants

Food Ink, a conceptual pop-up dinner, made its world premiere in London in July of 2016. 3-D printers made the utensils and furniture along with the 11-course dinner. Collaborators included architects, artists, chefs, designers and engineers. Two other Food Ink pop-up dinners were held in Spain.

Personalized nutrition
Courtesy of BeeHex, Inc.

Where no printer has gone before

BeeHex’s origins may bring to mind the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Anjan Contractor, now c.e.o. of BeeHex, in 2013 was working for Systems and Materials Research Consultancy (SMRC) in Austin, Texas. He invented a 3-D food printer system for NASA for deep space missions. Previously, astronauts would mix powder with water to create food items, but such food did not have the same visual impact as normal-shaped food, Mr. Feltner said. Thanks to a 3-D food printer, the astronauts could receive a psychological lift upon seeing normal-shaped food, including pizza.

Mr. Contractor further developed his 3-D food printer system to accommodate a variety of food consistencies and developed a no-drip extrusion platform for chocolate and pizza printing. BeeHex was formed in 2016 and moved to Columbus in 2017. Mr. Contractor choose the name BeeHex because of how bees create hexagonal-shaped compartments in honeycombs. Bees are nature’s 3-D printers, Mr. Feltner said.

BeeHex recently partnered with the U.S. Army on a personalized nutrition project.

“Each soldier would have their own profile,” Mr. Feltner said. “You would need to know whether they had any allergies, their dietary preferences, their goals, whether they need to lose weight. All these things would be preloaded.”

Ingredients may be plugged into a 3-D printing machine. Items, like a peanut butter bar or pancakes, could be printed out. The machine, being aware of the dietary preferences and restrictions of the soldier, would know the right ingredients to include in the item.

3-D printing has become more than just pure imagination, but years of research and development are needed for the technology to reach its full potential in the food industry.

“It will be some time before we see widespread 3-D pizza printing,” Mr. Feltner said. “I think it will be more behind the scenes for a while.”

Mr. Siethoff said of CSM Bakery Solutions, “We are on a long-term development process, just getting started. We are looking to have a commercial pilot ready in the back half of (2018).”