Few devices have recently captured the imagination of the food and beverage industry as much as the 3D printer.

CHICAGO — Few devices have recently captured the imagination of the food and beverage industry as much as the 3D printer. Current systems have the ability to print such ingredients as sugar and cocoa into unique shapes and formats. But as one presenter at the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food expo, held July 11-14, noted there are a number of possibilities for the technology, all of which may have an impact on food and beverage product development.

“No matter what field you are in, this technology will worm its way in,” said Hod Lipson, a professor of engineering at Columbia University and a co-author of the book “Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing.” “The technology is getting faster, cheaper and better by the minute. Food printing could be the killer app for 3D printing.”

Joining the session via video conference, Mr. Lipson outlined a variety of scenarios where 3D printing may impact food manufacturers. For example, he said someday consumers may choose from a large on-line database of recipes, put a cartridge with the ingredients into their 3D printer at home, and it would create the dish just for that person. The user may customize it to reduce or add nutrients or replace one ingredient with another.

The technology has garnered the attention of the U.S. military, said Mary Scerra, a food technologist at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center in Massachusetts. She said that by 2025 or 2030, the military envisions using 3D printing to customize meals for soldiers that taste good, are nutrient-dense, and could be tailored to a soldier’s particular needs.

“Imagine warfighters in remote areas — one has muscle fatigue, one has been awake for a long period without rest, one lacks calories, one needs electrolytes, and one just wants a pizza,” Ms. Scerra said. “Wouldn’t it be interesting if they could just print and eat?”

Anshul Dubey, research and development senior manager at PepsiCo, Inc., Purchase, N.Y., said 3D printing already is having an impact within the company, even though it is not yet being used to make food. For example, consumer focus groups were shown 3D-printed plastic prototypes of different shaped and colored potato chips. He said using a prototype such as that, instead of just a picture, elicits a more accurate response from the focus group participants.

“Even though the future of food 3D printing looks far off, that doesn’t mean it’s not impacting the industry,” Mr. Dubey said.

The price of 3D printers has been steadily declining, from more than $500,000 in the 1980s to less than $1,000 today for a personal-sized device, making them increasingly available to consumers and manufacturers, Mr. Lipson said. Although they are not widely used in food manufacturing yet, that availability is fueling research into how they may be used to customize foods or speed delivery of food to consumers.