The future of edible printing could see new gadgets in the home, as well as customisation in the supermarket, restaurants or at vending machines. Ben Peace reports.
Additive manufacturing is now fairly established in sectors such as aerospace and automotive, where the technology has been developing beyond prototyping to the production of final use parts.
Louise Jones, resident additive manufacturing (AM) lead for the KTN, is exploring areas where AM has not yet been applied and has untapped potential. One such application is in food and nutrition.
The ability to print edible new food products could have considerable market appeal, offering potential nutritional benefits, new aesthetic possibilities and personalisation.
These market benefits are allied with supply chain benefits, for instance in relation to storage and distribution. However, there are challenges, chiefly: technical, supply chain, and regulatory.
The additive manufacturing process for food falls into two distinct categories – direct printing and mould printing. One challenge in relation to the former relates to the materials for AM.
Usually, any printing process involves a heated material being pushed through an extrusion nozzle. Repeatedly heating and cooling foodstuffs, creates a greater chance of bacterial or fungal growth, which reduces shelf-life and could ultimately waste the product.
In addition, typical applications of additive manufacturing involve single material layering, whereas the direct printing of food requires multiple ingredients, therefore adding complexity.
A recent workshop, held at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s Centre for Advanced Food Manufacture at the University of Nottingham, brought experts together from industry and academia to explore the possibilities along and the challenges.
Two concepts emerged that could create impact in the near to mid-term. Firstly, the ability to solve specific nutritional challenges, and secondly, new opportunities relating to the equipment involved in food manufacture.
The possibility of creating foods on demand and at source, has the potential to revolutionise current food processing, storage and distribution.
If this is combined with the ability to create foods with specific properties, such as adding a layer within a product to deliver nutraceutical benefit or vitamins, then the production of food has the potential to become personalised.
This use of additive manufacturing to produce functionally different food formulations has, to date, not been fully implemented, but could represent a major opportunity.
Sterilising and cleaning in food manufacturing facilities is both costly and time consuming. One possibility raised at the workshop was that conventional equipment parts could be manufactured by additive manufacturing with a reduced part count, meaning they would be easier to clean.
Another interesting possibility is 3D printed components with antibacterial material and coating properties.
Additive manufacturing technology clearly presents many opportunities in the food manufacturing sector.
How the sector adopts the technology in the future will depend on a range of factors – the technology; the availability and development of new raw materials; its integration into existing production lines, supply chains and business models; and regulatory approvals.
As is so often the case with innovation, collaboration and knowledge sharing around these issues will be a major enabler of the opportunities.
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