2016 shall forever be the year that printed pizza became a thing thanks to a technologist from NASA. 3D food printing hit the scene this year in a big way, and though it’s not quite ready for mainstream home use, the technology and use cases are starting to disrupt the way chefs, food chains, grocery stores and even consumers are thinking about preparing fresh food.

Pancakes and pizza and pasta…oh my 

The concept behind 3D food printing is very similar to the one behind 3D printing; raw materials are loaded into cartridges and a design (or in the case of food, a recipe) is programmed into the machine. The printer then uses the materials to produce a three-dimensional rendering of the design – in the case of traditional 3D printing, the rendering is made of plastic. In the case of 3D food printing, it could be anything, as long as its edible.

3D food printing as an industry is still in its infancy but started to gain traction in 2016. Startups appeared creating bots that printed pasta, pancakes, cheesecake – even pizza. Companies like BeeHex burst onto the scene at SXSW in Austin, printing delicious flatbread pizzas with real mozzarella, fresh dough and tomato sauce. But BeeHex isn’t just any startup, it came from the brain of engineer and tech celebrity Anjan Contractor, the guy who just happened to invent NASA’s 3D food printer with the goal of sending it on manned missions to Mars. Contractor then joined three other partners to use the technology and create a similar machine, one that would print tasty pizza efficiently and “create a new food experience–using robots–to make customized food cleaner, healthier and faster.”

BeeHex’s B2B model is squarely aimed at disrupting commercial kitchens and food chains who currently use manpower and older cooking technology to prepare food for customers. So even though you might get to taste the creations of a BeeHex machine from your local pizza joint, you probably won’t be able to buy one for your kitchen anytime in the near future.

But there are some companies building 3D food printing for consumer kitchens and the options range from the specific to the versatile to the futuristic.

Your face. On a pancake.

While several 3D printing startups are attempting to take their product to market, there’s few options for actually buying one today. One of those exceptions is a product called PancakeBot and it’s….pretty much exactly what it sounds like. PancakeBot is a printer bot that can be programmed to pump out pancake batter in any shape and cook it on a skillet. Invented by Miguel Valenzuela and backed on Kickstarter by over 2,000 backers, PancakeBot is a product you can buy today for around $300. But is printing things like pancakes on single devices the future of cooking in our kitchens?

Probably not, according to fellow Spoon contributor and food writer Megan Giller, who went and printed her face on a PancakeBot and wrote about it. The quality of the materials used and general premise behind PancakeBot seemed to put the company squarely in the novelty item camp. But the focus of the device is to put whimsical designs on a favorite breakfast item, not necessarily to change or alter the way we make food at home. And maybe it had to do with the watered down, generic batter they were using, but Megan’s experience was less than stellar.

“What I tasted was kind of like a flat, soggy animal cracker with alternating crispy and doughy bites.”

But the two things that might be wrong with PancakeBot – gimmicky premise and subpar raw ingredients – are the exact opposite approach of another startup trying to bring 3D food printing to our kitchens.

Foodini as the next microwave?

The raw materials used in 3D food printing falls into two categories: prepackaged, closed capsules that can be easily popped into a machine to print food and open capsules where fresh ingredients can be placed. The latter is the model used by Barcelona startup Natural Machines with their flagship product, the Foodini. Foodini is a 3D printer aimed at the consumer market – it’s designed to look a little like a countertop oven or microwave and uses a healthy eating and fresh ingredients approach as its hook. “Make fresh foods faster than by hand” is the theory behind Foodini and Natural Machines sees consumers popping fresh ingredients into the open capsules to create foods like pretzels, ravioli and breadsticks with no preservatives. It also makes all kinds of foods – from sweet to savory – and this point is a key differentiator as well. A decent amount of 3D food printing is singularly focused (see PancakeBot or BeeHex) or uses sugar as an easy, main source ingredient to craft desserts.

While Natural Machines wants their 3D food printer to be another countertop device, they don’t exactly expect that it will replace your current appliances. In fact, the device is really designed for consumers who already make foods from scratch – or consumers who want to but don’t because of time and convenience – and deliver an easier solution.

“Note that our proposition is not to say that everything you eat should be 3D printed, just like everything you eat now doesn’t come out of an oven.”

 

The Foodini hasn’t shipped yet, despite promises of shipping this year, and is in production and being beta tested in professional kitchens. The availability date is vague, with a “post-2016” date listed on the website and the anticipated price is a staggering $2,000. But this is a bold new venture, shipping a versatile, consumer 3D food printing device that’s meant to act and be seen as a kitchen appliance. The delays and high price reflect those factors and we’re anxious to see early reviews when it ships.

Liquid food from nūfood

Remember before when I said that 3D food printing was just like regular 3D printing except for the raw ingredients? In the case of UK startup nūfood, that’s not entirely true. nūfood, the 2016 Smart Kitchen Startup Showcase Winner, is changing the 3D printing game by patenting a new technique to create three-dimensional objects from liquids. The printed food maintains its shape until eaten, when the object liquefies again, amplifying the flavors. The encapsulation method they are working to patent means the liquid actually looks like a solid state until it’s eaten. The demo at the Summit was pretty incredible but it also showed that the nūfood approach takes a pretty scientific and futuristic approach to a technology that’s not even mainstream in its original form. But the nūfood creations are gorgeous and unique and their technology could be a game-changer for this growing space.

The future of machine printed food

At a recent 3D food printing conference in The Netherlands, there was clearly excitement about the market potential. The commercial world – restaurants and grocery chains – were already looking at 3D food printing as both an option for replacing current food prep systems and an entertainment opportunity. A panelist at the conference suggested that there could be a 3D food printer in every home in just two years.

The growth of 3D food printing in 2016 leaves the future wide open for more expansion – but also more questions. What industries will be influenced by the technology? What types of foods and ingredients can be printed in the future? And what precautions should be taken to ensure the safety and maintainability of 3D printed food? We’ll have to wait and see what 2017 will bring in the development of machine-created food.