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3D Food Printing

Prof. Bart Nicolai from KU Leuven introduced 3D Food Printing.

In this Prof. Bart Nicolai professort at the University of Leuven introduced 3D food printing. Bart is a food engineer, and his main expertise is post-harvest technology of fruits and vegetables.

What is 3D food printing?

In order to understand 3D food printing, we need to look at traditional food processing that typically starts from a recipe, which contains a list of ingredients and also a description of procedures of how to transform these ingredients into the final foods.

3D food printing is radically different in the sense that it constructs foods point by point and layer by layer. Typically it starts from a recipe similar to traditional food processing, but the recipe now also includes detailed instructions for the food printer to move the printer head from position to position and from layer to layer.

Technologies for 3D Printing

There are four different types of 3D printing techniques used in the food sector. The different technologies that you can use for 3D food printing depending on the type of the material. The techniques available in the food sector include:

  • Extrusion-based printing

If you want to print liquids, you can use extrusion deposition, which then typically needs to be post-processed. For example, if you print a construct out of dough, then you need to put the construct into an oven and bake it. If you print a gel, then you likely need to post-process the gel with a solution that contains biovent calcium ions. For example, for alginate and pectin gels, this is the case.

  • Sinterting printing

If you want to print powders, you can use various sintering techniques. You start with a vat of powder, and then, locally, you would apply, for example, a laser beam to melt the outer surface of some of the particles in such a way thatthey will fuse together. This is called sintering.

  • Binder-jetting printing

In the binder jetting printing, powdered materials are deposited layer by layer and small droplets of binder (diameters < 100 μm) are ejected and deposited on the power bed surface to bind the layers. After deposition of the binder, the surface is usually heated by irradiation, in order to increase the mechanical strength and allow the deposition of the successive layer. These steps are repeated for each layer. During the fabrication process, the unfused powder supports the fused parts while, at the end of the process, it is removed and recycled. The binder jetting printing can be applied to powdered materials such as chocolate, starch, sugar, protein, and fake foods

  • Inkjet printing

Then finally, if you want to print the cell suspension, then, typically, you can do this via Bio-Printing. Bio-Printing essentially is an extrusion process but with low shear forces because otherwise, you damage your cells. And Bio-Printing has been used to produce artificial meats.

Challenges and Opportunities

3D food printing faces several challenges. Speed is the major issue. The typical speed of 3D food printing is orders of magnitude smaller than the typical speed of the traditional food processing line. Also, the fact that often you need to post-process your construct takes additional time, and it would be much more convenient if you could integrate the post-processing into the actual printing process.

3D printing may transform the food industry, not because of the fun shapes that you can produce, this is going to be a niche market also in the future, but mainly because of personalization. You can personalise 3D printed food in terms of shape or flavour but also, for example, in terms of health components. Looking ahead to the future 3D foods printing with the appropriate software that takes into account your personal health records or maybe your latest blood analysis, to manipulate the composition or the content of health-promoting the components in your 3D printed foods, contributing to long term health benefits in indiviudals.

What we would like you to do

Please share your thoughts on 3D food printing in the comments section below:

  • Have you heard of 3D food printing before?
  • Would you eat 3D printed food?
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Revolutionising the Food Chain with Technology

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