JOHANNESBURG - Perhaps some people can still remember the Replicator, the Star Trek food manufacturing device that was able to turn molecules into edible food and even entire dishes. But this is not totally science fiction anymore, since we are getting closer.

Additive manufacturing or 3D printing has become the manufacturing tool of the 21st century. As the cost of entry for 3D printing is declining, significantly more businesses are integrating 3D printing into their design processes and also use it for fast prototyping and manufacturing.

The growth of 3D printing is truly remarkable. According to the highly respected Wohlers Report 2019, the 3D printing industry grew by 33.5percent to R143.9billion in 2018, or 62percent, over the past two years.

In particular the report reveals a significant increase of 41.9percent in metal additive manufacturing, thus continuing the average growth of the previous five years of 40percent.

Polymer powder bed fusion materials are also at an all-time high, while the number of manufacturers of industrial additive manufacturing systems grew to a total of 177 worldwide, with a significant increase of 50percent in the US.

It is, therefore, not surprising that 3D printing is commonly employed in industries such as the aerospace, automotive, electronics, fashion, housing and medical industries. But few people expected that 3D printing would change the way we eat.

However, it was only a matter of time until the food industry started experimenting with the 3D printing of food.

In the past few years, 3D printing has made its way into professional and even some home kitchens. The 3D printing of food is getting people very enthused and has the potential to bring significant changes to how we prepare and present food.

But the 3D printing of food, or food materials, is not something entirely new and has been researched by a number of organisations to make food available in circumstances where it may be difficult to prepare and serve food in the traditional way.

Nasa, in particular, is using 3D printed food in order to limit food waste and to create attractive food that is created according to an astronaut’s dietary needs on longer missions. The current food options within space travel are far too dull and unattractive.

As the technology has grown over the years, so has the application of 3D printing of food. Initial experiments in the 3D printing of food were with chocolate and sugar paste, but were not very pleasing.

As more specialised 3D printers entered the market, as well as Fused Deposition Modelling, the process was improved. Then came the idea of using food waste to produce 3D-printed products, the 3D printing of “meat” at the cellular protein level, and eventually the opening of 3D-printing restaurants.

Currently, many researchers are investigating if 3D printing of food could be the ideal complete food preparation method to balance nutrients in a comprehensive and healthy way.

The 3D printing of food entails the squeezing out of food, layer by layer, into three-dimensional objects. A wide range of foods are suitable candidates, such as chocolate, sweets, fruits, vegetables, and flat foods such as crackers, pasta, and pizza.

But if you could make the same food yourself or buy it at a supermarket, why would you invest in 3D printing? Well, one reason is that with a 3D printer people could generate many new opportunities, such as the creation of more innovative products suitable for weddings and functions. New tastes can be explored and both the health of consumers and the environment could benefit from the new technology.

The last revolution in the food industry happened more than 70 years ago when the microwave was introduced. It is certainly time for a new technological revolution.

But perhaps freedom is the greatest benefit. People are generally more health conscious today and 3D printing allows people the freedom to decide which ingredients to include in a meal if they follow a vegan, gluten-free or dairy-free diet. And if the children do not want to eat their spinach, it is quite simple to print it in the form of small figures.

If you are one of the people keeping track of your calorie consumption, you can always transfer the data from your fitness tracker to the 3D printer to create a customised and calorie conscious meal.

In some hospitals 3D food printing is used to adapt meals to patients’ exact nutritional needs to improve their recovery time.

In retirement homes where certain older people experience difficulty chewing, 3D printing can be used to provide a more pleasant texture. A young Columbia University researcher has even gone further and seamlessly integrated medicine into food, making it a more pleasant experience.

Quite often food is still good for use, but does not look attractive, and thus goes to waste since it cannot be sold or dished up. With the assistance of 3D printing, less attractive food could be included in more appetising shapes.

3D printing is also environmentally friendlier since it makes the use of alternative protein sources, such as insects, possible.

Perhaps not everybody’s cup of tea, but it is a well-known fact that we have to limit our meat consumption due to the high methane production and water usage of current practices. Livestock produces 14.5 to 18percent of global human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. With 3D printing it is possible to create more attractive shapes, which should appear aesthetically more appetising to the Western person not used to eating insects.

Chefs know that the appearance of food has an important influence on the choice, acceptance and taste experience of food.

Another approach is 3D print “meat” by using plant-based proteins that could provide a sustainable solution to feeding the world’s ever-growing population.

The Italian researcher Giuseppe Scionti of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Barcelona modified a 3D fused deposition-modelling printer to create various “meat” steaks out of rice, peas and seaweed.

Out of the ingredients he made a reddish paste with a texture similar to that of red meat. Each 110gram “steak” is created in 30 to 50 minutes and would eventually cost about R7.

The “steaks” certainly need some improvement, since they currently taste more like mushrooms, but they are certainly a possible alternative for the future.

But there is at present one major drawback - some 3D printed food, such as a printed pizza, must still be cooked. However, manufacturers are working hard to make the 3D printer an everyday food processor, for instance, by adding blue and infrared lasers to cook the food during printing. Blue lasers provide deep penetrating cooking, while infrared lasers brown the surface.

One of the main advantages is undoubtedly the freedom of design, which is already widely used in other sectors.

Indeed, 3D printers are able to create very complex shapes that are difficult to achieve with traditional methods. This also applies to 3D food printing.

Originally, most of the machines used were modified FDM printers. Today we already have 3D food printers specialising in the production of delicious and refined dishes.

Whether you want to create a complex and artful pastry or simply need to prepare something quickly, the 3D printing of food could offer that and much more.

Perhaps you will have a 3D food printer in your kitchen soon, since the technology is already available.

Or you can just visit the famous 3D printed food restaurant Food Ink in London.

Professor Louis Fourie is the deputy vice-chancellor: knowledge & information technology - Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

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