25 June 2015

3D opportunity serves it up: Additive manufacturing and food

Additively manufactured food may be more of a novelty than an industry game-changer—for now. Yet advances in technology and innovations in its application could mean that science fiction may become fact sooner than expected.

What will our spaceship-dwelling descendants eat? If science fiction is any guide, machines such as Star Trek’s“replicators”1 will be able to generate any desired foodstuff on demand. We’re a long way from that reality—three centuries, in the Star Trek universe—but manufacturers have taken steps in that direction, with real-world implications for the short as well as long term.

Few readers would be surprised to learn that inventors and manufacturers have experimented with printing food—it’s a natural evolution in the technology of additive manufacturing (AM), commonly referred to as 3D printing. For some 30 years, AM—a manufacturing technique that builds objects layer by layer—has focused on using polymers (for example, plastics) and, more recently, metals. In the past few years, experimental materials, including edible ingredients, have emerged as well. Accompanying that expansion, AM is coming to encompass a wider set of applications, ranging from aerospace cooling ducts to 3D-printed pizzas.

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