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3D food printing, 3D food printer: a full definition and lexicon

3D printing of food has not been science fiction for many years. And yet it is a subject that always amazes many. What exactly are we talking about? What makes a 3D food printer different from another printer? Is 3D disruptive for food? In this article, we propose to define precisely what this innovation covers, its implications for food professionals. This article is also an opportunity to build a complete lexicon of 3D food printing terms. It is expected that this article will help you find your way around and compare easily.

1. Definitions of 3D Food Printing

By convention in this blog, we use the term 3D printing to talk about technology or the manufacturing process. 3D printer is used to describe the machine that performs these operations. And we’re talking about 3D Object to talk about the result of this manufacturing process. Actually, this distinction is not necessary for English since we speak of 3D Printing for the process and 3D Print for realization.

There have been (and surely still) long debates to choose the right name between 3D printing and additive manufacturing. Some believe that the term manufacturing is more serious, closer to the industrial world. Additive manufacturing also contrasts more frontally with subtractive manufacturing techniques (such as milling, cutting, etc.). Personally, we prefer the term 3D printing for several reasons:

  • it refers to 3D without which this technology could not exist,
  • a print head is used in several variants of 3D printers to deposit a material
  • it allows the general public to get an idea of the scope of the technology. Sometimes it’s wrong because you only make an analogy with desktop printers. But if you think of the world of 2D printing that goes from desktop printers to industrial behemoths occupying entire hangars; we are very close to what happens for 3D printing.

After discussing the differences between additive manufacturing and 3D printing, I propose some general definitions with a focus on the food field.

What is 3D printing?

3D printing is also called additive manufacturing. It is a way of making an object in three dimensions, by adding material in successive and layered layers. 3D printing encompasses many manufacturing processes, which differ depending on the technologies or materials used. 3D food printing began in 2005 with Cornell University’s Fab-Home project (nutella) and the Candyfab sugar printing project.

What is a 3D printer?

A 3D printer is a digitally controlled machine that allows a 3D model to be transposed into a solid material. The 3D printer was invented simultaneously in France and the United States. In France, three researchers (Alain le Méhauté, Olivier de Witte and Jean Claude André) filed the first patent in 1984. At the same time, in the United States, a patent was filed by Charles Hull, who later founded 3DSystems, one of the largest manufacturers of 3D printers today. The first 3D food printers appeared in 2006.

What are the different 3D printing technologies?

3D printing brings together different methods and therefore different machines, not all of which are relevant to the food field. These include:

  • Selective laser sintering (SLS) and direct metal laser sintering (DMLS): a laser specifically fuses a powder deposited in a tray. Then a spleen comes to deposit a new layer of powder that will be solidified again etc… The technology used for polymers and metals;
  • Wire deposit: The material used comes in the form of solid yarn. It is heated to be in a semi-melted state before being deposited by a print head.
  • Direct deposit of material: this is a process related to the deposit of wire except that the material is already in a semi-liquid form. Therefore, the print head comes to deposit a cord of material. It is the most commonly used technology in 3D food printing, ceramics, and silicone printing;
  • Stereolithography: an image of the layer is projected by a UV lamp into a bath of photosensitive material. This solidifies the resin in a targeted way. Printed materials are varied, from flexible to very rigid;
  • Digital Light Processing: This technique is very close to stereolithography and uses an infrared lamp instead of the UV lamp
  • Binder projection: A binder is deposited locally by a printing head on a thin layer of powder, layer by layer, according to your 3D model. This process is used to make parts of composite, metal, and sugar;
  • Polyjet: Print heads project layers of hardenable photopolymer liquid onto a printing tray. The Foodjet printer looks like polyjet technology. It consists of depositing drops of food material even if there is no hardening agent other than temperature and ambient air.
  • Multijet Fusion: A binding agent is deposited on the material layer where the particles must be fused. Then, a second special liquid agent is deposited just before the passage of an infrared lamp that merges and creates detailed, high-quality parts.
  • EBM technology is used in metal printing: it uses a beam of computer-controlled electrons and a very empty environment to melt the metal powder. Compared to the DMLS, the difference lies in the energy source used.
  • LOM process: Considered a semi-additive manufacturing technique because of its two-step process. The sheets of material are glued together and then a laser cuts to the chosen shape before a new sheet of material is glued etc. When the material used is paper is then referred to as Selective Deposition Lamination

What is the largest 3D printing plant?

In terms of number of parts, the largest production plant is Align Technology, which produces half a million dental gutters per day. But there are many metal or polymer 3D printing plants or generalists on every continent. To date, no factory dedicated solely to 3D food printing has been launched.

Are 3D objects durable?

In the beginning, materials used in 3D printing were resins more intended for renderings or models, this is no longer the case today! For example, 3D-printed parts are used in the engines of Airbus or Boeing aircraft. Every day, 3D printed objects are used in the medical sector, in the manufacturing industry like any other production part! Additive manufacturing technologies do not alter the properties of the base material. In some metal 3D printing processes the mechanical properties of 3D printed objects are even superior to those of forged parts.  

What are the specifics of 3D food printing?

Food 3D printers work roughly like personal wire-deposit printers and have appeared very quickly in university labs and fab labs. In other words, they print real food, usually contained in syringes. Some printers also work by filing binder. Printing food poses many problems. First of all in terms of the texture of the material in the input. Then the other big problem is holding the 3D object printed. Printing food also requires compliance with hygiene and food safety standards. Therefore, this has a strong impact on the design and building of the machines!

Printing food: is it possible? What for?

It’s time to immediately lift an ambiguity: 3D printers are not there to replace cooks and pastry chefs! As in other sectors where 3D printing has productive applications, this complements other manufacturing techniques. Some of the great advantages of 3D printing include:

  • Reducing material loss,
  • Tailoring and personalisation,
  • The ability to produce complex designs,
  • Saving time…

2. The lexicon of 3D printing and digital manufacturing for food

Here you will find the main terms used in digital manufacturing and 3D food printing, at least the ones we use on a daily basis. We tried to be the most complete but we probably lack entries, feel free to write to us to complete it!

The lexicon is already very large (100 entries), we decided to separate it from this article, it is on this page.

In conclusion, 3D food printing has a lot to do with the world of 3D printing and many constraints to integrate from food production. 3D food printers first appeared almost 15 years ago. And yet we are far from seeing printers in restaurants all over the world. In future articles, we will look at the materials and challenges for 3D food printing.


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