Another dimension: 3D printing goes global

Apart from a few refinements, the way we prepare food today has changed little over the centuries. Howard Riell asks if 3D printing could be a way to move the process into the digital age

While many are hailing the arrival of 3D printers in restaurant kitchens as a potential quantum leap forward others are reserving judgement, and wonder whether increased mechanization may detract from the artisan’s craft. One fact is clear: 3D printers can provide a new and effective tool for operators in a variety of foodservice segments.

“By 2020 restaurants will employ chefs skilled at using 3D food printers,” says futurist Thomas Frey, executive director of the non-profit DaVinci Institute, a think tank in Westminster, Colorado, US, and innovation editor of The Futurist magazine. “3D food printer chefs will know how to deconstruct food and then reassemble it in completely different ways. These food printers work with various edible ingredients. They combine and ‘print’ them in the desired shape and consistency.”

While digital media has transformed nearly every other facet of society, food preparation is largely unchanged. “The fundamental technologies we use to prepare meals today is only an incremental improvement over the tools we have been using for hundreds of years,” Frey continues. “In order for us to move cooking technologies into the digital age, we will need to re-imagine the entire process of getting food from the farm to the dinner table.”

“3D printing will have dramatic effects on food preparation, starting at the high end because such printers will be expensive at first,” predicts fellow futurist Richard Worzel of Future Search in Toronto, Canada. “Chefs are already creating pastries and confections using 3D printing that would be impossible to produce using traditional methods, and this points the way for other kinds of foods.”

What is not yet settled is how economical this will be, or how the public will accept it. “The cost of printers will come down with technology advances, but more importantly with volume,” says Worzel. “In turn, this means the speed of their spread will depend on how much people like such food. It’s not just the emergence of a technology that dictates the speed of its spread, but also how well the public embraces it.”

Balancing technology

“There is no doubt that the greatest single challenge restaurant operators will face over the next five years is with balancing the technology guests expect with the quality and service they deserve,” says Chris Tripoli FCSI, the principal of A’La Carte Consulting Group in Houston, Texas, US. “We work in this area with almost every client, and while I strongly doubt that, as one futurist suggests, within five years chefs will all have 3D food printers in their kitchen to deconstruct and reassemble food in different ways, there is little doubt that technology will continue to impact the way guests select restaurants, order menu items, are served and then pay their checks.”

“If this takes off, it will involve a different skill set than chefdom currently does, with an emphasis on flavour development, knife skills [and] culinary technique,” says Karen Malody FCSI, principal of Culinary Options in Sante Fe, New Mexico, US. “3D printers will require a unique combination of food science and product development, such as culinologists currently do. But this is far more left-brain and scientific. It will require a shift in thinking in how creativity is defined.”

“Sure, 3D printers are developing, and maybe someone will develop a method to make food products,” says William Watts FCSI of Commercial Kitchen Design in Los Angeles. “If that is to happen I would expect a robot to prepare the food. Robots are the wave of the future. It will give new meaning to artisan craft cooking. Speaking of artisan, it is just a flash in the pan. It is nothing new, and has been going on for years. It is just a new word for healthy-style home cooking.”

Robotics “is coming on strong”, Malody agrees. “Part of this is being driven by the cost of labour and the hopeful reduction of it for the future. It also means consistent results – without having to manage people. It will be costly at first, but I would guess within the next five years we will see it more.”

Not everyone is as optimistic. Tim Agosti FCSI, the principal of Arctic Food Service Design, in Anchorage, Alaska, suggests there may be some 3D printing in the future for some high-cost food items, “but most still will want whole foods that are not synthetically produced, similar to non-GMO now.”

According to Tim Smallwood FFCSI MDIA, principal of Tim Smallwood Consulting in Malmsbury, Victoria, Australia, 3D printers in kitchens are “currently a gimmick; like food foam has taken over the restaurant industry”.

“I do not see technology and natural/fresh as being antithetical – necessarily,” Malody says. “But what I do know is, on the surface, the two seem like dysfunctional or incompatible bed partners. If technology continues to reign within foodservice – and there is no indication it won’t – it is inevitable that public perception of many issues will also shift.”

Labour costs are being targeted due to emerging technologies. “Much of this equipment and technology will be costly at first, but operators are banking on a high probability of ROI due to labour savings and higher new profits,” Malody says. Paris-based consultant Sylvaine Bouquerel FCSI feels the labour cost issue is something of a red herring as “you need to prepare food prior to use the 3D printer.” She also feels that equipment savings will not be made as a printer “will not replace any equipment,” but it may “impulse new tendancies that will help artisan craft.”

According to Malody, “some might say the implications are counter to the perception of real food. I think that for artisanal craft, healthful, carefully prepared food to seem compatible with 3D printers and robots preparing our food, a phenomenal marketing effort will need to ensue. For consumers to understand that robots can cook farm-fresh food will be a serious educational process.”

“Throughout time, culinary professionals have created tools to play with their food,” says Arlene Spiegel FCSI of Arlene Spiegel & Associates in New York. “With the aid of computers and printers, product development can reach new heights of creativity. 3D has the advantage over one and two dimensional design as it allows for: architectural presentations; testing of the structural integrity of ingredients used; and tweaking before costly production.”

Playing with their food

Restaurant operators are interested in 3D printing for two primary reasons, according to Lynette Kucsma, co-founder and CMO of Natural Machines in Barcelona, Spain, the manufacturer of the Foodini 3D food printer. One is because the technology allows them to customise ingredients and presentation that they cannot do by hand. The other is the automation, which cuts production time and all but guarantees high quality and consistency.

“Imagine that you have to make breadsticks in the shape of tree branches for 100 people that evening,” says Kucsma. “Rather than doing it by hand you can automate it with a 3D food printer. They can customise the recipes with different ingredients, which of course can be done by hand as well, but with 3D food printing you can actually ultra-customize that with different flavors and presentations.”

The technology shifts labour within a kitchen without necessarily cutting its cost, says Kucsma. In the instance she cites, a chef or line cook “wouldn’t have to pipe 200 bread sticks. He could programme it and go do something else instead. A Michelin chef sees it as a great kitchen tool to help expand his skills and presentation.”

Starting at the top

Javier and Sergio Torres, the chefs and twin brothers who own and operate the Dos Cielos Restaurant in Barcelona, recently told Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster, that they are taking a wait-and-see approach to the technology.

“It’s novel for sure, but it’s too early to assess the impact of these technological innovations on the way we eat,” Sergio says. “They offer a lot of opportunities, but we’ll have to see, try things out, analyse things. Thankfully our hands have not become obsolete. The machine can’t make the food taste good. It doesn’t cook it for you. It does help with the visuals, creating shapes that wouldn’t be possible without it.”

The brothers demonstrated the unit by printing rice pudding in the shape of a honeycomb. They also use the Foodini unit for one of their signature dishes, artichokes in Iberian ham sauce, a traditional Spanish dish they have updated. “You can turn the artichokes upside down, or draw something on the artichoke itself, or use the sauce to draw the artichoke then sit the artichoke on top of it,” says Javier.

The Torres brothers have already ordered the prototype “to practice on,” according to Sergio. “We have so many ideas about what we can do with it, and we want to try them out and see if they work. If they do it would be amazing – and crazy.”

The future of 3D printing in restaurants then comes into sharper focus. It will serve as a splendid tool for some restaurants in some segments in some instances, permitting flair and originality of presentation while freeing up kitchen staff for other tasks. But like many technical innovations over the years, it will likely prove to be a more evolutionary than revolutionary.

“Are there applications for 3D printing in the foodservice industry?” asks Ryan Mathews, founder and CEO of Michigan-based Black Monk Consulting and a globally recognised futurist and consultant. “The answer – at this point – is a resounding maybe. As technologies such as the Foodini have demonstrated, it is feasible to 3D print food today. It’s just easier if the food is made up of sugar, chocolate and/or dough. And there is the rub. Look for the adoption cycle to start at the high end of foodservice – specialty custom products and designer foods for the most adventurous foodie for whom munching on that milled mealworm is worth the bragging rights.

“Then I’d look to institutional feeders, especially hospitals and senior complexes where there is active demand for food that is nutritious and perhaps even customisable to each patient’s dietary requirements.”

After that Mathews believes there will be a mass application for “businesses such as pizzerias and bakeries that use lots of sugar, chocolate and dough and sustainability-focused feeding establishments catering to the environmentally-conscious and extreme health-food eaters.”

Look for 3D printing to join the host of other innovative technologies to find their way into restaurant kitchens around the world over the last few decades in helping operators improve product quality and consistency.

Howard Riell