Feb 15, 2016 | By Alec

A number of interesting food 3D printers are currently under development or almost ready for release, but the real standard in food 3D printing has already been set two years ago by Foodjet. A Dutch company located in Nijmegen, they have pioneered a food 3D printer capable of extruding a wide variety of edible materials at quite a high resolution. Importantly, it tastes and looks good too. Though already in use for various research projects, Foodjet is now working on increasing their industrial production capacity to start 3D printing complete and nutritious meals, specifically for the elderly.

As you might recall, the big breakthrough for Foodjet came two years ago with the development of a brand new type of printhead that could 3D print more than just complete liquids. Even fluids filled with lumps, crystals and fibers can be 3D printed through this new toolhead, and without clogging it every five minutes. It was the culmination of years of research. “We started development on a machine capable of 3D printing edible materials on other foods, like cookies, cake, ice cream and chocolate, back in 2005,” recalls general manager Pascal de Grood. “Our starting point was that 3D printing should offer a viable alternative to the conventional mold production methods. Decreasing setup times and increasing accuracy were also important factors, as were the ability to easily maintain and clean the machine. This would make it very compatible with other food production processes.”

And they’ve been very successful. “FoodJet has developed a way to digitally print tailor-made edible high-viscosity decorations directly onto mass-produced food products,” they say on their website. The breakthrough nozzle is much larger than those used on other 3D printers, and De Grood revealed that they have also gone for a completely different shutting principle. “The important thing is that the 3D printable fluids are completely homogeneous. Each different type of material needs to be able to reach its own processing temperature perfectly,” he reveals.

But their approach to the materials themselves is also quite revolutionary. Essentially, they 3D print a mixture of food and a solidifying agent which is safe for consumption. The combination is then injected into a modified Foodjet 3D printer as ink. The secret additive mix makes sure that the layers merge without visible layer formation, but are strong enough that the food items do not collapse. The food would resemble its original form but has a soft and gel-like texture so it would simply melt in the mouth. “Any pattern of viscous liquid can be added at high capacity, up to a hundred thousand printed items per hour,” they claim.

And this principle has already been applied to dozens of different edible materials, from the usual chocolates and tomato sauces, to dough, butter, mayonnaise, jams, sugar icing, yogurts, eggs, olive oil and even potato mash and meat pastes. Everything you need, in short, to 3D print a full meal. Because of those achievements, they were also brought on board into a EU-backed study on dysphagia, a condition that affects the elderly and makes it difficult to eat. Called PERFORMANCE (Personalized Food for the Nutrition of Elderly Consumers), the Foodjet 3D printer was successfully used to make appetizing, nutritious, and easy-to-swallow 3D printed meals for the elderly.

Riding that success, Foodjet is developing a large capacity 3D printer featuring multiple print heads and a conveyor belt to 3D print large amounts of food in a single session. Each printhead features a row of nozzles at the bottom, and each of those nozzles can extrude up to 500 drops per second. Together, these form the desired pattern in quite a high resolution, which is achieved by placing the heads at an angle. The exact angle can be determined beforehand, giving the user quite a lot of design and production freedom. Importantly, the molds become a thing of the past.

According to De Grood, food 3D printers will continue to improve, but the real challenge will be in increasing overall performance, rather than finding more foodstuffs. “This means a higher printing resolution, multiple color options and higher production speeds. To increase that resolution, we’ll need to find ways to decrease the size of the droplets and extrude them in higher frequencies. 3D printing food in different colors is currently only possible by placing multiple 3D printing units in a row,” he said. Their current goal is to use their machine to bring the PERFORMANCE project successes to large numbers of elderly people with eating disabilities. These completely 3D printed meals, De Grood says, is the next step on the road towards completely personalized food.

 

 

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