Technological advances in 3D printing

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Editor's note: The following article was featured in the July/August issue of PorkNetwork magazine.

click image to zoom3D Printing ALCIMED, an innovation and new business consulting firm, discusses the concept of “naturalness,” where consumers value more simple and natural products in terms of composition and production processes. This trend of “naturalness” is being shaken up by the arrival of technological innovations, which might be considered at first as antinomic by consumers. However, many of these technologies recently developed are consistent with the essence of “naturalness.”
 
While “pleasure” is a key agri-food value, health is a growing concern for consumers. And the quality of products plays an important role in consumers’ minds.
 
Following food safety crises, consumers become more suspicious of what they eat. The origin and “naturalness” of foods could be powerful arguments to influence consumers’ choices. Many products with a “back-to-basics” claim have been launched on the market, with simple recipes, familiar ingredients or minimally processed products, made according to traditional recipes. In the past few years, consumers have been enthusiastic about local products, more natural and lightly processed.

So-called “natural” products represented 18.5 percent of total product launches in 2011 in France. Furthermore, 64 percent of the French chose organic products in 2012 and the amount of regular consumers (at least once a month) has gone up to 43 percent, whereas it was at 37 percent in 2003 and 40 percent in 2011. At the same time, consumers are more and more aware of the need to respect the environment and increasingly turn to products that fit to this sustainable approach.

Where Technology Fits
In the consumers’ mind, technological innovation could be negatively perceived as in contradiction with their desire to consume more “natural” products. However, some companies have developed practical, interactive and entertaining technologies that could fit this naturalness movement and willingness to return to a more traditional diet.
 
“3D printers” are a trending topic, even if most of them remain at the stage of prototype.
 
NASA is working on a prototype that would enable astronauts to eat freshly cooked food in space instead of the usual freeze-dried foods. The machine would have cartridges filled with powdered ingredients that would be spread layer by layer to produce the 3D food.

3D Meat
Modern Meadow, an American start-up, developed a prototype to create meat products with a 3D printer. To bioengineer meat, scientists first get stem cells from an animal via a biopsy, then multiply them , at which point they are put in a bio-cartridge. Once printed in the desired shape, the bio-ink particles naturally fuse to form living tissue.
 
Two other companies offer to print meals: ChocaByte (chocolate 3D printing) and Foodini (pizza and ravioli 3D printing). The 3D printer uses sweet and savory “do-it-yourself” food capsules (and not pre-filled food capsules). It is designed to hold up to five food capsules at a time, so you can mix all cooking preparations, as for example the pizza dough, the tomato sauce, the cream, olive oil… before seeing the different ingredients spreading layer by layer.
 
Print Your Own Pasta
Likewise, Barilla has been working for two years on the design of a machine capable of 3D printing pasta. Restaurants would be the main targeted customers and would then be able to offer customized pasta, printed directly from their own kitchen.

These printers should be available for sale from 2014, globally. However, the printer is not yet fast enough. In the end, the machine should be able to print 15 to 20 pastas in two minutes. The pasta producer would also like to offer software that enables the customization of one’s own pasta model. Barilla intends then to focus on a new business model not based on the sale of the 3D printers but on the food cartridges needed to make the pasta.
 
If 3D food printing has not proved itself yet nor has fulfilled consumers’ need for “naturalness” and “tradition” yet, this technology is bound to be developed further and could be particularly interesting for retirement homes to cook more appetizing mashed foods.
 
As “Natural” as the Real Thing?
Which technological innovations fall within the scope of the “naturalness” trend in the agrifood industry?
 
If some technological innovations such as 3D food printing could be contradictory to the “naturalness” trend, others could fall directly within the scope of this consumer need, all along the agrifood value chain.
 
Firstly, upstream, precision agriculture fits within this sustainability approach and willingness to produce “better” foods. As a farming management concept, precision agriculture combines both computer and satellite technologies to precisely distribute seed and inputs (water, pesticides, fertilizers) on a given area. For example, during the process, tractors are connected to satellites and GPS, which prevent them from going over the same spot twice. Precision agriculture aims to, among other things, simplify the work of farmers, limit the use of inputs and thus conserve the environment.
 
Downstream of the value chain, some technologies are developed to enable consumers to better understand what they have on their plates.
 
Tellspec, a Canadian company, invented a scanner that allows consumers to know the composition of the foods they eat. This new technology, expected to be launched in the fourth quarter of 2014, could be of interest for consumers concerned about their health. They would only need to scan the food; the information will be directed and analyzed by Tellspec servers and the results will be sent to their smartphone. The scanner will be able to provide information on the ingredients as well as nutritional information (calories, fibers, protein, etc.). The remaining question will be to know whether or not consumers will be ready to pay for this new gadget. The advertised prices are $320 for the purchase of the scanner and a monthly subscription of $7.99 to have access to the servers (or $69.99 for an annual subscription).
 
Enhanced Labels
The Fraunhofer Institute developed a sensor that is affixed to a label on food packaging and is connected to the food content, which can detect the freshness of foods. This system, based on metal oxide sensor technology, can detect complex parameters such as off-flavor, microbial contamination, freshness and other similar parameters.
 
To summarize, consumer desires and technological innovations can go hand in hand. However, a wider perspective must be taken to understand whether these technological innovations will win the support of the general public. Given the public’s increasing awareness on the origin and characteristics of food products, innovation opportunities necessarily exist for manufacturers willing to invest in these new innovations.

For more articles and features from the July/August issue of PorkNetwork, click here.

Editor’s Note: Florence Portejoie and Anne Hardy, are writers with ComCorp and are located in France.


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