3D Printed Food: See The Future Of Agriculture Today

Dr. Volker Keiner

“Tea, Earl Grey, hot.”

Any Star Trek fan will recognize this line, when Picard simply speaks his desire and it appears in a replicating machine. But how far is truth from fiction these days? Our world’s technological advancement is moving at an unprecedented rate. Every day, new ideas and collaborations are being turned into innovative new products and services.

Still a relatively new advancement, 3D printing is giving us capabilities we’d never before imagined. The day will come when virtually every store will be supplied by 3D printers. There is significant development for 3D printed food. In Germany, some nursing homes provide Smoothfoods, 3D-printed foods for residents who have problems chewing. Smoothfoods offer more appetizing options by providing the appearance of regular food with the consistency of pureed foods.

We’re already seeing this concept in use, with some fast-food restaurants offering customers the ability to individualize drinks. Instead of the usual eight to ten options, Coca-Cola’s Freestyle machine delivers over 100 different flavor options, from raspberry lemonade and vanilla ginger ale to cherry-vanilla Coke. As our society becomes more focused on personalization, the food we eat is the next target for market disruption, and 3D-printed foods may lead the charge.

The future of food is now

If this sounds like something out of science fiction, remember that it is progressing on a daily basis. 3D printers are being used experimentally for producing pizza, chocolate, pasta, and many more options. NASA is studying the feasibility of using 3D-printed foods for long space flights. This would help with the current short usable timeframe of space-friendly food. It would also provide variety during missions that are expected to exceed five years, such as potential asteroid rerouting and missions to Mars.

Most 3D printing devices are somewhat limited in their creations, but what has developed over the past few years has surprised many in the industry. 3D printers have been responsible for confectioneries beyond the ability of the best chefs. They’ve also brought fresh-brewed coffee to the International Space Station—no small feat in zero-G. But how will these advances change food production?

As the world becomes more connected, here’s a look at a potential scenario dealing with the future of food.

Farming for 21st-century needs

Today’s farmer is an entrepreneur. Rather than playing a passive role in the value chain and dealing only with intermediaries, the farmer can take advantage of hyperconnectivity to market directly to the consumer. A Missouri farmer raising winter wheat, for example, can directly contract with a fine bakery in St. Louis. Being able to connect to recent studies, the farmer knows adding sulfur to the growing crop increases gluten formation.

Precision farming allows the farmer to add just the right amount of fertilizer exactly where it’s needed, or use a drone to drop beneficial insects exactly where they’re needed to control an outbreak of harmful insects without losing organic certification. The final crop is of optimal quality for its exact needs, and costs less to produce due to minimal fertilizer waste and crop losses.

At a local bakery, a customer has remotely uploaded a 3D model to print a customized chocolate figure. As an early adopter of 3D printed food technology, the bakery receives several such orders every day. This one is a model of the Eiffel Tower. The customer has attached a note, explaining that the model is to announce a trip to Paris—an anniversary gift for his wife, who has always dreamed of going to France.

Down the street from the bakery, a nursing home resident isn’t eating enough to stay healthy, as the pureed foods she is served don’t appeal to her. After considering the options, the patient’s case worker decides to switch her diet to a 3D-printed variety that offers better flavor and slight texture.

Browsing the food company’s website, the case worker discovers macaroni and cheese, which her young son has requested for his upcoming birthday party. Recalling how much he enjoys a popular cartoon series, she orders pasta shaped like the cartoon characters for the event. She’s not worried about production or shipping delays, because the pasta will be produced through a 3D printer at a local grocery store within a day and will be ready for pickup shortly after.

She’s glad for the ease of planning the party, because she’s also a busy grad student with little time to grab dinner on her way to class. Fortunately, the university recently added 3D food printing vending machines to the campus. She makes her selection, being sure to choose a high-protein option and to select for a tomato allergy. She gets her food a few minutes later, prepared to her exact specifications.

The right digital strategy allows us to be prepared for market disruptions caused by technology such as 3D printing food. By watching trends in Big Data analysis, we can anticipate these disruptions and plan accordingly. This turns the average agribusiness into a flexible, agile enterprise.

Explore the options available to bring your company into the digital economy for agribusiness.

Dr. Volker Keiner

About Dr. Volker Keiner

Volker Keiner is a solution manager for commodities in general and for the agribusiness at SAP. As part of the Industry Solutions team for agribusiness and commodity management, he is driving, supporting, and positioning new SAP solutions for commodity trading, commodity logistics, farm to fork, and digital farming. He is working with various customers and partners in these areas.