There's no doubt that 3D printing is cool. Fill a machine with raw materials, press some buttons, and voila — food! It may not be quite as impressive as a Star Trek replicator, but it's pretty close.
But now that food manufacturers have begun investing in the technology, it's time to ask: will any of this stuff be edible? And will any of it sell?
Here are our picks for the five 3D printable foods that may find success.
Just last month, Hershey announced it would team with a company called 3D Systems to develop candies that could be manufactured through 3D printers. Hershey fully admitted that it had no clear idea yet of how to use 3D technology, nor what sort of candy would work best with the printers.
Maybe Hershey doesn't know the specifics yet, but that doesn't change the fact that the food types that seem to have worked during the experimental stages of 3D printing are sugar and chocolate sculptures. Put one or two simple ingredients — chocolate, sugar, water, whatever — into the printer cartridges and spray it into complex shapes.
If anyone is able to make money with 3D printable foods, it will be companies like Hershey who already make and market simple, chocolate products in cutesy shapes.
Another major food manufacturer to jump on the 3D bandwagon is Barilla. The pasta maker has rightly surmised that the differences between extruding semolina and printing semolina are practically nil.
Barilla has announced its intention to distribute pasta-printing machines to restaurants, creating the possibility, for example, of flower-shaped pastas that look more like real flowers than fiori does.
One unlikely backer of 3D-printable food is NASA, which thinks the systems could be the ideal way to create foods in space.
The space agency gave a $125,000 grant to Systems & Materials Research Corp., which builds 3D-printing systems.
As it turns out, Systems & Materials has decided that pizza is the perfect food for printing in space, because the ingredients can be stored as powder, and because pizza is produced in layers. That means by adding some water to those powders, you can print the dough, then print the sauce, and then print the "protein" layer, creating a pizza. And by heating the pan that the first layer is printed upon, you wind up with a cooked pizza.
Our guess is that these things won't be the best-tasting pizzas in history. But we'll bet that astronauts who find themselves thousands of miles away from Grimaldi's will find the stuff tolerable. More importantly, we also expect that some version of the NASA model will soon wind up in dorm rooms across the world.
If pasta and pizza had a baby, it would be ravioli. So it shouldn't be a surprise that one of the early movers in the 3D printing space has its eye on little squares.
Natural Machine's Foodini, a printer expected to debut in 2014 and retail for between $1,300 and $1,400, is aimed at in-home — rather than foodservice or restaurant — use.
The Foodini specializes in making pain-in-the-neck-to-make-fresh foods like ravioli. The whole idea seems pretty cool. But you know what else is cool? Fresh ravioli that someone else makes. So we're expecting printable ravioli is more likely to become a manufacturers' technique, rather than something Mom makes with the machine she keeps next to the toaster and the Cuisinart.
If there was a food we didn't expect to see printed any time soon, it was hamburger. But the folks at Cornell Creative Machines, a company that makes 3D printers and robots, thinks burgers are ripe for printing.
The premise, apparently, is that burgers are like pizza — they can be made in layers. And those layers, when made in a 3D printer, are something like meat, ketchup, meat, mustard, and more meat.
The problem, predictably, is that the end result is something that lacks the appropriate texture. But the scientists at Cornell are working to fix that by combining the meat with transglutaminase, an enzyme that can help the proteins reconnect.
The reason we look favorably upon this is that 3D printing is also likely to be how companies will produce lab-created, non-animal meats. And given how much money people are putting into creating fake meat, our expectation is that there will also be a lot of money poured into technology that might make it edible.