3D Food Printing: what are the main adoption challenges ahead?
3D printing (3DP) is a potential smart technology that can transform the food supply chains, from producers and industrial, to retailers and final customers. Nowadays people are becoming increasingly concerned about their food requirements emphasizing the food ingredients and nutritional value leading to the demand for highly customized food.
3D printing can play a significant role in offering designed food with specific nutritional ingredients, for different segments of people such as air and space travelers, military personnel posted in remote locations, pregnant women, athletes, and the elderly. It is estimated that the global market for ready-to-eat 3D printed food will see huge growth from $6,422.5 million in 2019 to $44,520 million by the end of 2026.
The 3DP of food supports the digital transformation of the food supply chains making the operations agile and contributing to the development of an online business ecosystem. As a result, the 3DP-enabled food supply chain may be linked with any location at any time food manufacturing and delivery system. However, the experts in the food printing industry are concerned about a few challenges they need to overcome to make deep inroads in the market. Some of the challenges include food shelf life, government regulations, and difficulty in obtaining the right ingredients to print.
A pioneer study involving Indian food experts
Professor Sachin Kamble with a team of researchers based in France, Morocco, and India conducted a research study to explore the various challenges that are currently restricting the growth of 3DP of food and to analyze how these challenges interact with each other.
Interviews were conducted with twelve senior industry practitioners experienced in 3DP of food. These experts had techno-managerial backgrounds and rich experience in the food industry. Seven of the twelve experts were graduates in food processing and technology from reputed institutions in India. Their average experience ranged from 12–35 years, with an average of 17 years. Based on the discussions thirteen challenges were identified in various areas of the food supply chains.
Ingredients and food related challenges
i. Food structure: The need to develop more functional food structure ingredients satisfying the customers on the dimensions of flavor, color, size, and viscosity. This depends on the input parameters such as printing distance, printer speed, and nozzle diameter.
ii. Food design: Improvements are needed in food design. This requires the development of human talent who understands both the printers and cooking.
iii. Multi-material printing: At present very, few ingredients are compatible with food printing. Multigrade materials can create textures consistent with the sterilization process required that can offer more food choices to the consumers.
iv. Cost of consumables: The 3DP technology and materials are currently expensive. The cost of consumables tends to decline with a rise in demand. Industry and food scientists are currently working to reduce the price of 3D printed food consumables.
v. Shelf life of printed food: 3D printed food has a limited shelf life. Companies and researchers, therefore, need to improve the properties of 3D-printed food ingredients. There is a huge opportunity to enhance 3D printed food shelf life, which will create massive demand for safe and nutrient-dense food products.
Printers related challenges
vi. Production speed: Requires improved production speed, depending on specific parameters such as nozzle size, printing speed, travel speed, and layer height. The production rate at present is slow and mass production is a challenge.
vii. Pre-processing issues: consistency is needed at the pre-processing stage to enhance printed product output quality such as texture, layers of voxels, and look. The pre-processing steps include decisions on the use of appropriate CAD file, temperature control, and the use of pre-processing ingredients.
viii. Post-processing challenges: post-processing includes baking, frying, and cleaning processes which if not done correctly may deform the printed food and is a critical phase ensuring that the 3D printed food shapes are preserved until it reaches the table of the consumers.
ix. High printer costs: The increasing demand for 3D printed food and products can be met by installing more printers in restaurants, hotels, food shops, etc. Presently, the printer costs are high leading to uncertainty about future demand for 3D printed food.
Eco-system related challenges
x. Copyright issues: There is a lack of specific rules and guidelines on the copyright of food printing. Further, the limited availability of ingredients, food protection regulations, and post-processing challenges makes the certification process more challenging.
xi. Safety and contamination: Food safety and contamination standards are a crucial concern and every stakeholder in a food supply chain must have the adequate capability for food traceability, contactless sharing, and real-time information sharing systems to adhere to strict food quality standards and avoid contamination.
xii. Skilled labor shortage: Skilled labor and experienced people are needed who can enhance business and supply chain performance. As mentioned before, the labor should possess both technical and food knowledge.
xiii. Ordinance and guidelines: The quality assurance, validation, and inspection techniques adopted by many 3DFP companies are crucial to the items they produce. The ‘Food and Drug Administration (FDA) needs to develop guidelines with respect to the 3DP of food.
Understanding the interactions between those challenges
Further analysis of the above challenges was performed using the DEMATEL technique to know how these barriers interacted with each other. The food structure, food design, speed of production, multi-material printing, and pre-processing challenges were identified as “cause challenges” leading to other challenges (referred to as “receiver challenges”) that include the copyright issues, safety, and contamination, post-processing, printer cost, cost of consumables, availability of skilled labor, printed food shelf life, ordinance, and guidelines.
ore specifically the achieving good “food structure” influenced almost all the other challenges. It was found that the cost of consumables and the non-availability of skilled labor restricted the printed food with high shelf life. The discussions revealed that there is a need to focus on the “cause challenges” as overcoming these challenges will significantly help to resolve the “receiver challenges” without much effort.