A few weeks ago John Scott sent me a link to an article on Your is.com – 3D printing to the rescue of gastronomy for frail seniors, wondering whether this could also have some interesting implications for allergy catering.
Like many of you, I suspect, I have heard of 3D printing but had little idea what it actually involved. In my ignorance I assumed that it used a sophisticated version of a standard printer so my instant visual response to John’s link was to imagine a steaming succulent steak and kidney pie emerging, ready formed, from my old Canon printer… Don’t think so….
So, this morning, fresh from several days of Christmas rest, I thought I would try a little harder. What really is 3D printing?
Well, actually, 3D printing has very little to do with either a conventional printer or 3D in the visual/filmic sense. Far more enlightening are its other names – additive or layered manufacture. It is called 3D because the object that it creates is three dimensional. It is called ‘printing’ because the design for the object (in digital format) is loaded into a machine (the ‘printer’) which first cuts that design into thousands of very thin horizontal layers and then extrudes, lays down, sprinkles, pours and then fuses the relevant materials layer by layer on top of each other, gradually building up the object. (In the same way a printer decodes the digital file of your literary masterpiece, spurts black powder into a sheet of paper and then fuses it into a readable, printed page.) A relatively simple explanation of the processes is to be found on 3dprinting.com along with some short videos which make the process somewhat clearer.
The massive benefit of 3D printing is that it allows you to experiment, adjust and improve designs as you go along. No tooling up expensive machinery to see whether new designs work – by just tweeking the software you can make endless changes for minimal cost. Moreover, if you only need one, or six, or ten of your products, that is all you need to make. In old school manufacturing, setting up expensive plant to make small runs made no economic sense; with 3D printing the cost and the time taken is the same whether you make one of the products or 10,000 of them.
3D printing started in the 1980s and since then a number of different processes have been invented while ‘printers’ have developed to be much more flexible and sophisticated and have dramatically shrunk in size and in cost – although not yet, really to a viable, domestic model. The applications for 3D printing have also mushroomed from early prototypes for industrial parts, to use in education, architecture, reconstructing fossils in palaeontology, reconstructing heavily damaged evidence from crime scenes, customised artificial limbs, art, furniture, clothing and footwear, automobiles, firearms and tissue engineering in regenerative medicine – to mention but a few.
One of the more fascinating aspects of 3D printing is that it turns large scale manufacturing in a single plant on its head. In 3D printing, only the software need change to change the object made so economies of scale, so essential in conventional manufacturing, are irrelevant. Moreover, as the technology develops and the price falls, it may make far more sense to ‘print’ small numbers of exactly what you need, where you need it instead of manufacturing large numbers of something fairly, but not necessarily very, close to what you need in a central location and then transporting it to you.
However, back to food and 3D printed food for seniors….
The thinking behind the article was that among the very elderly and frail malnutrition is an issue as elderly people may have problems both chewing and swallowing ‘normal’ food. To enable them to do so, the food it is often strained and then solidified with egg or starch but this results in it all looking and tasting boringly the same. But food is a socially important part of life for elderly people, especially in residential homes, so it would be good if it could be made more appealing while still being chewable and swallowable.
So, as part of an EU project the German company, Biozoon, is experimenting with ‘printing’ food, layer by layer to create various forms and textures while also adding nutrition in terms of mineral, vitamins, proteins etc – although how well elderly people will take to the idea of ‘printed food’ has yet to be seen!
In terms of allergen-free food, in theory there is no reason why the same principle should not be applied to create a peanut butter with the relevant allergenic protein Ara h 2, for example, removed from the mix. Although wholefoodies might not be too enthusiastic about foods being reduced to their constituent parts only to be reconstituted through the printer… Would the enzymes survive? How about synergistic properties of wholefoods and their beneficial effects on human digestion and health?
Still, it could be another string to a freefrom manufacturer’s bow….