Awhile back, we spotted a curious new 3D printer, called the Foodini, that could print edible designs. With our interests perked and our stomachs growling, we wanted to know more about how such a wondrous machine works in real-life and when we could get our own. We caught up with the Foodini maker Natural Machine’s Chief Marketing Officer Lynette Kucsma to find out. Lynette clarified that the Foodini is an open system that you can fill with ingredients to 3D print your own food. Natural Machines hopes to encourage home cooking and healthier eating with the Foodini. Keep reading to learn more about how the ever-popular, advanced manufacturing method that may soon be making its way into kitchens and restaurants.
Inhabitat: So to start, tell me about how the Foodini and Natural Machines came together.
Lynette: It started a little bit over a year ago. There are four founders in the company and I came in around August. Prior to that, the three founders were working Foodini as a sweets or cake machine with the idea that you would buy prefilled capsules of ingredients that could make a cake or a tart or some type of chocolate. It would print the recipe for you.
They came up with that because two of the founders come from a baking background. Looking at the costs of getting cakes and sweets out, most of the money is in the shipping and getting them out on the market. They thought if they eliminated that channel by allowing you to print cakes at home you would save money on that.
I came on board around the August–September timeframe, looked at Foodini and said it’s really the same 3D printing technology underlying, why don’t we branch out to the savory market. We decided to start trying savory food and it actually worked out pretty well.
With all the concerns in the world about obesity and people eating too much processed food, a good kitchen appliance would help bring people back into the kitchen. It’s about promoting home cooking, which is sometimes the opposite of what people think when they hear 3D food printing.
Inhabitat: Does the Foodini 3D printer require prefilled capsules of food?
Lynette: The original idea was also to have consumers buy prefilled so you wouldn’t have to prepare anything. Now what we did is turn the idea upside down. The Foodini will ship with vessels that are empty, so you put in the fresh food.
There are a couple of reasons for doing that. One is you can use fresh food, you don’t have to use anything with preservatives because usually with foods that have a long shelf life have preservatives to make it last. Hence the reason things start becoming unhealthy.
Secondly, there’s such a wide variety of tastes it would almost be impossible to bottle it all. For instance, you might like basil infused pasta whereas I like tomato infused one. With all the different mixes of ingredients you can use, it’s better to have an open capsule model.
Inhabitat: How do you imagine people will use the Foodini in their kitchens and why?
Lynette: Let’s take a simple example of ravioli; you would actually make the pasta dough and filling. Foodini has a touchscreen interface about the size of an iPad Mini and that’s your user interface. You can pick your ravioli recipe and tell Foodini how many servings or how many raviolis you want to print and it will say okay you need to put dough in capsules one and two plus the filling in capsule 3. Then Foodini will print the food and automatically switch the capsules for you.
There’s room for up to five food capsules for up to five different food ingredients. Making ravioli at home is time consuming to get the dough to a thin consistency despite the fact there are pasta machines out. The reason we decided to do it with Foodini is because it takes care of that tedious chore of rolling the pasta so thin and cutting it. Making the dough and the filing are the easy parts of making ravioli, the difficult parts are rolling the dough and the assembly.
Foodini is designed to take out those difficult parts of home cooking to encourage more people to get back to do home cooking with eating healthier foods.
Inhabitat: Does the consistency of the food matter?
Lynette: It does. If you put a tomato sauce into one of the capsules and it was too watery, it would just drip out of the nozzle. It can’t be too thick with one half-inch pieces of tomatoes otherwise the capsule would get clogged up. There is a consistency you need to become familiar with.
So what we’re looking to do when we launch into the commercial market is have a web support system where you can see videos of what things should look like and what the consistencies are. We’re also going to have a short list of recommended recipes to become familiar with Foodini and how it works.
From there, we envision people can become very creative and make up their own recipes or download recipes from the community site and start exploring other foods.
Inhabitat: Could you also give us specifics on the dimensions of the food print?
Lynette: Right now we’re getting in preproduction models. We expect that the maximum printing volume will be around eight by four by seven inches, more or less. But we’re still finalizing.
Inhabitat: For a regular 3D printer, resolution is measured in layer height, does that matter for a food 3D printer?
Lynette: Yes. We do foods with height and the best example for that is chocolate figures. When you’re printing a chocolate vase or sculpture, you can get some pretty intricate designs with height. We also do flatter foods like a cracker.
To make a crunchy, crispy cracker you really have to make the dough thin again, which is very difficult to do without tearing it. So Foodini actually does that for you and we actually printed up a batch of Goldfish crackers – because if you actually read the ingredients list on some of those things and there are a lot of unknowns, so that’s why they stay good for so long. We printed our fish crackers with just five ingredients maximum, all freshly made and they were fabulous. We printed them in the fish shape, made an adult versions that were spicy with a bit of kick to it, and did the kid friendly cheesy versions.
That’s the other nice thing is we’re allowing other people to create their own food bases that they can adjust the flavoring to just how they like it. Our fish crackers are healthy, easy to make, you can make a batch when you want and you can get away from all those preservatives.
The funny thing is that when people think of 3D food printing, they think about processed green or gray paste matter or bioengineered foods. But it’s very much the opposite because the way we’re doing it is getting away from all those processed things.
Inhabitat: Is there a noticeable difference taste and texture between kneaded bread versus 3D printed bread?
Lynette: No the bread is actually the same because it’s the same concept. It’s your basic five ingredients flour, water, salt, oil, and yeast. It’s fresh and better than the bread you buy in the supermarket because that bread lasts for three weeks. So the breads you make with Foodini won’t last more than a day or two; it’s all natural ingredients once again without those preservatives.
One benefit with printing the bread is we got it the exact size you need it for the burgers, which is just a nice little plus. Your burger to bread ratio can be very specific. The taste is great because whatever you put in it; the spices or the more flavorings you want to put into your food is going to come out tasting great.
The textures are slightly different but depending on what you’re making it really is no different. For example the bread you’re making has the same consistency as making it by hand. You won’t have a chunky burger, so I would compare it more to fine ground beef, which is actually what we used when we printed them. Everything does not have to be sludge or a watery gray thing; it just has to be a certain fine consistency. As the technology advances, we’re looking to increase the textures of food we have today.
Inhabitat: Are there any noticeable differences between 3D printed food and regular food?
Lynette: Not for the most part. Some of the things we printed were chicken nuggets and that comes out your normal nugget consistency and we’re not adding any of the garbage that you would find in normal nuggets. The crackers are normal crackers, the burgers are just finely ground burgers, and the pastas are normal pastas. A lot of it is quite normal, the only comparison that would not be the same is something chunky.
Now what we’re looking at printing a lasagna. What happens with a lasagna usually is when you cut it and it kind of just falls apart. So we’re looking at something that could hold its shape, but the texture might be slightly different because we’re printing fresh pastas with it and you won’t have chunks of tomato in it.
Inhabitat: Are these 3D printed foods something you can take straight out of the printer and into a frying pan or pot of water?
Lynette: Absolutely. The tray we’re printing on in the Foodini can actually go on the stove top and possibly the oven. What we’re even doing now on our beta printers is we’re just printing on wax paper or silicon mats and take whatever we’re printing and putting it in the oven or a frying pan.
Inhabitat: Okay so everything isn’t like the consistency of a foie gras or mousse then?
Lynette: It depends on what you’re printing. For example the nuggets, you can move those off the printing sheet and to the fryer or onto a tray and stick it directly in the oven. We printed up spaghetti yesterday, so we’re just spiraling that out and you can stick that in the refrigerator to firm them up and grab them by hand to a pot of boiling water so they won’t fall apart instantly.
It depends on what you’re cooking, of course. So if you’re cooking something more delicate, then you many need to stick it directly in the oven without touching it, but there’s other things that you can just handle and move into the oven or the stove top.
Inhabitat: What sorts of snacks and food can the machine make?
Lynette: Right now what we have is both vegetarian and meat burgers, the rolls to go with them, cheese sauces on top, different chocolate figures. We did a whole bunch of edible Christmas ornaments with Christmas trees, reindeers, snowman, and nice little things. We’ve made hash browns out of sweet potato and shaped them into little apples, nuggets, the pizza, and we did a spinach quiche in a kid friendly dinosaur shape.
We’re also working with some chefs that want to make some intricate things, so we have a couple of Michelin Star chefs working with us right now. There are really two markets for the Foodini; there’s the consumer home market and then there’s the chef and restaurant market We’re bringing Foodini to restaurant, where chefs can make more intricate things that they may not have been able to do as quickly with their hands.
Inhabitat: Even regular cooking is a challenge, did you run into any mistakes in the testing phase?
Lynette: Well, we’re still in the early phase so there are always challenges (laughs). It’s kind of funny because sometimes when we’re printing stuff that just was not right. The dinosaur example was a good one because the first time we made them, the spinach was a bit too runny so it printed out properly, but when it went in the oven it just went all over the place. We basically just had green blobs all over the place, nothing resembling a dinosaur whatsoever. It was quite a mess, so we’re experimenting too at least once a week we try to play around with different things, so I’m sure we can make our own website of mishaps with Foodini but they are all lessons learned for moving forwards.
One other thing that’s a little more complicated than a normal 3D printer is they only use one material like plastic to melt print it at a constant temperature, so it’s pretty well known what you need to do to shape that object.
But with food, we’re dealing with a range of textures, pizza dough is a different texture from a burger or crackers. Even if you made the same pizza dough with a different flour one day or a bit less water, the texture changes a little bit so we’re building a lot of intelligence in to accommodate for that. We have to deal with a lot more variables than a standard 3D printer.
Inhabitat: Will the Foodini be able to automatically compensate for different material consistencies?
Lynette: The printer knows what you’re printing and where the food is because you chose it, so it knows the consistency range of the food in that capsule. Pretty much what you’re looking at is different pressure though the nozzle and height of the plate and where the nozzle lies above that.
But we’re also allowing for some manual control though the touchscreen interface on the front the of the device and as it’s printing, if you were looking at it and maybe you wanted it to come out a little faster or slower, you have up and down elevator buttons for to change the pressure or increase and decrease the height.
It’s meant to be really super simple controls similar to using a blender just so you have some manual control. If the consistency of your food is slightly different you may want to visually tweak it, but there’s already a lot of intelligence built into the machine so you don’t necessarily have to do it.
Inhabitat: In our article we suggested that the Foodini paired with a regular 3D printer, that this could become a Star Trek replicator, is that something Natural Machines is aiming for?
Lynette: We always say we are totally not the Star Trek replicator (laughs), maybe we will be one day but that’s not where we are right now. So it’s really more of an assembly device; from the assembly of ravioli, a pizza dough base, or the bread and from there you’ll have to finish off the food whether it’s baking or frying. Of course with the example of chocolate deserts, sometimes you can eat it straight out of the printer.
We’re also looking at it as a finishing appliance, for example if you wanted to do decoration on a plate like a five-star restaurant and you could to that before the food is on the plate or after. Also that’s why we’re saying we’re not replacing home cooking, you’re still doing it. You’re just preparing it in an easier manner and using fresher ingredients.
Inhabitat: So to add the finishing touches to food I guess it will also have a 3D scanner?
Lynette: Yes, you could put a cupcake in the Foodini and so it knows where things are and you can add an intricate icing topping on top of it.
Inhabitat: What are your plans for launching this 3D printing food machine from here on out?
Lynette: Right now we’re printing off of beta machines, which proves the concept. In January we’ll have our preproduction units in-house. What we need to do from there is port the software and just make sure all the hardware is functioning correctly. The ones we’re getting in January are kind of the complete models: it’s the five capsules that automatically switch, the built-in user interface, and it’s the design box.
From that we just need a little bit of time just to make sure everything is functioning properly to have units shipping in mid 2014. We’re looking right now around €1,000, which is roughly $1300, so that’s the price of higher end food processor or coffee machine, and the lower end price scale of a 3D printer.
Another thing I should mention is it’s an Internet connected device. You can choose your recipes, browsing from a tablet or a PC. We also push out software updates, because we’re investing a lot in research and development, we see the Foodini constantly getting better and we want to pass that onto our customers.
Inhabitat: Are you also planning to have a way to share recipes too?
Lynette: Absolutely. We’re building a community on the backend that will have recipes, so you can share them or download recipes, save it to your own recipe box so you have them for quick use like to print raviolis off.
Inhabitat: Any other future plans?
Lynette: One of the things we’re looking at for the future, we’ve had some interest from retail stores that would want to sell pre-filled food capsules. For that to be done we would want the food capsules to be filled at the stores, so that the food would be made fresh and good for a couple of days so that its not a long shelf-life processed food, once again eliminating preservatives.
Inhabitat: Okay that’s all the questions I have. Thanks Lynette!
Images © Natural Machines