3D Printing and the Food Industry
First introduced in the 1980’s, additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, has gained traction in the aerospace and medical device sectors, while other industries, like food production, have just gained traction in the last 15 years . Overall, the generally accepted benefits of 3D printing relate to the ability to simplify supply chains by more efficiently manufacturing highly customized products in an ‘on demand’ fashion. Within the medical devices sector, for example, this technology has allowed for more efficient creation of components such as hearing aids or dental devices, which are highly customized for a particular patient .
Within the food sector, many companies are beginning to explore how these manufacturing techniques can create value for companies and consumers through highly customized visual and nutritional design . Today, “3D printing is being applied in food areas such as military and space food, elderly food, sweets food,” and is expected to grow ~40% annually to reach ~$500+ million by 2023 . From intricately designed chocolates for the personal gift market, to specifically crafted nutritional meals designed for consumers with dietary restrictions, food manufacturers are exploring the ways 3D printing can help meet these unique consumer demands. In each of these categories, the focus so far has been on processed foods since these are structurally much simpler than natural foods like fruits and vegetables . In applications such as chocolate or pasta, 3D printers can create unique shapes and structures by building layer by layer with a predesigned formula.
3D Printing and Barilla
For Barilla, this market trend has presented a unique opportunity to innovate for its consumers through product customization. The Company began experimenting in the space in 2010 and debuted the world’s first 3D printer that can make fresh pasta in 2016 . By 2016, the machine could produce one piece of pasta in 30 seconds (vs. 20 minutes when the product was first launched), with a goal of producing one full plate of pasta in 2 minutes . While today the project may still be in an R&D stage, the Company is recognizing the potential future value of the product in the high-end cuisine market as consumers continue to value customization and personalization.
The Company has also used 3D printing to crowd-source innovation. Beginning in 2014, Barilla has hosted design competitions where participants are asked to submit pasta designs to be made with Barilla’s 3D printer (see image below for the winners of the 2017 contest) . Through this program, the Company engages with consumers and is able to generate unique new ideas at a relatively low cost.
Finally, Barilla is also using the new technology to experiment with dietary restrictions, such as gluten-free pasta options. So far, Barilla has not need to alter the basic formula of durum wheat semolina and water for the 3D printing capability, but the Company is starting to explore ways to incorporate a gluten-free option into the 3D printing process .
Capturing Value from 3D Printing – Testing Limits
While additive manufacturing is still a nascent business within the food industry, companies like Barilla should continue to research and innovate with this technology in order to create long-term value. Across the globe, we are seeing rising populations and an imbalance of wealth and nutrition. We are also witnessing a global movement towards sustainability across all industries, including food production . With technology like 3D food production, we could have an opportunity to efficiently customize nutrition on a mass scale.
Commercialization of 3D printing in the food sector is yet to be tested, but by remaining on the forefront of the trend, companies like Barilla will position themselves to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. First, Barilla should continue to focus on making their 3D pasta printer more efficient so that the Company can market to consumers and restaurant customers. Second, Barilla should focus on ways that their unique technology can be applied to other issues being faced in the food production industry, but to justify this increased investment, we must think about whether there are limits to the benefits of 3D printing in the food industry. How can 3D printing technology help address dietary restrictions and nutritional deficiencies in an accessible way? How can the technology improve the efficiency of the global food market? How can it help make health and nutrition available to all?
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