Image credit: Sugar Lab
Reimagined sugar cubes. Kimchi bouillon, in miniature squid, drumstick, and cabbage form. Glittery, skull-shaped cocktail garnishes that evoke Dia de los Muertos. If nothing else, the designers, technicians and chefs at Sugar Lab in East Los Angeles are having plenty of fun with edible 3D-printed goods that are equal parts novelty and engineering genius.
"With every project, we are navigating the intersection of 3D design and 3D printing tech," says Kyle von Hasseln, CEO and co-founder of Sugar Lab, and its parent company, Currant 3D. "Food ingredients including fungi, vegetables, fruit powders, and flours all have unique parameters, which we address in both the physical and digital systems on our 3D printing platform," he explains, which in turn impacts color placement and accuracy, as well as geometric shape and form.
Currant 3D offers manufacturing as a service and retail food printing through Sugar Lab. As a digital bakery, Sugar Lab got off the ground in 2012 when von Hasseln and his wife, Liz (both architects), turned from 3D printing of building models to edible novelties. Sugar Lab's product line now runs the gamut from chocolate bonbons and candies and garnishes to savory items. They also do custom, large-scale food printing for weddings and other special events.
In tandem, Currant 3D is building a cloud database of 3D food content and workflows to license and publish scalable digital food from dehydrated ingredients.
Image credit: Currant 3D
Digital Food Supplier
Food is an established subset in the 3D printing sector. Plenty of attention and VC money are already focused on printed meat alternatives; retailer Ikea has even taken to serving 3D-printed vegan Swedish meatballs to job interviewees. The US military is exploring the viability of 3D-printed rations for troops. Futurist Bernard Marr points to other use cases for 3D-printed food, including NASA testing 3D-printed pizzas for astronauts, biometrically designed sushi in Japan, and a substance called Smoothfoods served in Germany to the elderly and others with difficulty chewing or swallowing.
3D food recipe development is no slam dunk, but von Hasseln said that getting the 3D printer right has been the company's biggest challenge so far, and one that it solved in 2021.
Sugar Lab's printers allow creators to port 3D models from any source, converting them into printable files, without the proprietary limitations of other 3D printers, according to von Hasseln. The original 3D file can be created in any 3D software like ZBrush, Maya, or Blender. The 3D printer comes with 3DSprint software, which transforms any geometry supplied into a set of procedures for the 3D printer to interpret, he adds.
"3DSprint is a lot like having Adobe Acrobat on your computer. You can open most images or text files in Acrobat and send them to your 2D printer," von Hasseln says. "In our case, you use 3DSprint to send the file to our 3D printer." Still, many food businesses may find the technology and 3D modeling software intimidating at first. Currant 3D offers training and custom services to help them get up and running.
A Sweet Space for Innovation
The 3D printer market is vibrant, with new entrants continuing to enter the space, coupled with VC investment and some merger and acquisition activity, says Paul Miller, principal analyst with Forrester Research. And he added that adopters are doing more with their 3D printers. "Research commissioned by printer maker Essentium late last year reported that 57 percent of printer-using survey respondents had completed production runs of more than 10,000 parts; 24 percent had runs of more than 100,000 parts."
Von Hasseln's goal was to develop a 3D printer that could get accredited by the National Sanitation Foundation and also commercially print millions of parts per year. "It was important that this technology print in full color, create complex geometry and not just 2.5D extrusions. It has to be flexible enough to 3D-print with virtually any food ingredients," he says. "We're proud to say that we have accomplished all that."
Marketing is a major focus, educating companies and solution integrators that 3D printing is cost-competitive with comparable legacy food-manufacturing technologies.
"We're in the middle of a food 3D-printing renaissance right now," von Hasseln says. "The technology capabilities currently far exceeds our imagination for what foods and products can be created. We're in for a long exciting period of rapid R&D with new exciting products all the time." Areas ripe for exploration include new plant proteins, savory bouillons, and CBD products.
"We work with chefs every day to make new food concepts and to support cool new food brands with 3D printed foods," von Hasseln says. "A few years ago, it was rare to be able to experience 3D printed food, but now anyone can access it online through Sugar Lab."
- Learn more about Sugar Lab.
- See the technology used in cloud-manufactured 3D printed food from Currant 3D.