Growing up, we were all told about the technological wonders that would assault us in the 21st century. Now while there have been some quantum leaps forward in various fields, there are not that many that have the true wow factor. We see them as logical extensions of existing technologies and obvious evolutionary steps. One technology that stands head and shoulders above the rest is 3D printing. It’s the creation of a tangible object out of thin air

Currently machines exist that can produce chocolate, sweets and pasta, and allow you to prepare “homemade” ravioli at the push of a button. Mechanical engineer Anjan Contractor won a $125 000 grant from NASA last year to build a prototype 3D printer designed to print food for astronauts on long missions. Contractor’s goal was to print a pizza with his open-source RepRap Mendel 3D printer – and he succeeded. Contractor’s printer takes food building blocks to create the crust, cheese, and protein layer for the dish, all cooked while being printed out.What does this have to do with the baking industry?’’ you may ask. Well, believe it or not, you can now print food. I’ll give that statement a second to sink in.

Contractor promised last spring that the printer’s cartridges will last 30 years. The printer is still in its earliest stages, but it now joins such producers as the ChefJet in its 3D-printable food ambition. The world is one small step closer to a replicator.

One of the pioneers in the field is UK-based Choc Edge. The Baker managed to have a one-on-one Q&A session with its founder and director, Liang Hao.

The Baker: It is difficult to wrap our minds around printing food. So, what exactly is edible 3D printing?

Liang Hau: 3D printing is an incredibly exciting industry to be involved in, and new advances are being made all the time. Choc Edge is a pioneer in adopting this technology to use a delicious material, chocolate – bringing its application into the sweet confectionary industry.

Our approach is to make “hand-crafting chocolate/food piping” in a computer controlled and precision material extrusion. So it can create artistic and beautiful 2D decorations like chocolatiers and chefs can, and more importantly, it can lay up these 2D layers together to achieve intricate and complex 3D objects which could not be made any other way.

This new way of making chocolate/food decorations and objects opens up unprece-dented opportunities for businesses and people involved in food retailing. As it can work in various retailing environments, such as local confectionary shops, a retail chain, a cake shop, restaurants, parties and  of course, chocolate shops and so on. 3D edible printing brings digitalised and creative foods to the consumer and provides a unique and personalised experience.

Who wouldn’t like a special and beautiful chocolate gift at their birthday- or other parties!

B: What different products do you offer in the 3D printing arena when it comes to edible products?

LH: What we are offering is a very precise approach to extrude chocolate in fine lines and construct them into artistic decorations or creative 3D objects. So the Choc Creator V2 can make edible products which could not be made previously, or which will be very difficult and expensive to make.

We’ve just launched the Choc Creator V2, which we believe is much more suited to a commercial environment. It can print incredibly intricate designs, in either 2D or 3D chocolate. Its new features such as a larger chocolate capacity, and heated nozzle, mean it can print designs using more chocolate, for longer. Like the original Choc Creator, the V2 is designed to use 100 % chocolate with no additives, so you’ll always get a great tasting product.

B: Why did you guys decide to throw your efforts behind printing edible products?

LH: We love to help brands delight consumers with creative and enjoyable experiences in 3D printing through their favourite materials. We also envisage that the food and confectionary industries will need to embrace innovative digital and retailing technologies to engage consumers.

Most people are not hungry for foods; they are looking for more exciting experiences. They want their chocolates and food to be more social, entertaining, inspiring and technology-oriented. Working with printing edible chocolate products is the best job for us because we always have happy clients and consumers. This motivates us to be more creative.

B: People are generally amenable to new technology but, when it comes to what they eat, they tend to be fussy. What has the overall reaction been from likely consumers?

LH: We have not seen this, possibly because we work with chocolate. Consumers love to see how chocolates are created. This gets them involved in the creation of their own products. More importantly, they can see how they could create special chocolates for their friends, family members, colleagues, etc.

B: Where are you positioning your technology? Home, retail, manufacturing? All three? Where do you think the most benefit will be realised?

LH: The Choc Creator V2 is available to all, and we believe it is ideal for both retail and manufacturing purposes. In terms of retail, you can produce genuinely unique chocolate products for your customers. And in manufacturing, the machine can, of course, produce the same design over and over again.

B: What does this mean for retailers going forward?

LH: The Choc Creator V2 gives retailers the opportunity to give their customers products tailored to their individual requirements. People also love to see Choc Creators at work, producing their designs in front of their eyes. It’s a great way to keep a customer in your store for 20 minutes, which is the time it takes to turn a quite simple design into a 3D chocolate reality!

B: In five or 10 years time what can we expect to see? Printing fast-food from home, bread, etc … is there any real end in sight to what this technology will do?

LH: Who knows what the future holds? Maybe in 10 years’ time people will be printing complete meals in their own kitchens. Of course, it will need to be convenient, quick and reasonably cost-effective.

B: This could fundamentally change the way we as humans interact with retailers, the way we consume products, long established economic models etc …. do you feel that the impact will be that dramatic once the technology is matured?

LH: Certainly, 3D printing in general has the potential to change the way we live enormously. Why would you buy a physical product online or in a store when you could print it out yourself?

Of course, it would need to be price-competitive, and you would need to download a design from a retailer, or produce your own. One analogy is the A4 printers most people have at home, which cost only a few pounds. How many customers go to a shop to print out documents or photocopy them these days? The future is 3D, and in terms of 3D printed chocolate, the future is here!

So, what will the future look like? Who can say? But it is going to be an exciting journey which has repercussions we can only imagine: getting food out to starving communities, bypassing production facilities, and taking personalisation to the extreme.

The possibilities are endless. Perhaps, one day, with the press of a button, we may even be able to print out a few honest politicians. Now there is a technology worth pursuing.