Interview: Kjeld van Bommel

Today I am pretty excited to announce the very first interview @3DigitalCooks. With no other than Kjeld van Bommel from TNO. If you don’t know about him, I highly recommend you to watch his last year TEDx talk. For me he is a world referent in 3d printing food. Hope you’ll enjoy.

TNO Autumn - Truffle with plaice and foie gras

Fig 1. Truffle. TNO, The Netherlands.

  1. Could you please introduce yourself.

I am Kjeld van Bommel and I am a researcher working for TNO in the Netherlands. TNO is one of the biggest contract research organizations in Europe (approx. 4000 FTE) with activities in a wide range of fields. Among these are additive manufacturing as well as food, which allows us to work on 3D food printing.

I studied chemical technology and subsequently got a PhD in organic chemistry. After a year in Japan I returned to the Netherlands to work for a biochemistry company. In 2006 I switched to TNO where I initially worked in the Materials department and since 2010 in the department Equipment for Additive Manufacturing.

I am a science fiction fan and one of my big hobbies is cooking, so the Star Trek-like “food replicator” topic I am working on now is right up my alley.

TNO Food printer concept 3 arm

Fig 2. 3d food printer concept. TNO, The Netherlands.

  1. How did you start working on 3d printing food?

Our department Equipment for Additive Manufacturing has been working on 3D printing for over 20 years now. Years ago a food company came by for a brainstorm session and the idea was born to use a (3D) inkjet printing head to make monodisperse (i.e. uniformly sized) droplets which, after drying should result in monodisperse powders. This led to several years of research and additional uses of printing equipment for food applications.

Since most of the people in the department had a mechanical engineering or physics background I was asked to join the team to bring in some more materials knowledge as well as some knowledge on the food market in which I had been active.

Some time later the idea was born to try and print food in a 3D rather than 1D (particles) manner. The first experiments were successful and then things took off.

  1. You have tried several approaches to print food. SLA, SLS, FDM, … What are your thoughts about them? most promising one?

If you look on the internet then you notice that most of the food printing experiments have been carried out using FDM (typically employing filled syringes), which is logical because it is the most straightforward technology to use for food and it is the cheapest printer to buy which has allowed a lot of people to experiment with it.

At TNO we have used FDM, SLA, SLS, and PBP (powderbed printing) and found that all of them can be used for food printing. Although some technologies are more widely applicable than others I feel that all of them have their strengths and weaknesses. Their suitability strongly depends on the exact food printing application and the materials involved.

TNO Spice Bytes 1Fig 3. Spice Bites. TNO, The Netherlands.

Having said that, FDM and PBP are the ones that have been used already by small companies to 3D print food and hence these are the technologies we will hear most from on the short term.

  1. What are the greatest challenges, yet not solved, digital gastronomy has to overcome to reach the consumer market. ( Technology, materials, design, consumer adoption… )

One of the greatest challenges is to get good business cases in place for the development of food printers. Even though companies may say: “hey, we would like to have one of those!” does not mean that there is a business case.

  1. Do you think open source can have a major impact into 3d printing food? the same way it had in low cost 3d printers?

Initially most, if not all, of the food printing activities were carried out by enthusiast who put their results online. These activities continue today, although they have been joined by other parties such as TNO. I feel that the open source activities will stimulate creativity and will trigger companies to start thinking more and more about the 3D printing of food.

TNO Faberge egg - open

Fig 4. Fabergé egg. TNO, The Netherlands.

One should however, realize that the requirements for food printing differ greatly between the enthusiastic tinkerer and the professional user. Taste, quality, scale, speed, hygiene & food safety, as well as ultimately price are topics that matter greatly in the food business and these pose requirements for 3D food printers that may go beyond what the open source community can or will address.

  1. Lately who has surprised you in the 3d printing world?

There are a lot of new initiatives and developments lately. However, in the food printing area the news that stood out to me the most was the recent acquisition of the small food printing company “The Sugar Lab” by 3D printing giant 3D Systems. This to me shows that the 3D printing world is getting serious about food printing.

  1. What kind of feedback do you get from people when you show them your work? Any great moments?

One thing is for sure, you get their attention! What happens next varies; they either are interested or they pull a strange face and ask: “why would you want to print food?”. Often we can explain to them several reasons why it is good to print food and many of them can be “converted”.

However, I always do explain that I feel that food printing can be an addition to the ways we currently prepare food. I do not feel that it can or even should replace current methods, including home cooking. Especially when we talk to professional chefs, they may feel threatened by the new technology. To them I say: “Look in your kitchen and at the technology you have in there that was not there 10 or 20 years ago (e.g. “sous vide” water baths). Did this make you obsolete as a chef? No! It offered you more possibilities to prepare better food. Thinks of 3D food printing as a new tool and think of the possibilities it will offer you.”

Great moments… Last year we gave a presentation at a food event where we actually showed 3D food printing on stage. The food was then tasted by a 3-starred Michelin chef who commented that the work was very impressive but that the taste could be improved. This year we presented at the same event for which we had collaborated with a Michelin chef as well as the top culinary institute in the Netherlands.

TNO Chocolate globes - closed

TNO Chocolate globes - open

Fig 5. 3d printed chocolate globes,  Wouter van LaarhovenMarijn RooversTNO. The Netherlands.

The food that we printed was top quality fig. 5 and the taste panel was very positive. It was great to collaborate with professionals from the culinary field and together produce these innovative dishes which, by ourselves, we would never have been able to do. Such great things happen when you bring experts from different fields together.

  1. Could you share your opinion about the future of 3d printing food? 

I feel that the 3D printing of food has the potential to become the next big thing in 3D printing. We should however realize that food is very complex and hence each new application and the materials associated with them require significant research. Additionally, as mentioned before, valid business cases for 3D printing of food will need to be created. These may not always be that straightforward and require knowledge about specific food markets in order to identify them.

As an example, let me conclude with a food printing case that we are currently working on. Within the PERFORMANCE project, funded by the EU, we, together with a range of European partners, are working on the development of a food printer for elderly people with dysphagia (chewing and swallowing problems). These people generally eat pureed food (think of baby food) which makes the eating much less pleasurable and thus decreases “Quality of Life”. In addition, these people may eat less, leading to malnutrition and thus additional health problems and a further loss of Quality of Life.

Already there are products on the market where the pureed food has been reshaped into a shape that looks a bit more like the original , however, some of it is done by hand and the products do not look that great.

The Performance project develops a printer that can turn the purees back into their original shapes but additionally the printer will be able to make personalized products. This means that each carrot fig. 6 (or other product) will be tuned to the person eating it.

TNO 3D printed carrots

Fig 6. Printed Carrots, TNO. The Netherlands.

The factors that will be personalized are: hardness, size, caloric content, added nutrients (proteins, fats, but also micronutrients like calcium, vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids). This personalization is something that cannot be done by normal food production equipment and it would be very expensive by hand. By making printed personalized food each elderly consumer (with dysphagia) will get the right kind of nutrients for their body and will enjoy eating more, thus leading to better health and better quality of life (and also lower healthcare costs!).

I think this is a very nice food printing case that uses the strong points of 3D printing for improving the quality of life of a specific group of consumers.

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