3D printing looks set to have a significant impact on many industries and food manufacturing is one of them, according to a recent symposium hosted by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) in Chicago.

Hod Lipson, a professor of engineering at Columbia University, told participants at IFT15: Where Science Feeds Innovation that 3D printing is a good fit for the food industry because it allows manufacturers to bring complexity and variety to consumers at a much lower cost.

This is because, while traditional manufacturing is built on mass production of the same item, with a 3D printer it takes as much time and money to produce a complex, customized product that appeals to one person as it does to make a simple, routine product that would be appealing to a large group.

“The technology is getting faster, cheaper and better by the minute. Food printing could be the killer app for 3D printing,” said Lipson, co-author of the book Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing.

Anshul Dubey, research and development senior manager at PepsiCo, gave one example of how 3D printing already is having an impact within the company. It is not yet being used to make food, but has been used during consumer research, with focus groups shown 3D-printed plastic prototypes of different shaped and colored potato chips.

Presenting that kind of prototype, instead of just a picture, elicits a more accurate response from consumers taking part in the focus group, he said.

Although the future of food 3D printing still seems far away, an article in New Food magazine notes that The Hershey Company has already developed a 3D chocolate printer, which was unveiled in a 3D chocolate printing exhibition at Hershey’s Chocolate World in Pennsylvania last year.

Commenting at the time, Will Papa, Hershey’s chief research and development officer, said: “3D printing gives consumers nearly endless possibilities for personalising their chocolate, and our exhibit will be their first chance to see 3D chocolate candy printing in action.”