3D Printed Pasta – Are There Limits to the Benefits of 3D Printing in the Food Sector?

While the benefits of 3D printing are gaining traction in industries like automotive parts and medical devices, the use case in the food industry is relatively nascent though companies like Barilla are striving to stay ahead of the curve.

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 [1][2]. 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 [2].

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 [3]. 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 [1][4]. 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 [5]. 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 [6]. 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 [6]. 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) [7]. 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 [6].

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 [6]. 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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[1] Liu, Z., Bhandari, B., Zhang, M., & Wang, Y. (2017). 3D printing: Printing precision and application in food sector. Trends in Food Science & Technology, 69, 83-94. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/10.1016/j.tifs.2017.08.018

[2] Pooler, Michael, 3D printing starts to gain traction in industrial tool kits, Financial Times. Copyright 2017 The Financial Times Ltd. 23 April 2017. https://global-factiva-com.prd1.ezproxy-prod.hbs.edu/ga/default.aspx

[3] Sun, J., Zhou, W., Huang, D. et al. Food Bioprocess Technol (2015) 8: 1605. https://doi-org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/10.1007/s11947-015-1528-6

[4] Global 3D food printing industry analysis, research, share, growth, sales, trends, supply with highest CAGR of 57.6% and market is set to boom in 2018. (2018, Jul 04). M2 Presswire Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/2063611903?accountid=11311

[5] 3D food printing; 3D food printing is now a reality, but what does it mean for farmers? (2015). . Ultimo: Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/1676006782?accountid=11311

[6] Dionisi, B. (2016, Oct 05). How barilla is at forefront of 3D printing tests – interview. Just – Food Global News Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/1826009058?accountid=11311

[7] Saunders, Sarah. Barilla and Desall Announce Winners of Second 3D Printed Pasta Competition. Dec 7, 2017. 3D Design, 3D Printing, 3D Printing Materials. https://3dprint.com/196681/barilla-3d-print-pasta-winners/


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Student comments on 3D Printed Pasta – Are There Limits to the Benefits of 3D Printing in the Food Sector?

  1. This is super cool! I had never thought about the applications of 3D printing in perishable goods and/or food, but I don’t see a reason why this couldn’t work and/or be the future of food goods as well. I don’t totally see how 3D printing is a unique solution for dietary restrictions, but more that it can be a way to decrease the supply chain costs and complexity across the entire production process – whether that particular good excludes certain ingredients or not. I also think Barilla is the ideal candidate for this type of technology given they operate in a part of the food industry that requires processing and manufacturing (i.e., 3D printing doesn’t quite work as well in industries where you are growing something like fruits or vegetables). I already think of Barilla as forward thinking and experimental – I’ve attended many of their experiential restaurants / stores in metropolitan areas around the world – but 3D printing has the potential to take its brand reputation – and its business model – to the next level.

  2. What an interesting article! I had never considered the applications of 3D printing to food. I wonder, however, if this technological enhancement may face similar resistance as genetic modification. Of course 3D printing is not fundamentally altering the biological make-up of food, but it did bring to the forefront discussion around 100% natural and/or fresh products. Will 3D printing’s implementation suddenly raise the value of hand-made pasta? Will the limitation of 3D printing be non-perishables, where consumers value authentic freshness less?

    With that said, however, I agree with ABCDEF’s point above regarding the experiential/branding opportunity 3D printing represents. Barilla can leverage this technology to create custom and ornate pasta designs, which will undoubtedly delight its current clientele, and likely intrigue new customers. Operating efficiencies may even make high quality pasta both available and cost effective in once inaccessible parts of the world!

  3. This is a really fascinating topic, and honestly, using 3D printing for food makes a lot of sense. While this process may be slower and more expensive than traditional methods right now, I can imagine a future where 3D printing of food is more efficient and widespread. There are several use cases that immediately come to mind, but few of them relate to addressing food shortages or nutritional issues and restrictions. For example, I think there is a huge opportunity to use additive manufacturing to reduce and eliminate waste in the mass production of food. I also see additive manufacturing becoming popular in higher-end restaurants where the creation and consumption of food have become more of an art than a functional necessity.

  4. Love the exploration of both 3D printing and crowdsourcing in exploring this topic. To the point of commercialization, the speed of technology adoption continues to increase as we move forward. It will be interesting to see which industry drives the adoption of this technology. Will it be the food industry or will it be another industry with a more immediate commercial opportunity that is able to drive the costs down to bring this into the hands of other industries. In the near term, there’s a concern whether this is more of a marketing/branding move by the company than it is a real viable growth opportunity.

  5. This is amazing. I wonder how this could affect the pasta quality and flavor, and how massification of this type of product is going to be received by the customers. There are other use cases that I see a lot of value, for example optimizing for volume, printing an entire package of pasta in the most efficient way, reducing packaging, distribution and logistics expenses.

  6. Great paper — I didn’t realize this was something that Barilla was exploring!

    Similar to Walter Mitty, I question how additive manufacturing will impact quality and flavor. However, my biggest concern is with the fact there is no barrier from consumers bringing this into their houses. What if I bought a “home sized” 3D printer where I could make all of my starch staples? While seemingly unrealistic at the moment, I do believe this could be a potential game changer to the entire CPG ecosystem in the future.

  7. Great article! What a surprising application of 3D printing! I would have never thought of a possibility to use this technology in food manufacturing. It is really impressive that Barilla embraced this megatrend so well. I am very curious to see whether the relatively high costs of the technology will become an obstacle for the more widespread adoption of additive manufacturing in the food sector. It is so far definitely more expensive than traditional production methods but offers amazing customization advantages and might be very useful for more niche, high-end or functional product lines. Also curious to see how fast the industry will manage to make te technology less costly and more efficient…

  8. Barilla certainly have some barill-iant ideas! I would personally love to see an efficient on site manufacturing process being developed. This could lower the requirement of the food storage and avoid excess product. Therefore revolutionize the food supply chain and ultimately reduce the food wastage and costs associated with it. However, one of the critical challenges is cost. As discussed, cost is one of the biggest element impeding the application of 3D printing technology, and the reason why 3D printing has been limited to high value and high tech application. Furthermore, given the current focus is in processed food, cost is an even more important factor for consideration.

  9. Great article! I am a dedicated customer of Barilla and did not realize how quickly they were able to produce a piece of pasta. It is also very interesting that they are using 3d printed in this space. I would be curious to see how structural changes to the pasta will change the total time required to create a piece of pasta? Are there any projections on changing the material that would reduce the time required to produce?

  10. This is so interesting! It sounds like 3D printing food could have a huge impact in areas where food shortages are a problem, and I would hope that this technology can advance and scale quickly enough to make this feasible from a cost perspective.

    I would be curious to know how companies like Barrila think about commercialization in areas where food shortage is not an issue. For instance, in the United States, would the average consumer have concerns about 3D-printed food being healthy? Or would it be seen as another form of the processed food that we eat on a regular basis? I think food producers would have to determine if market adoption of 3-D printed food would justify the added costs of production. Alternatively, they could go for a more niche market and focus on customization of food products.

    One more thing that comes to mind is regulatory implications. If I were to order a “personalized pasta,” would I even be able to tell that it came from a 3D printer? And what if it is discovered that 3-D printing actually does have negative health impacts? I imagine there would be significant regulatory steps required to get this new type of food into the market.

  11. Any article related to food is fantastic! Unfortunately, I’m having trouble seeing the long-term value of 3D printing as it relates to accessibility, health, and nutrition. I certainly see benefits as it relates to customization and elaborate designs, but those benefits most likely provide new products to individuals who can already easily access the foods they want and are willing to spend a premium on their meals.

    On the flip side, for those struggling to access proper nutrition, design is at best a secondary concern. GMOs are already prominent, and through genetic engineering food scientists have begun making more nutrient-packed foods. Standardized gluten-free options also currently exist. As such, while I may be lacking vision, I unfortunately don’t see 3D printing improving accessibility other than to those who already have the means for the nutrition they need.

  12. This is a really exciting topic! To address your questions, an area beyond pasta where 3D printing of food is being considered is clean meat. There are a few companies experimenting with this, but little traction has been seen so far. Here are a couple articles that further explore this. Printing meat is significantly more challenging that a simpler food such as pasta which has basic ingredients, consistency, and structure compared to meat. But the potential benefits of clean meat are astronomical as the industry could help limit carbon emissions, water pollution, and other environmental and ethical issues raised by factory farming.

  13. I am skeptical about your last comment on providing health and nutrition to all. My one concern with this type of development is whether this will actually encourage a more significant health crisis than we already have in the US. As you mentioned, the focus so far has been on processed foods. Creating unique shapes and structures only serves to increase the novelty of these foods and if anything probably will promote further consumption of processed foods. I want to understand more of how the food industry thinks this will actually benefit the end consumer, as it doesn’t seem as applicable with less complex, health foods like fruits and vegetables.

  14. I question the validity that leaning into additive manufacturing is value-added for manufacturers like Barilla. On the contrary, I think this could spell the demise of Barilla and other food manufacturers. If one extrapolates the power of additive manufacturing, couldn’t one argue that eventually all products will be produced at the end user level, with food suppliers delivering the ingredients straight to the consumer? If so, wouldn’t simple, low-risk products like pasta be among the first to be disrupted? To insulate against this shift, Barilla would have to have proprietary pasta recipes/designs that gets delivered directly and electronically to the end customer’s 3D printer.

    In order for food manufacturers like Barilla to do that, it would have to be known for high-quality, great-tasting, creatively-designed pastas.

  15. This is super interesting. I never thought about the applications of additive manufacturing to food. I would be curious for some of these companies to explore what the supply chain implications for the food industry would be if they were able to scale this technology at a relatively cheap price. This could also save billions of dollars in terms of profits but also be a key to addressing food security issues.

  16. This is an amazing post. When thinking of applications for 3D printing, food rarely comes to mind. I can see the potential in some cool types of food like cakes or sweets however I wonder if it has potential beyond niche types of food. At current costs and efficiencies, I am not sure that a 3D printed pasta would be the worthwhile investment. I think for additive food manufacturering to hit large scsle commercialization it will need to prove that it is solving bigger problems or bringing larger values to stakeholders in the value chain, manufacturers, distributors and consumers.

  17. This is a great article – thanks for sharing your thoughts on this interesting topic. I wonder, however, how sustainable 3D printing is for high-volume, low-margin foods like pasta. Why would Barilla experiment in this space – a space that requires very significant capital investments – when it is able to conventionally produce huge amounts of pasta (even gluten-free options!) as is? Seems like this is a novelty case as of now, and may not create value for Barilla in the long-term.

  18. This is an amazing topic! I didn’t know 3D printing has been used in the food sector. Both applications – personalized designs and personalized nutrition – are interesting, especially the second one, because it directly impacts the health of the population. I think the author wrote important questions about how to use 3D printing of food to make health and nutrition available to all, especially the most poor. The benefits are clear for the affluent consumer, but it’s unclear for me if this is the path to address the health and nutrition problems of the majority of the population. I’m concerned that 3D printing of food may be a costly way of fine tunning the nutritional ingredients to one’s needs, while people living in poverty don’t even have their basic needs attended, because of lack of money and/or accessibility. Having basic regular food items supplied to those poor people would solve most of the problem and I expect to be cheaper and more scalable ways of doing that. Still, very interesting application of the 3D printing technology and I believe in the very long-term it may become accessible to most people, but in the mid-term it’s important to address the needs of the poor through other paths.

  19. Very interesting article. I would be curius to see whether 3D printed food will have the same nutrients and taste as real food. if so, that would be a revolution in the industry! What do you think could be the new businesses resulting from this innovation?

  20. Love this topic and super exciting to see that companies in the food industry are dabbling and investing in these types of technology. I think it works especially well for a company like Barilla and for items in the food industry that are less perishable. I think the applications for customization in this realm are far-reaching and I can see this being utilized in restaurants that want to provide full customization for customers across types of pasta/shape/style etc. Where I’m more skeptical is on the broader impact of feeding the world and addressing the food gap, the machine is still limited by its inputs so if items like vegetables and fruit are not available, how will that be addressed by this technology? For items that aren’t fresh, I’m struggling to see how the investment in 3D printing would be a better alternative to investing in the traditional food supply chain for under served areas. That being said, I know they are experimenting in this segment with “clean meat”. My other concern is that we are trending towards clean ingredients and fresh food, I think that 3D printing goes in the opposite direction of that trend, and I would be curious to see the customer reaction to items like printed real meat or produce.

  21. This is super interesting, however given the resistance to GMO foods, I wonder how the public will perceive 3D printed food. I think Barilla and others will need to educate their consumers on the impact, if any, on the quality of ingredients/change in outcomes because of additive manufacturing. If there are not changes to the composition of the food, I am skeptical of the benefit this technology will have on creating greater accessibility to nutritious foods considering the ingredients are the same. While I think there is potential for 3D printing in the food space, I wonder if is better suited for gourmet kitchens rather than currently under served ones.

  22. Cool stuff! Never knew that you could 3D print something that was actually edible, though it makes a lot of sense. I like the idea of using this for improving food quality and health in general. However, I think it could have an immediate impact in developing countries by providing people with a reliable source of food manufactured at a low price.

  23. Wow, I never really considered the application of 3D printing in the food industry sector! Your article did a nice job exploring the different implementations of this technology. I’m not sure, however, that outside of the novelty of 3D printing that this would be a cost effective alternative to their traditional food production. To answer your last question, I do not think that processed foods (to include pasta) are answers to providing healthy foods to less developed countries. I think the bigger issue there is how to improve supply chain processes and establish infrastructure to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to these impoverished communities.

  24. Food seems an unlikely application area for 3D printing–with thin margins and relatively low premium placed on physical structure, many of the biggest benefits of the technology seem to be blunted or eliminated. While there may be a market here for very high-end experiences (think Michellin-star dishes that reflect the customer’s design tastes), I can’t imagine a broad-enough use case for this technology-industry pair to warrant significant investment.

  25. As a food lover, I found this an interesting article and had never thought about the applications of 3D printing to food. I also appreciate the further thoughts on the applications and limitations of the application, which can be sensitive. In particular, how does the business convince the consumers that this is a legitimate and scalable solution for day to day consumption.

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