Once, not so very long ago, the pasta of Italian dreams was kneaded, rolled and shaped by hand in the kitchen. Now, though, the world’s leading pasta producer is perfecting a very different kind of technique — using 3D printers.
The Parma-based food giant Barilla, a fourth-generation Italian family business, said on Thursday it was working with TNO, a Dutch organization specializing in applied scientific research, on a project using the same cutting-edge technology that has already brought startling developments in manufacturing and biotech, and may now be poised to make similar waves in the food sector.
Kjeld van Bommel, project leader at TNO, said one of the potential applications of the technology could be to enable customers to present restaurants with their pasta shape desires stored on a USB stick.
“Suppose it’s your 25th wedding anniversary,” Van Bommel was quoted as telling the Dutch newspaper Trouw. “You go out for dinner and surprise your wife with pasta in the shape of a rose.”
He said speed was a big focus of the Barilla project: The company wants to be able to print 15 to 20 pieces of pasta in under two minutes. Progress had already been made, he said, and it was already possible to print 10 times as quickly as when the technology first arrived.
According to reports, Barilla aims to offer customers cartridges of dough that they can insert into a 3D printer, to create their own pasta designs.
However, the company declined to give further details, dismissing the claims as “speculation.”
It said that although the project had been going on for about two years, it was still “in a preliminary phase.”
The technology of 3D printing is advancing in myriad sectors around the world. Last year, a California-based company made the world’s first metal 3D-printed handgun, capable of accurately firing 50 rounds without breaking, and scientists at Cornell University have produced a prosthetic human ear.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, the US company 3D Systems unveiled a new range of food-creating printers specializing in sugar-based confectionary and chocolate.
Last year, Natural Machines, a Spanish startup, revealed its own prototype, the Foodini, which it said combined “technology, food, art and design” and could make edibles ranging from chocolate to pasta.
There has been a surge in popularity of 3D printing as the technology improves and costs drop to a point accessible for hobbyists, artists and entrepreneurs.
Printers aimed at the home market typically use corn-based, biodegradable plastic layered and shaped using lasers and heated plates.
“Think of it as laying microscopic bricks; layers and layers of these bricks,” said Roger Chang, chief executive of Singapore-based Pirate 3D, which makes a Buccaneer home printer that sells for US$497. “Eventually, if you put enough bricks you get a building.”
Brooklyn-based MakerBot was the only 3D printer company at the Las Vegas show five years ago. Now, it is surrounded by rivals on a large section of show floor devoted to the trend.
“We feel like this is the year of 3D printing,” MakerBot spokeswoman Jenifer Howard said. “Now, entrepreneurs without major financial backing can create prototypes themselves and even do small-scale manufacturing. It changes the whole picture.”
Howard said that aerospace and defense contractor Lockheed Martin used MakerBot printers to make a part for a telescope set to launch into space in about four years.