Few of us have the time or patience to make a pizza crust or pasta from scratch. The idea of kneading the dough alone is enough reason to order takeout or buy packaged meals. But IEEE Member Emilio Sepulveda wants to change that by leaving some of the difficult parts of food preparation to a 3-D printer.
Sepulveda’s Barcelona-based startup, Natural Machines, is launching its first product this year: Foodini. Similar to other 3-D printers, Foodini produces dishes a layer at a time. But it “prints out” food ingredients—like ground meat, dough, and vegetables—instead of the usual 3-D printer’s plastics and other materials. Although the foods usually must be cooked separately, the machine handles some of the time-consuming parts of their preparation. It prints dough into strands of spaghetti, for example, or shapes it into a pastry crust. It starts a pizza with a spiral of dough, then adds tomato sauce. It can form hamburger patties or lay down vegetables on a plate.
“Our message to customers is to get away from preprocessed foods and back to homemade meals,” Sepulveda says.
The printer is being sold for US $2,000 as a kitchen appliance for homes and restaurants. The 45-centimeter cube is comparable in size to a microwave oven.
The printer is connected to the cloud, which stores an assortment of recipes and instructions for preparing foods. You fill empty capsules with ingredients—like cooked vegetables—to go on a plate. Or you add meat or dough that must then be grilled or baked.
To make a hamburger, for example, put seasoned ground meat in one of the printer’s five food capsules. Each one is 100 cubic centimeters.
Foodini is entirely operated through a mobile app. Simply click Start and the machine goes to work. The printer’s apparatus grabs a capsule, and Foodini accesses the programmed instructions to determine where to place the food on the serving plate and how much of the ingredient to use. The ingredient comes out of its capsule from .5 milimeters to 10 mm in diameter. If the food item is a whole grain or chunks of vegetables, it comes out in thicker pieces.
The printhead moves rapidly in 4 axis—x, y, z, plus extrusion—depending on what it is making. For a hamburger or pizza dough, it may move in spiral motion. Dough for a pizza might need only a single layer, while a hamburger could require four layers. All the patties are uniform in size, shape, and texture. Printing a burger takes less than a minute before it’s ready for the grill.
You can print buns to fit burgers, too, only replacing the meat with dough. The buns can then be baked in an oven.
Depending on the ingredient, the capsules keep the food at temperatures up to 90 °C set by the program. The heat keeps the food, such as dough, soft enough to move easily through the printhead.
The machine also can form food into shapes on the serving plate. Foodini can use computer-aided design (CAD) files, just as other 3-D printers do, to create different shapes. You can select from pre-existing files or upload your own. To get his kids to eat vegetables, for example, Sepulveda prints them in dinosaur shapes. Users can also design their own shapes using the mobile app.
The printer can produce more complicated food items as well, including gnocchi and a variety of desserts.
The app allows cooks to add their own recipes by typing into the app and designating which ingredients go into each food capsule. Storing the instructions for future use is especially helpful for restaurant chefs who must produce the same dishes many times a day. Foodini acts essentially as a copy machine, producing identical dishes over and over.
BUILDING A BUSINESS
Sepulveda got the idea for his startup when he noticed how a friend, Rosa Avellaneda, an artisanal baker with her own shop, struggled to keep up with demand for her goods. He knew there could be a more efficient way, he said. He founded Natural Machines with Avellaneda and Lynette Kucsma, the startup’s chief marketing officer. Today the company has 20 employees in sales, marketing, and product development.
Sepulveda cautions would-be entrepreneurs not to rely on money from investors. It’s better to have enough of your own cash to get your venture off the ground, he says.
He and Kucsma have found ways to stretch their money. They created a buzz around the product without paying for advertising by contacting media outlets including CNN and TechCrunch, both of which featured their product. And the company’s YouTube video has more than 115,000 views. “We’ve gotten exposure at no cost,” Sepulveda says. “When money is coming from your own pocket, you learn how to make it last.”
It’s not easy to set out on one’s own, Sepulveda acknowledges. He previously worked as a telecom engineer. “I had to make the decision: Do I stay in my job for the next 20 years or do I go for it?” he says. “It was harder for me to not take the risk.”
This is another article in a new series introduced this year featuring IEEE members who have launched their own ventures.