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The (silent) killer application of 3D printing is packaging your food

It's not as hyped up as 3D printed chocolate but AM plays a key role in the food and beverage machine industry

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Despite numerous efforts and great expectations in futuristic segments such as alternative meat, chocolate and pasta, food 3D printing has not fully delivered on its initial promises. However, the food industry is also one of the biggest (and quietest) implementation areas for 3D printing. Many 3D printer manufacturers have tried to yell it out to the world that 3D printing can revolutionize the food and beverage industries, but many case studies went unnoticed. Unlike direct 3D printing of food products, the additive manufacturing of food and beverage packaging machinery parts is not as appetizing to the wider public as 3D printed chocolate or a pasta dish but it may be one of the killer applications that drive AM adoption.

Food and beverage manufacturing is a quickly growing industry; the processing equipment market alone is projected to reach $84.9 billion by 2028. Several challenges persist in the sector. Manufacturers run into rising cost pressures, labor shortages, and supply chain disruptions.

The benefits of using 3D printing to make food & beverage industry machinery work better are self-evident. For one, food processing machines are highly complex mechanical assemblies that can have well over 2,000 components, many of which have to be stored in inventory and, as a result, cannot be modified easily once they are in production. Many of these parts are complex. Or complexity can be added to a part in order to simplify the machine’s work. This can be done with both metal and polymers, using various different processes and even a wide range of differently priced machines, from professional-level Formlabs and Ultimakers to industrial-level metal PBF and metal binder jetting systems. Let’s see some successful examples from recent years.

Metal 3D printing food production lines

One of the very first to do so was Additive Industries, working with metal AM service provider K3D to address dough cutting in the food industry. In partnership with the Kaak Group, K3D focused on metal additive manufacturing to improve bread quality through precise dough slitting. The redesigned dough-cutting robot arm showcases the advantages of 3D printing, such as a porous blade that forms a thin air film for cleaner cuts and less dough sticking. The knife also features a leaf spring for adjustable blade pretension, an integrated hinge with bearings, and a topology-optimized structure that reduces weight by 90%.

The (silent) killer application of 3D printing is packaging your food, though it's not as hyped up as 3D printed chocolate
Metal AM service provider K3D developed a custom 3D printed dough cutting knife in partnership with the Kaak Group.

Made from 3D printed SS316L stainless steel on the MetalFAB1 machine, the knife met all food safety requirements and could be easily cleaned. Additive manufacturing allowed K3D to customize knife designs for different dough types without additional costs. The process consolidated 20 parts into one, reducing lead times and production costs by 60%, and increasing production capacity by 20%.

Next up was Ultimaker (now UltiMaker), showing how Heineken has implemented 3D printing at its Seville, Spain brewery to enhance production efficiency and uptime. The Seville plant (shown in the image at the top of this article), capable of producing up to 500 million liters of beer per year, established a 3D printing lab to explore these possibilities, finding that the introduction of 3D printing led to substantial benefits, including 70-90% cost savings per part, increased production line uptime, greater flexibility, and improved employee safety. The first successful application was the creation of improved safety latches for machine maintenance, printed in bright red for visibility. This not only enhanced safety but also raised awareness and appreciation of 3D printing among employees.

Kaak was also the subject of another successful application of AM in the food industry, this time working with AM service provider Materialise. In this case, the challenge was improving pancake baking lines which resulted in too much waste. So K3D turned to Materialise software and Additive Industries hardware. The traditional design used in these lines faced issues with waste. The pancake-making process began as pancake batter was baked on a large plate in an industrial oven. However, upon removing the pancakes from the baking plate, the lifting device would regularly get clogged up with the sticky batter. Secondly, all the waste build-up caused postponements in the production line. The stuck batter dirtied the machines, resulting in teams stopping the entire line to clean them. The delays and excess waste meant that this process needed a serious boost in efficiency.

The (silent) killer application of 3D printing is packaging your food, though it's not as hyped up as 3D printed chocolate

Once they determined the material and finalized the printing parameters, the K3D team got to work on redesigning the part, using Materialise Magics and its modules. The new design is one complete part featuring internal channels and porous metal parts that allow airflow. This air is pushed into the lifter and blows out of its pores. The pancakes can then hover above the lifter, much like a hovercraft over water.
But it doesn’t end there. This application serves as an excellent benchmark for other production lines and industries that aim to overcome contamination and stickiness via contactless manipulation of parts. Now, each production line is seeing a reduction in pancake waste by thousands of kilograms as well as a 10% increase in productivity. That amounts to savings of €85,000 per year by improving just one element of the process.

Food-safe polymer food & beverage machinery parts

Following these successful cases, Heineken identified further opportunities for 3D printing, such as creating spare parts that were difficult to replace. This approach saved time and money and allowed the printing of plastic parts as structural replacements for metal parts. Engineers could quickly iterate designs, testing parts on-site and refining them for optimal performance. The Seville brewery’s use of Ultimaker S5 printers proved successful, leading to increased employee safety, reduced lead times, and cost savings. On average, delivery times for printed parts were 80% faster than external sourcing, and costs were 80% lower.

More recently, Ultimaker’s Italian partner 3DItaly produced tools and other parts for Policom, a company that produces almond milk and other alternative dairy products. The company needed a custom funnel for bagging almond paste bags. The collaboration focused on the design of tailor-made tools which, when inserted into the production chain, improved its efficiency and reduced costs. 3DItaly used UltiMaker 3D printers to help the company achieve OEE (Overall Equipment Effectiveness), i.e. improve the total effectiveness of their system, while addressing rapidly changing market demand. 3D printing offered a way to respond rapidly, without waiting for outsourced production to test the lines with sample packaging that can be 3D printed overnight.

To better understand the issues relating to food contact and sterilization of polymer parts used in production lines, Greg Paulsen, from the global 3D printing service network Xometry, provided an overview of how different technologies – including conventional ones such as FDM and SLS or newer ones such as DLS and MJF, and even DMLS for metals – can apply within the food industry, and food processing needs. In the video below, Greg explores the strengths of 3D printing while giving a candid view of the challenges with qualifying prints for hygenic design. The video also includes a summary of materials that can be sterilized as well as novel surface finishing such as chemical vapor smoothing.

Everything coming together

The high productivity and affordability of polymer 3D printing for metal replacement are now coming together with the versatility of metal 3D printed parts that use binder jetting and other bound metal/sinter-based technologies, such as bound metal filament printing.

Desktop Metal, a leader in these accessible metal 3D printing technologies, has worked with several different companies in the food and beverage industry. For example, the company’s Studio System for assembly was used to produce 316L stainless steel parts for a Curio fish filleting machine. In this case, the fish processing equipment manufacturer Curio measured one degree of heat transfer from the knife to the fish being processed through its filleting machine. Using the design freedom of additive manufacturing, Curio added internal passages for ice water to flow through the machine’s parts. Easily added to the design when 3D printed layer-by-layer, the cooling channels offset the heat exchange but would have been very difficult and expensive to achieve with traditional methods.

The first lot of parts for the assembly of a new Curio fish filleting machine previously required 54-58 weeks of lead time to make metal casting molds. With a Desktop Metal Studio System, Curio gets parts within weeks and can introduce new machines to the market without production delays.

Several other food and beverage processing equipment manufacturers are using Desktop Metal 3D printers for use with food products and customers have qualified their 3D printed parts for NSF standards 51 and 61. Integrating metal 3D printing allows manufacturers to quickly test a prototype, validate a design, and print the same part in batch production for end-use.

The (silent) killer application of 3D printing is packaging your food, though it's not as hyped up as 3D printed chocolate
This stainless steel roller guard was 3D printed at the Hudson Valley Additive Manufacturing Center (HVAMC) for JBT, a leading global technology solutions provider to high-value segments of the food processing industry.

The consolidated, lightweight, and optimized parts developed with the design freedom of metal 3D printing mean food processing equipment companies can create complex parts for their machinery that serve multiple functions.

In another use case, the stainless steel roller guard picture on the right was 3D printed at the Hudson Valley Additive Manufacturing Center (HVAMC) for JBT, a leading global technology solutions provider to high-value segments of the food processing industry. The Roller Guide Saw Nozzle Block is part of JBT’s Adaptive 3D Portioning System, a large and very sophisticated system for the rapid processing of poultry, meat and seafood.

In another case study, presented this time by Markforged – a company specializing in metal replacement applications via composite 3D printing and affordable bound metal 3D printing – worked with the Australian Meat Processor Corporation (AMPC), which is the research and development corporation for the red meat processing industry in Australia.

AMPC collaborated with Konica Minolta and Markforged in a world-first trial of a 3D printing service model. The three-year trial aimed to help red meat processors across Australia benefit from printing equipment parts and revolutionizing equipment maintenance to help ensure a continuous supply of meat products.

The program involved two Markforged X7 carbon fiber 3D printers that were shipped to the processing plants in a “try before you buy” arrangement. Processing staff were trained to use the printers so they could assess whether buying a permanent unit would be a good investment. As part of this program, The Casino Food Co-op was identified as a facility that could benefit from 3D printing and received the Markforged X7 3D printer to trial. Located in Casino, in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, the company processes 1,200 head of cattle per day and employs more than 1,000 people from the surrounding area.

The first area to be addressed was the hinges on the hundreds of label printers used to produce thousands of labels a day. The next area was the leather tannery drum, which removes hair and fat before the leather is dyed. A gear in the tannery failed, which resulted in leather production stopping until a replacement part could be manufactured. The final area where 3D printing was trialed was the fan blades on the evaporators that optimize the temperature in the cooling rooms. If one blade becomes unstable, the whole evaporator breaks apart and the cool room can’t perform at optimal levels. Because the original equipment manufacturer for the evaporators was no longer in operation, the cost of manufacturing new blades was significant. With the 3D printing solution from AMPC, Konica Minolta, and Markforged, The Casino Food Co-op was able to solve these challenges with relative ease and prevent costly downtime across its operation.

It’s interesting to note that most of the AM companies mentioned here are relatively new entries in the AM market. It seems safe to assume that, although it has not been communicated, many traditional market leaders, from EOS to Stratasys and 3D Systems, have also found significant applications of their technologies in the food and beverage packaging industry. The potential is evident and the full scale of implementation may be much larger than we think.


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Davide Sher

Since 2002, Davide has built up extensive experience as a technology journalist, market analyst and consultant for the additive manufacturing industry. Born in Milan, Italy, he spent 12 years in the United States, where he completed his studies at SUNY USB. As a journalist covering the tech and videogame industry for over 10 years, he began covering the AM industry in 2013, first as an international journalist and subsequently as a market analyst, focusing on the additive manufacturing industry and relative vertical markets. In 2016 he co-founded London-based VoxelMatters. Today the company publishes the leading news and insights websites VoxelMatters.com and Replicatore.it, as well as VoxelMatters Directory, the largest global directory of companies in the additive manufacturing industry.

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