The use of 3D printing and robotics is making a significant impact on the confectionery industry. If you are in the food manufacturing business, now is the time to explore how your business can become more competitive by harnessing the use of these technologies. While 3D printing has been around for more than thirty years, recent developments have brought this technology to the attention of companies who are searching for the next big thing.

If you were at this year’s Sweets & Snacks Expo, you couldn’t miss what Hershey was doing with 3D printing technology in partnership with 3D Systems.  Although this project drew a crowd for Hershey’s trade show booth, one must consider whether taking up to an hour to print one piece of bite-size chocolate is the best use of this technology. I suppose it’s worth the wait if the customer is eating handfuls of M&M’S while watching the chocolate 3D printer at work.

A more interesting aspect of the project is the involvement of the customer’s creativity to design and print custom-shaped chocolate confections with the use of the included software. Another technique Hershey is exploring involves the use of 3D printing to print a custom-designed layer of chocolate onto the surface of a blank bar of chocolate. This process can take less than five minutes, which makes it a bit more practical for their customer.

Kudos to both Hershey and 3D Systems for dipping their toes into this venture and understanding that these are the first baby steps towards something greater. You can watch the unveiling of the exhibit in this YouTube video.



Another interesting 3D printer coming to the market is the Foodini, made by Natural Machines. The Foodini is a new generation appliance that combines technology, food, art and design.  This machine prints with chocolate and various other ingredients from savory to sweet.  

You may ask yourself how 3D printing technology can help your company be more competitive in the confectionery business. The simple answer is all food products have to take on a physical form or shape with layers of various ingredients or mixtures. The use of 3D printing allows the candy designer to take a virtual 3D model designed in a CAD software program and have the object produced layer by layer to form a solid object that is an exact reproduction of the digital information file.

It can be used to design custom moulds for use in casting chocolate as well as starch moulded products such as gummies.  3D printing is an excellent way to produce moulds to test various shapes and sizes thus allowing for less expensive R&D for your candy designs. Your in-house designer can create new product forms in CAD software and within hours have the final prototype in hand.

3D printing technology can also be used to design innovative packaging. This rapid iteration process allows companies to try new things without the expense of costly and time-consuming prototype moulding workflows of the past. Many industry leaders are also looking to create new IP for various products and processes and 3D printing is “The Killer App” for this. The cost of 3D printing technology has fallen exponentially with printers costing as little as $500. (Consumer 3D printers cost in the range of $500 to $3,500)

If you don’t want the hassle or expense of maintenance and staffing a 3D printer, you can outsource your 3D printing to a company like Shapeways. You simply upload your digital file to their web site and the software gives you an instant quote to print your model in a broad range of materials from plastics to titanium. With a few clicks your finished model is shipped to you in as little as 24 hours.

3D printers are like robots and one could even argue that they are robots. The evolution of electronics, the availability of cheap cloud computing super power, and the use of high quality sensors are just a few of the reasons robotics and 3D printers are becoming ubiquitous in manufacturing.

In the past, robots were very expensive and used primarily in heavy manufacturing  such as the automotive Industry. Engineers had to build a cage around the robotic arms to keep fellow human workers from being injured or even killed by walking into the path of a working machine. A company would have to invest a minimum of $1,000,000 to add a manufacturing robot to the production floor, making it challenging to realize a reasonable ROI.

Fast forward to today and meet Baxter, a robot created by Rethink Robotics.  Baxter is programmed to work alongside humans safely. With the use of multiple sensors, Baxter knows when a fellow worker is nearby and will stop to avoid any kind of collision. No traditional programming is required.  Instead, it’s manually trainable by your in-house staff thus reducing the time and cost of third party programmers. The real value of Baxter becomes very apparent when you see that the base price for this robot is only $25,000.  

What we are witnessing is the birth and development of digital manufacturing while its supporting technologies are becoming more sophisticated and affordable.  There is no doubt that the evolution of robotics and 3D printing, together with automation, will be a revolutionary driver in business sectors from construction to candy bars. Like it or not, to compete in the food and confections business of the future, manufacturers would be wise to explore the use of 3D printing and robotics technology today.