Za, Pie, Grandma, Wheel, or Sinatra…whatever you call them, we all love our pizzas! In fact, if forced to nominate just one item as our national meal obsession, pizza might well be the dish that springs most readily to mind. Originating in Italy and first mentioned in a Latin text dating back to 997CE, the humble pie had extremely humble origins. Prior to World War 2, the now iconic dough crust piled with toppings and covered in gooey melting cheese was the preserve of the working class, with the first pizza joint opening in New York City in 1905 to provide an inexpensive taste of home to Italian immigrants. Following the return of American GIs from Italy after 1945, the trend for pizza by the pie and by the slice took off and its popularity have never waned since. In fact, in any given year we eat over 100 acres of pizza annually – that’s 350 slices per second.(1)
And if you have ever doubted the critical importance of the dish to our national economy let us offer a couple of interesting facts you for your consideration. According to the American Pizza Community – a coalition of the nation’s pizza chains, independent restaurants, franchises, and suppliers – the national pizza restaurant industry is worth a staggering $37 billion. That’s billion – with a ‘B.’ And with great profit comes great influence – the APC is also a powerful lobbying voice in Washington DC, spending $500,000 and $1.5 million in political contributions in the last two election cycles.(2)
Although all of this pizza trivia is interesting and may be making you yearn for lunchtime, what does it have to do with cleanroom technology? We’re glad you asked! At Berkshire, we are fascinated by 3D printing technologies and have commented not only on advances in the bio-medical field (see ‘How the FDA is Wrestling with Bio-Medical 3D-Printing’) but also on additive manufacturing in space. So it is with great interest that we now turn our sights on a company whose innovation reflects both a national gastronomic obsession and our passion for cleanroom technology: pizza and 3D printing.
But be warned: this technology is not intended for those with a late night craving that just can’t wait on delivery.
Pizza – crafted by clean robots and printed from scratch in under three minutes
In 2013, a NASA engineer, Anjan Contractor, won a six-month, $125,000 grant from the agency to create a prototype of a food synthesizer. His first target dish? Pizza – crafted by clean robots and printed from scratch in under three minutes. Three minutes. That’s three times faster than any human could manage. Aimed at pie connoisseurs orbiting 270 miles above the planet, his initial version of the printer, debuting in the 2013 SXSW Eco, was a stripped down version with several improvements still to come. Using tomato ketchup for sauce and cream cheese in place of mozzarella, it piped the toppings onto a base, fixing them with a micronutrient spray before cooking for 70 seconds. (To see the prototype in action, click here.)(3) Although the end result was very different from terrestrial pies and may have been an acquired taste, it just might have satisfied astronauts on their deep dish – ahem, we mean deep space – missions.
But making the pizza look appealing is not the only challenge. What about the freshness and nutritional content of food exuded from a printing machine within a glovebox in zero gravity? In our earlier article, Out of this World: When Cleanroom Technology Enters a Whole New Orbit, we reflected on the unique challenges faced by astronauts during near Earth orbit or on deep space missions, noting the metabolic changes, risk of muscle shrinkage, bone loss, and the effects of cosmic radiation. And, with that in mind, it’s not hard to understand that solid nutrition must be a part of safeguarding their long-term health. On extended missions – such as the much vaunted, multi-year missions to Mars – astronauts will need excellent nutrition from all sources of food – additive manufactured (AM) items included. Let’s return to Anjan Contractor once again…
At the same time as Contractor was winning awards from NASA, journalist Christopher Mims was following his meteoric ascent in the world of space food. In a 2013 article for online news outlet, Quartz, ‘The Audacious Plan to End Hunger With 3D Printed Food,’ Mims outlined Contractor’s bigger plan: “Long distance space travel requires 15-plus years of shelf life. The way we are working on it, all the carbs, proteins and macro and micro nutrients are in powder form. We take moisture out, and in that form it will last maybe 30 years.”(4) The powders – sugars, complex carbohydrates, proteins etc – would be combined in a mixing chamber before being delivered via an actuator valve to a spray valve system. The food – in our example, pizza – would be built up in the 3D printer within a sealed, contamination-controlled environment one layer at a time and would mean the absolute end of food waste – a ‘zero waste’ mission being an ideal NASA strives to accomplish.
This all sounds ideal: non-perishable, nutrient-dense food that will survive a 30-year round trip across the galaxy. And that’s why NASA’s abrupt defunding of Contractor’s project after the initial Phase 1 research is all the more puzzling. Dumped by the space agency, Contractor turned to the private sector, founded his Cupertino-based company, BeeHex, in 2015, and shifted his focus back to satisfying the gustatory needs of a decidedly Earth-bound market: concert-goers and sports fans, who bottleneck at half-time to grab a bite to eat at concessions stands.
But even with the refocusing of BeeHex, the dream of nutrient-dense and varied food in space is not yet dead. Like Nature, the innovation market abhors a vacuum and into the void stepped a Macedonian enterprise, Team Kokino. This start-up’s bold vision was not only to expand AM food options in the extra-terrestrial environment but also to reduce the costs of food transportation, decrease the space needed for food storage, and to recycle and reuse leftover food while on missions. On the agency’s Open NASA website, the team notes that their combination of hardware and Earth-linked software will even allow the re-use of uneaten scraps:
“The 3D Food Printer will have an innovative, intelligent recycling management system so if you eat an apple and have waste, the printer will take that waste, recycle it and use it again to make new food. […]With this food recycling system, you can reuse matter that is left from waste food.”(5)
Because the system is self-contained and self-cleaning, waste will be reduced to zero.
But what about regulation?
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has oversight on 3D printing where it relates to food or bio-medical applications and, in May 2016, it released its Draft Technical Guidance on “Additive Manufactured Devices.” In this document, the agency outlined its stance on issues relating to software formatting, material composition, labeling, recycling, and – critical to the cleanroom technology industry – process validation, sterility, and cleaning. 3D printed food comes under the auspices of ‘novel food – that is, ‘a substance that does not have a history of safe use; has been manufactured, prepared, preserved, or packaged by a process that has not been previously applied to that food, and causes the food to undergo a major change; or genetically modified.’(6) Clearly, apart from the final point, all of this applies to 3D printed meals in space and demands that nutrient content, toxicology, and the possibility of chemical-, microbial- or fungal-contamination be considered.
And, given the customer demographic for these products – extremely highly and expensively trained human assets, aka astronauts – conformance to best practices in contamination control, sterilization, and cleaning is critical. But it is difficult to know how additive manufactured food can, in reality, be produced within a typical contamination-controlled environment, and in zero gravity. The printers that create food products will surely fall under the same regulations as other clean robots when it comes to sterilization and ISO conformance. But the ingredients – the ‘inks’ of this new generation of printers – will almost certainly not. And this may lead to some blurring of the lines and confusion about the safety of the AM products.
As the nascent 3D printed food industry takes its first staggering steps from concept to delivery it will face some unique challenges and, as the technology advances, governmental oversight and regulation are also sure to develop. Do you have thoughts, hopes, or concerns about the shape of food production in the 21st century? If so, we’d love to hear them!