“If you’re working with metals or polymers, it’s usually a singular molecular material, but food is always a complex, multi-phase system in which things happen on different scales.”
So says Ben Langelaan, research manager of the Food Technology group at Wageningen Food & Biobased Research, one of the applied research institutes of Wageningen University & Research (WUR). Ben is also a driving force behind the Digital Food Processing Initiative (DFPI). Bringing together WUR and AMSYSTEMS Center (a joint innovation of TU/e HTSC and TNO), this collaboration aims to tackle the complexity of food production along five innovation themes:
On-demand food production
New forms and flavors
New social experiences
The long-term goal? To become the global consortium for digitally-controlled food production.
The DFPI originated, in part, through good fortune. In January 2018, TNO Zeist’s Functional Ingredients group came under the umbrella of WUR, bringing with it not only its employees but also all prior research activities. Ben: “We were looking at all kinds of innovative manufacturing technologies for better, healthier products, and the former TNO people brought with them 3D- related food experience. I’m really happy with it, I think it’s a really valuable expansion of the research activities we were performing at WUR.”
The nature of Dutch innovation
By 2050, the world will be home to an estimated ten billion mouths to feed. At the same time, food needs to be produced both affordably and sustainably; the outcome should be nutritious, healthy and (ideally) personalized to the individual consumer. For the DFPI, digital techniques such as 3D printing, modeling and data science hold the key to managing these competing needs. “We really looked at bringing together the strengths of the Eindhoven entities and the WUR entities,” explains Ben, “because, to be honest, our initial reaction to 3D printing was that it’s focused only on shaping products.”
This critical analysis of current technologies was what led to the DFPI’s five innovation themes, which seek to tackle far-reaching and deeply ingrained issues in society. Ben highlights nutrition: “This is very important, particularly personalization. Based on your health status, you can define a nutrition profile for yourself, which could be, for example, the amount of carbohydrates, proteins or micro-nutrients that you should eat each day. You can feed this into a machine like a 3D printer to make a really personalized meal.” This may sound like science-fiction, but for Ben and the DFPI consortium such innovations are the next stage in food production.
These innovation themes are particularly pertinent in the Netherlands, in which the food processing industry makes up a huge sector of the economy. This is in no small part due to the Netherlands being the second largest exporter of food products worldwide, although there is an ongoing shift towards also distributing knowledge and technological solutions. This is one of the few countries, for instance, that is seriously working on the protein transition, the replacement of meat with realistic, plant-based substitutes to limit climate change.
Nonetheless, according to Ben, “working with the industry can sometimes be a challenge, especially in the food domain, because there are only a few companies that really want to invest in longer- term research. Most of the research should be done within four years, which is sometimes too short.” For the sake of Dutch innovation, it’s clear that a greater balance must be found between the needs of industrial partners and research organizations.
Working together on digital food processing
A guiding principle for the WUR organization as a whole is that fundamental science and knowledge developed in a university should be brought closer to implementation in industry. This can occur through applied research institutes such as WUR and TU/e HTSC. “Ultimately,” Ben says, “consumers buy products, not research. That’s something that always needs to be kept in mind.” In the food processing and production industry, perhaps more so than in other fields, challenges like health, climate change and population growth alter the entire system of working, as do technological developments. “These are the drivers of why there needs to be a better connection between the high-tech world and the food production world. That’s why the collaboration between WUR and TU/e is very valuable, as well as the collaboration between life sciences and applications.”
If digital techniques are set to drastically change the nature and logistics of food, such collaborations can be a source of wider societal and economic benefits. Ben: “I think that data science and digitalization can play a role in everything to do with quality assessments and predictions. Food waste is a really big theme and this starts at the beginning of the food production cycle. We’re doing a lot of assessments on harvested crops and want to make a transformation towards predictive systems throughout the entire supply chain.”
He cites an example of a plant sorter that can examine tomato seedlings containing only six leaves and accurately predict the size of the subsequent harvest, saving resources and allowing for more efficient planning. Such on-demand production will also mean less wastage of the final product, as less can be grown when customer demand is low.
A personal connection
Ben’s path to the DFPI has been a long one: initially trained as a materials engineer, he holds a PhD in Chemical Engineering from Delft University of Technology. This, Ben suspects, may have been the source of his motivation at the start of the project. “Maybe it’s linked to my personal history, but I really think that the integration of knowledge at the traditional technical universities and the knowledge that is available at organizations like WUR present so many options for mutual benefit. When 3D printing started, around 2000, we brainstormed internally whether we could use it for food production. At that time, we could not.” Only now is the technology catching up with this aspiration.
Additionally, Ben spent eight years developing and optimizing manufacturing processes for solid and liquid pharmaceuticals at NV Organon. “Most promising is all the things we are doing on 3D printing of powders, because this can be used to make tailormade medicines in addition to food.” Whereas pharmaceutical products currently work on a ‘one size fits all’ basis, the DFPI is moving into pharma- applications that may pave the way towards personalized doses and new forms of medication for those who cannot swallow pills.
For now, the DFPI’s primary focus is on applied projects at the interface between industry and research, meaning that the impact of student involvement has so far been limited. However, the partners are in the process of developing a more unified approach to research, including a proposal to the European Commission regarding the assignment and training of PhDs in various locations in Europe. At Wageningen University, Ben notes, “we have several PhDs working on 3D printing or additive manufacturing in a broader context. In my opinion, it’s relevant research, but lacks the benefits of an integrated approach. We should therefore create a coherent research program involving TU/e. There’s room for development there.”
With this in mind, the DFPI has also been applying for various grants to do collaborative research with TU/e, WUR and interested companies. The project’s launch in July 2018 was attended by over 120 industry representatives, and the partners have since been organizing workshops to help companies explore the promises that the technologies may hold for them. Ben: “We have put forward the ambition that it should be a broader initiative, that is should be more than the four founding partners. It would be great to have an underpinning research program to which both universities and PhDs can contribute and expand the consortium.” This presents a real opportunity for students to be at the forefront of a digital revolution in the ways that we produce, process and understand food.