Can 3D Printing Revolutionize Airplane Food?

Posted in In the Air

The future isn’t coming, people. That’s because it’s already here. On-demand everything, pocket-sized devices with the collective intelligence of the world stored inside, Dippin’ Dots: we’re not dreaming of what the future is going to be anymore. We’re just trying to figure out how to live in it. No example better symbolizes our futuristic world than the rise of 3D printing.

3D printing is like a direct portal from brains to reality. Imagine a new toy for your kid, then design it on your iPhone, and print it out — all within a miniscule fraction of the time it would have taken to prototype something the conventional way. It’s amazing what 3D printing is going to do to the world, but it gets even more amazing when you realize what 3D printing is going to do to food.

Food Printers aren’t completely new. Homaru Cantu at Moto in Chicago has been printing out edible menus using edible ink for years now. He hasn’t been printing 3D food, though. That’s what some Indian students (who call themselves “The Ninjas”) are doing. They study in the Department of Design at the Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati and their project for the OzCHI24 annual international student design competition could revolutionize the Fly&Dine world. Basically, they want to 3D print food in-flight.

They’re calling it The Sky Kitchen and they’re addressing the number one complaint about airline food: that it’s not freshly made. Instead of the traditional system of off-site catering companies preparing meals and loading them onto planes, The Sky Kitchen aims to have 3D printers that can print various kinds of food into whatever shape you’d like. Want a triangle waffle? It can do that. Want pizza with blueberries? It can do that, too. It can do pretty much whatever you want it to do, so if pancakes in the shape of a Christmas tree are what your heart desires, you can have them. Pretty cool, eh?

Overall, this sounds like a great concept, but I fear that it will remain just that: a concept. The practicality of air travel makes a system like this nearly impossible unless the entire flight service program is overhauled and flight attendants are replaced by automated delivery bots. There just wouldn’t be enough time and labor available to make orders in the printer and deliver them to travelers. You would need at least ten of these machines on-board to print the food and then at least one employee dedicated to making sure the customers got their order and keeping the printers functional. As of right now, this plan isn’t feasible.

In the future, though, who knows what air travel will look like? Maybe 3D food printers will be introduced as a novelty at first. Similar to those Coke Freestyle machines where people line up to make crazy soda creations, I can easily imagine one of the bigger airlines investing in a 3D printer and putting it in the snack area of an A380 or setting one up in a premium lounge to differentiate themselves from other carriers. Alaska Airlines already has their Pancake Bot running in their Board Room lounges; perhaps a functional 3D food printer on airlines isn’t that far off after all…



h/t Eater via 3DPrint


  1. Forgive me but, while I appreciate the ability to modify the size, shape and (presumably) color to my preference, I’d be more concerned about the…..FOOD…..component. What is the likelihood that the (hopefully) organic components being extruded will taste like the food product being ordered>

  2. A fun post and video, thanks.
    That said… Airline catering firms have been producing what is essentially, uniform, mechanized, “3D” printed food for a couple of decades. Aviation geeks and frequent flyers at anything below the First Class cabin have been fussing about “Airline Food” since commercial flight began. IMO, it could be a bit better, but the constraints of altitude, low humidity, serving hundreds quickly and the always ugly sister of cost will, in combination prevent any major improvements. As most experienced flyers know, even First Class meals can be questionable. (Up front, they tend to compensate for poor food with alcohol, fluffy service and visual appeal, while the food itself still suffers.
    After far more long haul flights than I care to recall, I do have a couple of suggestions:
    1. If the flight duration allows, eat before you go and eat after arrival. Not always possible, I know.
    2. Regardless of seat-class, carry something that you know and enjoy.
    3. If flying toward the front, business or first, the appetizers are often better than the main courses. When possible, double up on those and skip the main courses.
    4. In general, braised dishes, those subjected to long, slow, wet cooking processes survive the catering and on-board reheating processes far better than most others. Yes, even in cattle class, if a menu choice suggests long/wet cooking, it is usually the safest choice.
    5. Do not expect miracles, even way up front. Save the not often seen braised lamb shank or beef short ribs, keep your expectations low.
    6. If one must eat – and given a choice of times, eat as early as possible. Airplane food does not improve with age in the galley environment, especially salads and breads.
    7. That before arrival breakfast? Skip it and sleep a bit longer, unless they are scrambling your eggs from the shell.
    8. Beverages: Take plenty of bottled water/soft drinks, perhaps more than your norm. If you can, skip the alcohol or keep it minimal. Sadly, on most carriers it is also smart to skip the hot beverages. Most are made from on-board ‘potable’ water and even boiling won’t make bad water taste good. (In a few first class cabins, one can request that hot beverages be made from bottled water, but…
    9. While the service may be great in some cabins, the physics of time, high altitude and extremely dry air are simply not food-friendly. Your taste sensors do not work well and many, ground-based favorites just don’t travel well. Don’t expect two or three star food and you won’t be disappointed.
    10. Finally… If you are a frequent user of front cabin, long haul air transportation, communicate with your favored airline(s). Tell them what meals you like and dislike – and tell them why. Consumer input, especially from the front cabin folks does get consideration.
    10A. The Bonus Point: If you have specific ethnic tastes or even a much favored seasoning blend of your own, carry some with you and apply it liberally. Airline catering chefs understand the need to enhance flavors a bit, but they tread a fine line between enhanced and offensive. Whenever possible, know you meal(s) ahead of time and yes! Provide a bit of your own seasoning when it will help.
    Must I say it again? Do not expect star-winning cuisine on even the best airline, ’cause it just won’t happen. If all else fails, try to remember that these folks are in the transportation business, not the food business. Moving you from A to B in relative safety is their business. Anything more is – gravy.

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