US Army Natick Soldier RD&E CenterThe military wants to "customize nutrition" for each soldier in the next few decades, and it's betting on 3-d printers to do it.
"Food could be printed with the exact requirement a warfighter needs," says Lauren Oleksyk, a food technologist at the US Army's Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center. Oleksyk and her fellow Natick researchers are in the early stages of a concept that could deliver food tailored for each soldier, possibly debuting on the battlefield within the next 10 to 15 years.
Here's how it would work.
By 2025, soldiers will likely be wearing a device to measure their physiological or nutritional status. The wearable may be inside the experimental "Iron Man suit" or something else, but the idea is that it would send personal data back about the soldier.
Once the data reaches back to a base camp or field kitchen, it might show a soldier hasn't eaten enough protein today, or that they've been awake for quite a while and could use some extra caffeine. This is where the 3-d printer works its magic.
US Army Natick Soldier RD&E Center
Unlike the Army's ready-to-eat meals, a 3-d printer could create a chocolate bar or drink powder designed to help each individual soldier perform at their best. A muscular soldier, for example, probably has different caloric requirements than a skinny one.
With today's 3-d printers, something simple like a protein bar with peanut butter filling covered in chocolate can be made in about 30 minutes. But Oleksyk wouldn't be surprised if the time it takes comes down substantially, as the technology continues to improve.
"It's exponential how much faster printers are getting year over year," she said.
Natick is still early in its research, but it has printed some basic food components. And the organization isn't alone in using the futuristic printers for food. Others have been able to make everything from candies and dog treats to cake toppers.
But will they ever be able to print more complex items — like pizza?
The answer is definitely yes. Dough, sauce, and cheese are all "very easy to print," Oleksyk said.
"Each component of pizza is fairly printable."