Someday in the future, that is.
For now, chocolate fans will have to go to Hershey headquarters in Pennsylvania for a sweet 3-D fix. In May, the confectioner plans to install a permanent 3-D chocolate printer exhibit at its Chocolate World attraction, where consumers can order their own likenesses and other custom shapes. The CocoJet printers were first showcased at Chocolate World in December, then at CES in Las Vegas earlier this month.
Hershey built the printers in collaboration with one of the largest and oldest 3-D-printing companies, 3D Systems. Just six months into testing, the team is on the fourth iteration of the printer and a similar number of chocolate recipes. The latest is a 2-foot-by-2-foot glass and metal cube where scientists preside over chocolate creations built layer by layer. The process can take from a few minutes to an hour or more depending on the complexity of the design.
"This technology will be fundamental to the way people interact with food in the future," said Jeff Mundt, senior marketing manager of technology at Hershey's innovation center. "If we don't get on the edge and lead the way to edible food printing, somebody else will do it for us. And we're all about innovation."
That said, he has no definitive answers about what that future holds. The 3-D printing initiative is about discovery, with input from consumers and partners.
"Our approach is launch to learn, rather than learn to launch," Mr. Mundt said. "Put something out in front of people and see how they respond to it. Tweak it, come back with another iteration and go from there."
A consistent taste is key for the Hershey brand. In this case, that means the 3-D recipes -- chocolate is extruded through special metal-nozzled cartridges -- must have the same taste as the bars they're mimicking. Hershey already has wings in its headquarters dedicated to the work of food scientists and sensory experts who make sure flavor profiles, consistency and texture are on brand for all of its products. Three-D chocolate is just another addition to the quality-control team's mandate.
For now, 3-D printing at Hershey means consumers can commission a custom, edible wedding cake topper or greeting card. But the future could bring other uses. While Hershey execs wouldn't commit to specifics, they agreed that distributed manufacturing with the ability for mass-scale 3-D printing in areas without Hershey manufacturing facilities, as well as non-chocolate 3-D food printing, are considerations for the company.
It's also a marketing play. The exhibit at Chocolate World will draw curious visitors and customization enthusiasts as well as media attention. The company's 3-D chocolate was on "Good Morning America" after the team printed chocolate bars with images of the show's hosts for a segment in late December.
"We've found at Chocolate World that when consumers can engage with chocolate in ways other than going to the grocery store, getting a bar and eating it, it means more to them. There are other ways they can engage now," Mr. Mundt said.
And while the CocoJet is akin to the dot-matrix printer of the 1970s, technology advances will continue to push future development.
Whether 3-D printing in the food industry means revolutionary changes or simply additional and easier ways to customize and manufacture, 3-D printing of food is on the rise. Gartner estimates the 3-D printer market, of which food is still just a small part, to reach $6.9 billion in sales by 2018, up from $789 million this year. NASA is experimenting with 3-D printing as a way to feed astronauts in space, while the U.S. government is interested in nourishing soldiers in the field. Foodie experimenters are more drawn to the creativity aspect, while others are using it to alleviate hunger problems around the world.
"We don't have the final objective in our minds. We're working toward that," Mr. Mundt said. "The beauty of 3-D printing is that you can make something with this that you could never get out of a mold. [We can] use the technology to create something maybe no one has ever thought of or ever experienced."