3D printers take on their tastiest challenge: chocolate

A beer bottle, a bat and various other shapes lie created in chocolate in this laboratory in the Belgian town of Gembloux. (Photo: AP) A beer bottle, a bat and various other shapes lie created in chocolate in this laboratory in the Belgian town of Gembloux. (Photo: AP)

A beer bottle, a bat and various other shapes lie created in chocolate in this laboratory in the Belgian town of Gembloux.

They're the latest products from La Miam Factory, which uses 3-D printers to make perfect, mini chocolate sculptures.

Gaetan Richard is Chief Technical Officer and Co-founder of the factory.

He demonstrates the process by melting chocolate pellets, using the bain-marie technique, and pouring them into a syringe before attaching it to the 3-D printing machine. Then a drawing on a computer connected to the printer tells the machine which chocolate shape to make.

Gaetan Richard is one of five engineers who founded La Miam Factory at the end of 2016. He says it's the first time Belgium has experienced the 3-D chocolate printing trend.

"Here the interest is that with 3-D printing we can create forms that can't be made through molding, because they bulge or have a hollow shape etc. 3-D chocolate printing is a new tool available to chocolate and pastry makers to create new forms, new things to better express their creativity."

Belgian start-up La Miam is an off-shoot of the Smart Gastronomy Lab of the University of Liege, whose mission is to create prototypes for culinary trials and advancement.

3-D chocolate printing is bringing innovation to pastry chefs and allowing chocolatiers to be more inventive with their products.

Christophe Druet is another co-founder of La Miam Factory. Holding a twisted, tree-shaped chunk of chocolate he says it's amazing what 3-D printers can now achieve:

"Typically it's impossible to make this piece in any other way than with 3-D printing because it has bridges, it has a shape that a mould can't reproduce. So this piece has an extraordinary quality and the chocolate-maker who sees it says 'Wow, how did you make it?' We can see a very smooth surface, we can barely see the lines of the 3-D printing and this is just extraordinary."

La Miam, French for "yummy", offers its services to two types of customers: companies looking for original and personalised chocolate logos and chocolate-makers who want to create unique 3-D chocolate pieces.

Belgium is one of the world's chocolate capitals so it might seem surprising it's taken so long for the 3-D trend to arrive here. However Richard says La Miam's machines are unique, providing a particularly fine-grained chocolate sculpture:

"The main feature that differentiates our prototypes from other (3-D) printed chocolates is the fineness of the printing. There are other printers, but I know that ours are able to overlay layers of 0.2 millimetre thickness. We can even reach 0.1 millimetres. It's clear that if we go from 0.2 to 0.1 millimetres we can double the production. But at 0.2 millimetres we reach a compromise and deliver a very nice final shape, very smooth, much smoother than what can be obtained with other printers that overlay much thicker layers and in their final product the strata are much more visible."

La Miam has already produced pieces for five clients: they include 200 logos for Belgian chemical company Solvay, a series of Christmas trees for Belgian chocolate-maker Galler and chocolate beer bottles for Belgian brewery Bertinchamps.

Since the printed chocolate products are hard to transport and may break when moved from one location to another, one of La Miam's future goals is to open workshops in different parts of the world.

At his Brussels shop and cafe chocolatier Laurent Gerbaud is making chocolate pieces by hand and flavouring them with nuts and dry fruits.

Although 3-D printing won't take over from the craft of hand-making chocolate, Gerbaud admits it is improving their work by allowing them to make new creations quickly and with less hassle:

"3-D printing is super interesting because we chocolate-makers mainly work with moulds. The problem is that we need to remove the mould and sometimes that's not possible. But with 3-D printing we can create chocolate in very special forms. On the other hand the technical part is a bit complicated because computer files with the forms that will be printed need to be created. But it's a very interesting technique."