Science fiction has long been concerned by the idea of how and what astronauts who are millions of miles from home might eat. From Star Trek’s fantastical Replicator through to what you might classify as The Martian’s earthier take on off-planet potato farming, food in space is fascinating. And, of course, it’s a real requirement.
The founders of 3D food printing solutions provider BeeHex started their own journey in response to this very challenge.
NASA had put out a call for solutions to the problem of how astronauts on deep space missions could be supplied with food which was both nutritious and customizable according to their needs – physical and emotional – at any given moment.
The BeeHex founder’s pizza printing machine won the contest, proving that pie in the sky ideas aren’t always unrealistic.
Fast-forward a few years and BeeHex, and it’s 3D food printing technology, have evolved to address more immediate demand in the large commercial bakery sector with sophisticated, high-throughput line equipment for food decoration.
BeeHex co-founder and COO Benjamin Feltner says he had to eat a lot of cake in his early days pounding the exhibition floors at bakery industry events, but that the sugar crashes were worth it in the end.
Like any start-up manufacturer designing and creating a new product from scratch – Benjamin references the endless iterations of the first Dyson vacuum cleaner – BeeHex has worked through numerous revisions of its machinery. It took over a year to perfect the flawlessly smooth interior of one cylindrical component alone. But the growth and learning this process has given his team – particularly the engineers who have had to remain obsessively focused through every setback – has been reward in itself, he says.
“Getting a piece of hardware to work exactly how you need it to, exactly how your customer needs it to – and each customer has their own requirements – just takes enormous dedication. It requires so much attention from the engineers, and unstinting focus. They’ve learned so much that, in some ways, they’re completely different people now.”
With a network of suppliers, an internal manufacturing management team, and a growing commercial customer base, BeeHex has an expanding ecosystem which is dependent on product and process documentation that provides absolute clarity on the design, assembly, operation, and maintenance of its 3D printing equipment.
The responsibility for creating this documentation falls to that same engineering team whose ongoing product development and execution is essential to success. With that in mind, a process for technical documentation which is just as efficient as the BeeHex 3D foot printing solution was a fundamental requirement.
And just like the design process itself, documentation creation required refinement and optimization.
BeeHex engineers were juggling an awkward combination of the Solidworks CAD solution and Microsoft Office in a bid to create documents to illustrate their products, Benjamin explains.
“We were using screenshots from Solidworks which we would then label up in PowerPoint but it just wasn’t good enough,” he says. “It was taking too long and we reached the point where we had to consider whether we could really spend our time playing with something like that. We needed a tool which was suited to the job.”
BeeHex uses Canvas X3, which allows any user, technical or otherwise, to import 3D CAD models from Solidworks and all other leading CAD packages, and create precise visualizations. The ability to manipulate 3D models, to rotate, explode, ghost and hide parts, to create vector images, to add graphics, text, annotations, and Bill of Materials tables gives BeeHex the ability to create highly accurate visual documentations in a single application rather than switching between multiple apps which weren’t designed for the job.
Crucially for BeeHex it speeds the process of effective visual technical communication among the firm’s stakeholders. “We’ve cut the time it takes to create this documentation by somewhere between 25 and 50 per cent,” Benjamin says.
“It’s really a great communication tool, I think. We can be sure that we are showing either the customer, or the manufacturer, or our own team exactly what is going on. If you don’t have that easy way of making that happen then you waste so much time trying to explain it in other ways. This This way the engineering team are better able to focus their time on the most important tasks.”
For BeeHex that now includes development of a 3D printing solution which will deliver personalized nutrition bars for the U.S. military. And if that extends to the United States Space Force, BeeHex may yet facilitate on-demand 3D printed space food.