3D-printing of Food: Science-Fiction becoming reality

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Photo: Stepan Kulyk

Have you ever watched Star Trek? When the crew has a desire for a particular food or drink, it can order it from the “Replicator”. Whatever it is, if it is saved in the database, it will appear seconds later out of thin air. Watching it as a kid, I always wondered whether or when this kind of technology would be available and how it might taste.

3D-printing might open the door to this Science-Fiction scenario. However, with regards to food, the technology is still in its infancy.
Despite its early stage, progress can be observed across the world. Most recently, MeaTech announced that they printed the world’s largest steak from living cells with approximately 110g (40oz). While cultivated meat is still some years away from market readiness, there are various actors “printing” plant-based ingredients into shape and their products are available on the market already. One of those actors is Redefine Meat, an Israelian company, which recently launched its plant-based steak in four major food metropolises simultaneously (Tel Aviv, London, Amsterdam, Berlin).
We used the opportunity to discuss the technology, its challenges, scalability, and sustainability aspects with Redefine’s CEO, Eshchar Ben-Shitrit. Find the interview here. In addition, we dived a little deeper into the topic looking at the market development, current applications as well as benefits and challenges for the technology.

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    Photo: Ikea

What is 3D-printing of Food?

Technically, 3D-printing is an additive manufacturing process. While there is a variety of different approaches, the most common one used in food production is material extrusion, in which paste-like ingredients (think chocolate, mashed fruits or vegs, plant-based meat or fish components) are deposited layer upon layer to form the intended design. It basically works with every ingredient that can be brought into the required consistency for the application and is or can be made food safe afterwards.
The product is usually either ready to eat like confectionary or treated as a raw product like meat. The printers themselves normally do not incorporate “cooking” the product but forming it only.

“3D-printing was initially developed to create a physical shape, a prototype, out of a digital design. For food there are two major differences: First, we do not create a mere prototype, but the final product for consumption and second, we have more criteria besides the shape, like texture and taste to consider that make printing it much more complex.” – Eshchar Ben-Shitrit.

How is the market developing?

The market for 3D-printing of food, depending on the source, ranges between USD 20.6mn and USD 485.5mn and is expected to grow to USD 623.6mn by 2026 (CAGR 52.6%) and USD 1.0bn by 2025 (CAGR 16.1%) respectively. Main drivers are the demand for customized and personalized, yet mass produced foods, especially indulgence products like chocolates, cakes, and confectionaries as well as healthcare applications.
Another driver, also with significant media coverage, is the aspiration to replicate shape and texture of meat or fish whole cuts. Albeit it is at a small scale now, significant funding has gone into it (e.g. Aleph Farms: USD 131.4mn, MeaTech: USD 9mn + listed, Redefine: USD 35mn, Revo Foods: USD 1.5mn, Juicy Marbles: USD 4.5mn to name just a few) with the prospect of a steep growth in the coming years.

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    Photo: Juicy Marbles

Where is 3D-printing currently used?

Besides the above-mentioned use cases there are other applications for B2B and to a much smaller degree for B2C as well.
Large corporates have started experimenting with 3D-printing a couple of years ago. Barilla in cooperation with TNO showcased the first prototypes of individualized pasta back in 2016. Hershey’s launched their first 3D-printer, CocoJet, in 2014 and continues to explore the possibilities of 3D-printing for confectionary.
SavorEats and Smoothfood target the system gastronomy with their solutions. The former designed a fully automated burger machine printing three customizable burger patties every five minutes. The latter produces, as the name indicates, ready-to-eat meals for people who have trouble chewing and swallowing.
Barry Callebaut rather targets fine dining with offering the world’s first personalized 3D-printed chocolates at scale through its Mona Lisa decoration brand. Most known is the chocolate flower shape “Flor de Cacao” created in cooperation with Jordi Roca that opens-up when in contact with hot chocolate sauce. Looks amazing.
A fully 3D-printed gastronomy concept was developed by Food Ink. Everything from tables, chairs utensils and of course the food comes from various 3D-printers.
Due to cost, size, and limited usability B2C applications are not that frequent on the market. Good examples might range from small and easy models like Print2Taste’s Mycusini to professional kitchen designs like Natural Machines’ Foodini.

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    Photo: Redefine Meat

What are the benefits and challenges?

3D-printing provides some interesting benefits. The most relevant at the moment, and one of the growth drivers, is certainly freedom of design or the opportunity to shape the products in the desired way. This is relevant for complex and customized designs in indulgence products but similarly for texturing whole cuts of meat and fish. Additional benefits might be less food waste, easy reproducibility, and a possible personalization of food.
However, the technology was originally designed for prototyping and rapid product development in small quantities, not for food mass production. Hence, it comes with some challenges that need addressing before a large-scale production is feasible and cost efficient.

“We, at Redefine, currently face three main challenges, complexity in printing, food safety as well as costs and efficiency.” Eshchar Ben-Shitrit.

While 3D-printing allows for intricate designs it oftentimes limits the production speed. “We currently can produce 10kg of meat per hour. We could do more, but that would cost us quality and we don’t want that”, says Eshchar. In addition, the design is important in food, but for meat and fish a whole cut’s texture and taste are the more decisive aspects. “Combining different ingredients in a certain structure that mimics the mouthfeel and experience of eating meat is a very complex undertaking. Although we do a good job already there is a lot of room for improvement, and we will be better next week” says Eshchar. The cost of equipment and hiring adequately trained personnel is also a challenge that currently hampers scaling.
Another restricting factor to efficiently produce food is the limitation of food ingredients. The number of nozzles and containers is still quite small, allowing only for a certain amount of ingredients to be used. In addition, different ingredients might require different temperatures for the right viscosity, which might make storing and using them more challenging.
And in food, safety of course is paramount. For the extrusion process, the paste-like input needs to be at a certain temperature and viscosity, potentially preventing sterilizing treatments like cooking or due to fluctuating temperatures might allow microbes to grow. However so far, all companies seem to cope well with this aspect.

Where does the industry go?

Considering that large FMCG players invest into the technology and noting more and more startups appearing in the field of 3D-printing with significant financial firepower, it appears the market will develop out of its niche position into a mass business within the next decade.
If there will be a Star Trek like “Replicator” for home usage at some point needs to be seen, but maybe a simple form can be found in a supermarket, canteen, or restaurant not too far in the future.

The NX-Food visual branding and website are developed by dombek—bolay and Naasner Office, in close collaboration with the NX-Food team.