Note: The following was authored by Tim Caffrey, associate consultant at Wohlers Associates
One of the more unusual and attention-grabbing applications for additive manufacturing is the 3D printing of food. A team at Cornell University has been pioneering “edible additive manufacturing” in collaboration with the French Culinary Institute since 2009. Food items, ranging from chocolate, cheese, and hummus, to turkey and scallops, have been pureed and successfully printed into 3D shapes on the syringe-based Fab@Home 3D printer.
Essential Dynamics introduced the Imagine 3D printer in early 2012. The Imagine product employs the material extrusion process, using syringes to dispense edible items and other materials. In August, Essential Dynamics announced a second generation of the Imagine. It has a 228 x 228 mm (9 x 9 inch) build platform and is priced just under $2,000 for an assembled system.
Another recent announcement caught our interest. The Thiel Foundation, associated with PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, is investing $350,000 in Modern Meadow, a startup company in Columbia, Missouri. The company is developing 3D bioprinting to create leather products made from animal cells. After that, the company plans to develop a 3D-printed, a ready-to-eat meat alternative. The CEO of Modern Meadow is Andras Forgacs, whose father Gabor Forgacs is one of the early developers of bioprinting, which uses cells to build living tissue in 3D.
Modern Meadow aims to produce food grade animal protein using proprietary tissue engineering technologies. It will initially target the leather industry and then the food industry with hide and meat products.
It’s no doubt that food is big business. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans spent $1.3 billion on food in 2011. It’s too early to speculate how much Modern Meadow and other food-related 3D printing can capture in this large industry, but it will certainly be interesting to watch over the next several years.