Here's How Close We Are to Real 3-D-Printed Food

3D Systems stock

ChefJet edible designs printed in full-color at 72 dpi. Image source: 3D Systems.

In one of its quirkier moves to date, 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD  )  just unveiled its new line of ChefJet 3D sugar printers. 

Just as the name implies, 3D Systems insists ChefJet will allow any professional kitchen to incorporate "stunning edible prints" with minimal effort -- that is, for foodies willing to fork out some serious dough.

ChefJet will be available later this year in two models: one at "under $5,000" to deliver single-color edible prints, and another "Pro" version for "under $10,000" to enable larger, full-color designs.

All new ... ish
"We invite leading pastry chefs, restaurateurs, and event planners to join us in bringing 3D printing into the kitchen," says Liz von Hasseln, 3D Systems' creative director of food products -- and yes, that's her official title.

If Liz von Hasseln's name sounds familiar, it's because she and her husband, Kyle, co-founded The Sugar Lab, a California-based start-up 3D Systems acquired in September.

Naturally, it makes sense that 3D Systems would kick things off by translating The Sugar Lab's processes to its own branded line of printers.

What about real 3-D printed food?
To be sure, the ability to choose from various flavors and colors is certainly a slick enhancement. But while printing geometrically pleasing sugar confections is a neat trick, it's also a very specific, expensive solution -- and a far cry from the broad-based vision most people have when hear the phrase "3-D-printed food."

When, for instance, will we be able to walk up to a 3-D printer and order a hamburger? Or a slice of pizza? Or some pasta?

Well technically, you already can. Sort of.

Take Barcelona-based Natural Machines, for example, whose Foodini printer is pegged for a late-2014 commercial launch and can layer fresh, unprocessed ingredients to prepare various foods in raw form, such as pizza, filled ravioli, cookies, crackers, and hamburger patties.
 
3D Systems stock

A rendering of Natural Machines' Foodini food printer. Image source: Natural Machines.

Then again, the roughly $1,400 Foodini won't cook the meals for you, and it still requires you get your hands dirty cutting, measuring, and mixing the ingredients before it can spit them out in order. As a result, and aside from partially solving the complication of properly shaping and layering food, it's hard to imagine that the Foodini will be adopted on any wide scale.
 
Mmm ... space food
Rather, more pertinent to the popular vision of 3-D-printed food is something in the works from both NASA and a small, Austin, Texas-based company named Systems and Materials Research Consultancy. 

Last May, NASA awarded a six-month, $125,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant to SMRC to explore the feasibility of using 3-D-printed food for long-duration space missions.

Initially, the proposed system aims to combine unflavored macronutrients -- such as protein, starch, and fat -- from dry, sterile containers with water or oil at the 3-D print head. In effect, that will both reduce spoilage and allow the printer to create food in a variety of shapes and textures. But considering, in their words, that "basic sustenance will not ensure the long-term physical and mental health of the crew," NASA's space printer would also incorporate ink-jet technology to add both micronutrients, flavor, and smell. 

If $125,000 doesn't seem adequate to achieve all of this, keep in mind that such exploratory grants from the SBIR program can lead to much bigger things down the road. And I would know: The small company I joined straight out of college was founded with the support of a NASA SBIR grant in 1999, released its first product in 2001, and was acquired by Textron in 2006.

So how big could a 3-D food printer like ChefJet grow over the long term?

Really, really big.
According to SMRC's proposal, Earth's population is anticipated to be around 12 billion by the end of this century. At that point, our current food production and supply infrastructure simply won't be able to keep up with demand. "By exploring and implementing technologies such as 3-D printing," SMRC says, "this may avoid food shortage, inflation, starvation, famine, and even food wars."

And they're not the only ones who think so.
 
Consider Modern Meadow, a Missouri-based company working on combining 3-D printing and tissue engineering to develop cultured leather and meat products, all without animal slaughter and with significantly lower land, water, energy, and chemical requirements.
 
3D Systems stock

Modern Meadow scientist co-founder and scientist Karoly Jakab observing a tray of lab-grown meat. Image source: Modern Meadow

Sound crazy? Speaking at last year's TED conference, Modern Meadow co-founder and CEO Andras Forgacs asserted: "What's crazy is what we do today. I'm convinced in 30 years when we look back on today, and on how we raise and slaughter billions of animals to make our hamburgers and handbags, we'll see this as being wasteful. And indeed, crazy."

And wouldn't you know it: One of Modern Meadow's current advisors is Ping Fu, who simultaneously serves as as vice president and chief strategy officer of 3D Systems. Better yet, Fu even briefly voiced her excitement about her role with Modern Meadow in an interview last February with fellow Fool Brendan Byrnes.

We're closer than you think
I think 3D Systems' ChefJet is arguably the most similar commercially available solution to NASA's proposed device.
 
After all, ChefJet achieves its prints by spreading successive thin layers of powder -- in this case, sugar -- and then laying down liquid to force it to recrystallize into a specific shape. Over the long term, what's to stop 3D Systems from expanding ChefJet's reach?
 
Lucky for investors, I think that's exactly what they're planning to do; When 3D Systems acquired The Sugar Lab four months ago, Liz von Hasseln predicted, "We see our technology quickly evolving into a variety of flavors and foods, powered by real food printers for professionals and consumers alike, and we could not think of a more qualified partner than 3D Systems to help make that a reality."
 
Don't get me wrong. It'll still be a matter of years until we see 3-D-printed food adopted on any meaningful scale. But one thing's for sure: When it happens, it has the potential to radically change the world.

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