The Future is here: 3D Printing Food and Manufacturing

I’ve always been interested in trying to predict the future based on existing ideas, so here is my trajectory for 3D printing of Food and manufacturing as a whole using events from internet history with no specific timeline.

The Beginning: The Internet and 3D Printing

There is no doubt in our mind that the Internet has revolutionized the intangible world, but more importantly it has revolutionized the way we perceive the tangible. Connected nodes and networks have brought on intricate systems, that when observed by the oblivious seem superficial but when privy to those aware then the magnitude of intricacy becomes so much more real. While these systems and their abstracted consequences of connectedness, a belief that the internet has mad us as humans more aware and socially connected, are the reality we live in today, the same is not true of their origins. It all began with a simple idea. The idea was to research the theoretical feasibility of communication using packets rather than circuits, conceptualized by Leonard Kleinrock. This concept and its abstractions have provided the basis for Internet computing, as we know it, yet at its essence was no more than an implementation of information exchange at its beginning.

Much like the all-encompassing effect the Internet has had on our world, its model of impact and growth can be compared to that of 3D printing, with shocking similarities. 3D printing began with the concept of Stereolithography, a process of additive manufacturing where thin layers of ultraviolet curable material are printed one on top of the other, just as the Internet began with packet switching. This concept of additive manufacturing, invented and patented by Charles Hull, was never intended to serve the purpose it now serves in 3D printing, much like packet-switching was never intended to create a global network like the internet. With its humble beginnings, 3D printing is now approaching the forefront of manufacturing, as we know it, much like the Internet is at the forefront of endless streams of information. The process of additive manufacturing has since been used to print functional organs, prosthetic legs, and, more recently, food. Let’s now consider the 3D printing of food as the premise of our discussion, in order to do so, we must first provide some context to food itself.

According to Levi-Strauss’ Culinary Triangle, food comes in three forms roasted, raw, and cooked, yet he furthers this claim by saying cooked food comes in three forms: boiled , roasted, and smoked. If this claim were to be taken as belief then what form of cooking would 3D printed food come in? Furthermore, would the components of the 3D printed foods be able to fall into any of three categories: roasted, raw, or cooked. This concrete definition of food as presented by Levi-Strauss provides a great segue to consider the disruption 3D printing may cause in the for-consumer production of food, much like the Internet had done to information exchange.

World Wide Web and Financial Bubble

To examine the impact 3D printing of food may have on manufacturing, quite potentially within our lifetimes, we must first equate an aspect of the Internet to the aspect of 3D printing we are considering. The most compelling comparison of 3D printing to the Internet would be to compare the ‘embryonic’ phase, a phase during which companies are considered newly established businesses, of consumer and enterprise based Internet companies and existing 3D printing companies.

Specifically, we will look to the dot com era, a period from the early 90’s to the late 90’s where Internet companies were booming in terms of monetary and utilitarian success. This era consisted of early adopters of such software and hardware creating technology using the Internet that far-surpassed investors imaginations. In a similar manner to the dot com era, early adopters of 3D printing have been able to print functional miniature organs (2002), prosthetic legs (2008), blood vessels (2011), and food (2013) all within a ten year span. This kind of innovation, much like the early years of the dot com era, has only recently been acknowledged by investor attention, garnering millions of dollars in funding, yet still kept away from mass consumer use.

With these grand visions of the future lies the first hurdle 3D printing may have to cross, i.e. a financial bubble. In the case of the dot com era, a financial bubble, a sustained overvaluation of assets causing prices to fall when the bubble bursts, came in the form of unrealistic visions of the future and lack of distinguishing characteristics among products. Despite the growth and potential during this period, there existed both visionaries and scam-artists that produced inferior products with minor improvements (if any improvements at all) to catch the tidal wave of monetary success. This lead to the subsequent financial crash in the Internet sector, specifically, effecting companies that were formed on the World Wide Web. If a similar pathway were to be expected from the companies producing 3D printers of food, a more realistic approach must be taken to tackle this coming dilemma: the tradeoff between being visionary and making unrealistic visions. Currently, the central issue to tackle would be defining the food production process in the context of 3D printers. There are two possible scenarios: companies that claim to be able to reproduce all food and those that are finding and developing a niche within food production. The primary limitation that exists in the latter space comes in the form of the raw materials placed in the printer, for instance the printer might only permit dough-like substances that exist in a state between raw and cooked. Given the limited inputs these machines can take, there exists a space for innovation and a redefinition of food as claimed by Levi-Strauss (raw, rotted, or cooked). Finally, in order to achieve success and avoid of a financial bubble, producers must realize that there exists a niche, a smaller segment of an intended market, they can build upon (i.e. dough-like inputs to the printers) rather than making promises of what at this stage is virtually impossible (recreating all foods with a 3D printer), but may be possible with technological advancement.

Lean startup and Paradigm shift

To understand a possible growth strategy for 3D printing food, one must first understand the growth model most Internet businesses have spurred from, the Lean Startup model. For this specific model, we will use Facebook (an Internet-based startup that has grown to success) to predict a possible growth strategy for a niche food 3D printing startup (let’s call it Startup X). The main factor of commonality among these two would be their initial focus on niche markets, Facebook (originally a social network for colleges) and Startup X (a food preparation device). At the time of its creation Facebook was intended for use by solely college students yet it quickly grew to span use by all ages by the simple mantra, learning faster than anyone else. As Facebook realized its core product (i.e. the social network) had potential to expand itself to different users beyond their previous intention. In a much similar manner, Startup X, and its competitors, have the potential to scale their technology to many different facets, while maintaining their core product, i.e. food preparation. Focusing on a niche market allows a company to penetrate the market without facing the high entry costs associated with manufacturing yet allows the company to expand into other verticals once it has achieved success in its niche.

According to the curve above, that describes the growth of a startup according to the Lean Startup model, Startup X would fall into the embryonic stage of a startup but for it to transition into the emerging phase it must harness its ability to scale. In order for a product to scale it must fall in a price-point consumers are willing to pay and offer a consumer service applicable to a variety of consumers. For instance it may scale its 3D printers to include all food preparation functionality, such as dicing, chopping sautéing, or marinating foods. This will give it a competitive advantage within its niche market of food preparation; much lie Facebook’s features (i.e Like, Share, Comment) gave it a competitive advantage. Assuming its competitive advantage would allow it to thrive in the business world then Startup X, or other startups of this nature, will move into the emerging phase of the startup cycle graph.

Open Music Model

As Startup X, and similar 3D food printing startups, transition into the emerging phase and adolescent phase of a startup life cycle, the primary issue of concern will be its proposed commercialization. Commercialization here refers to the method of monetization that company will undertake to exist and thrive in the competitive business space. To understand the method to solve this issue we must look at a similar issue that Internet companies were facing when illegal downloading of files became prevalent, thereby forcing online music providers to loose money.

Let us take for example Spotify, a mobile music and desktop music provider , that aimed to solve the problem of free music download and to capitalize on music’s transition from CD’s to the Internet. The solution Spotify employed was to consider music no longer as a good but as a service in the age of downloading music illegally. This model of selling services instead of goods is common of most Internet businesses, who by nature of being on the Internet cannot produce a tangible product, and is referred to as the Open Music Model. The Open Music Model as conceptualized by Shuman Ghosemajumder in his research paper Advanced Peer Based Technology Models, states that business owners must now sell digital files for a subscription (such as five dollars a month) as the ‘free’ environment of the internet no longer will maximize profitability for direct content sales (such as one dollar per song). Herein, lies a proposed solution to the problem 3D food printing startups may face. Due to the mass availability 3D printers will have by the time the marginal cost, additional cost of making one additional printer, decreases in the emerging/latter phase of a startup lifecycle, we will then have mass access to the file system which we upload to our printers in order to print an object. This would pose a threat not only to the startups producing the printers but also major restaurant chains whose most basic recipes and processes could potentially be available for free under the public domain of the Internet. To solve this a subscription-based network must be created to offer users access to all encompassing food related printables under a legal common license, thereby allowing food producers to make a profit. The significant change in this method is that now preparing food would be considered a service offered by a third party rather than the good that food currently is, implying that what we classically defined food would no longer hold, it would now merely be a file accessible over the Internet. Thereby, value would be lost in recipes and tangible food-related goods; instead the value would come from a potential online service that sells these recipes under a subscription basis. Furthermore, this would cause an increase in the availability of the food components that take part in the production process, i.e the dough-like substance that was referred to earlier. The grand scheme of such a transformation to a file system of recipes and approaches to cooking would, to some extent, invalidate large corporations and make fast food (i.e food cooked quickly) possibly healthier and more accessible. To the final point the wide spread nature of such a file system would make food cheaper and more accessible, thereby, creating alternative approaches to food production as rations, once again redefining food to a file system rather than a tangible product, further diverging from Levi-Strauss’ view of a Culinary Triangle.

Future of Food and Manufacturing

Finally once these startups have established their target audience and proposed a platform for commercialization, the last step is the uncertainty of future expansion. Although unlikely, it is possible that the expansion of mass consumer 3D printing of food would provide an alternative to traditional manufacturing thereby making forms of mass food preparation relatively obsolete. With this of course comes this issue of cost effectiveness that would imply a significant fall in prices in buying a 3D printer. Much like initiatives taken by many Internet entrepreneurs of today, 3D printing entrepreneurs may too begin to stand for a larger cause. For instance, Mark Zuckerburg, founder of Facebook, has recently begun a new initiative, which he will partly fund to provide Internet access to the millions of people who lack it around the world. Not only would this imply long-term global equity but also it would entail a higher standard of knowledge and globalization across the world. In a similar manner if the innovators behind successful 3D printing startups could potentially fund projects to spread their machines throughout developing regions that lack the basic infrastructure to produce decent food. Thus, they could not only begin attempting to solve the problem of world hunger but also effectively increase the economic standard of living across the world. While it may be an ambitious feet that may not seem realistic within our lifetimes, it is nevertheless a possibility of the new types of infrastructure that 3D printing will bring about. The raw food component from which food made by 3D printers is created could be used to create new types of long lasting rations that come in shapes and forms that we could not even have imagined with our current state of food production today.

Conclusion and Internet of Things

To understand the consequences of 3D printing of food we must apply to it existing models of growth, i.e. growth of the Internet, and then predict the outcomes that may arise from these existing models. While all of what is considered in this paper is an abstraction of the growth that occurred through the Internet, from the Dot Com boom to the startup phase and beyond, it is important to remember that regardless of the success or lack thereof that 3D printing may receive, it is nevertheless going to redefine manufacturing as we know it. Specifically, if it were to redefine food, it will change the existing ideology of the Culinary Triangle as created by Levi-Strauss, to further encompass the ‘dough-like’ raw forms and file-based systems that food may begin to be associated with during our lifetimes and further on. Despite all these abstract possibilities of what it may become, there is one definite characteristic it has begun to take and will continue to take and that is as a system. More specifically, a system here refers to an individual unit used to accomplish a task. And as the world is shaping up to grow within our lifetimes it seems that individualized systems are now taking part in a grander system, i.e. a system consisting of systems. This concept of having a system of systems is known as the Internet of Things. According to the Internet of Things within our lifetimes we will begin to see individual systems merge and communicate with other systems. For instance, our shower, alarm clock, and 3D printer are all considered individual systems. By way of example these individual systems will begin to communicate such that when we wake up in the morning our alarm clock will communicate to our shower to preheat the water and our shower will estimate a time for our 3D printer to prepare our breakfast before we go to work, creating a grand interconnected system. This final piece of having a self-sustaining system of technologies that plays a significant role in aiding our lives will be the step of evolution that food and 3D printing will take to help us transform the way we exist, and in a sense transcend our current human existence.

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