Nascent 3D printing takes shape in meat alternatives

The 3D printing of food remains very much in its early stages as an industry but meat alternatives are one hot spot. Eszter Racz explores the latest technology, the possible commercial strategies ahead and the challenges of large-scale food printing.

The food industry has been contemplating how 3D printing technology might shape product development and consumption for more than a decade.  

A number of notable – though still small – companies developing and marketing the technology have emerged, backed by investors that see some potential, although it is still unclear just how the nascent industry could take shape. 

The technology is being tried out in various areas of commercial food production, such as in confectionery through the likes of Mona Lisa 3D Studio, a subsidiary of Swiss chocolate giant Barry Callebaut, and the Los Angeles-based custom candy maker, Sugar Lab. Nutritional supplements has been another product area that has become a test bed for the technology and where companies have begun commercial operations. 

One part of the food industry that seems to be showing some of the most significant interest is meat alternatives. 

Hannah Cleland, a food and drinks analyst at GlobalData, Just Food’s parent, says the technology could offer solutions to some of the faux-meat industry’s struggles. 

Cleland points to the challenge cultivated-meat start-ups face on cost, suggesting the tech could be used “for instance to print ‘scaffolds’ for the cells to grow using agricultural edible ink derived from biowaste”.  

Doing so “would help to reduce material costs and increase sustainability in production”, she says. “The technology can drive scalability and more local production.” 

Cleland points to a consumer survey conducted by GlobalData in the first quarter of 2023. “Currently, 25% of consumers are motivated to try cultured meat because they believe it is more sustainable, whereas 24% are put off as they believe it is too expensive […], so 3D printing can help support on both fronts,” she offers.

Changes in technology

Barcelona-based Novameat is a business centred on the 3D printing of food but, in its six years of operations, it has moved on to different machinery compared to when the company was first started. 

“Our initial machines we were using were 3D printers and, right now, we are still using them [but only] to do rapid prototyping and develop or improve new [or existing] products,” founder Giuseppe Scionti says. 

The company is producing its plant-based meat products through microextrusion, a technology based on 3D printing. 

Microextrusion, like traditional extrusion, is a process where material is pushed through a die orifice but the resulting product can fit through a 1mm square.

Novameat’s shredded “beef”. Credit: Novameat

Novameat is “at the beginning of the commercialisation” of its patented technology, Scionti says. 

“One of the novelties is that we do not need high-moisture extruders or low-moisture extruders that are very expensive,” he explains. “Our technology allows us to create this filamentous structure that is the base of the muscles … and it requires less money because of the machine.”  

As Novameat doesn’t need large extruders, they can buy machines “off the shelf” into which it plugs its technology. 

The company is using a pilot machine for its microextrusion but Scionti says the kit will be capable of making “tons” of products per hour, adding the technology does not limit production capacity in any way. “[It] just depends on how large the machine is.”

The benefits of a B2B business model

Israel-based Steakholder Foods makes plant-based and cell-based “hybrid” faux meat products. 

Steakholder Foods’ products are its “ready-to-cook” 3D-printer technologies and bio-inks to make meat (and fish) alternatives. Its customers include plant-based business Wyler Farms, reputed to be Israel’s largest tofu producer. 

CEO Arik Kaufman says focusing on B2B sales has helped Steakholder Foods in its efforts to be cost-efficient and helps with sales, describing the model as “recurring revenue business”. 

If the company sold food products, it would need to establish facilities that produce cultivated biomass, Kaufman explains and he “doesn’t see” the company doing that.  

Such a business model “requires huge amounts of capex and opex”, he adds. “It doesn’t make sense in the current environment to set a target that we will establish facilities worldwide. That costs hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Steakholder Foods’ shrimp printer machine. Credit: Steakholder Foods

Steakholder Foods’ strategy “lowers dramatically the amount of extra money that we need to invest in order to see some kind of revenue stream,” Kaufman says. “It makes much more sense to pursue this route.” 

As for promoting the Steakholder Foods’ brand, Kaufman says the companies using the company’s machines would probably mention “printed by Steakholder” or “powered by Steakholder Foods” on food packaging. 

Novameat is similarly reluctant to become a consumer-facing business per se. Scionti argues Novameat’s product is its technology and “being able to create a whole muscular structure that can be chicken or it could be for turkey or lamb”.

In care settings

Natural Machines, also based in Barcelona, focuses on the personalisation of products through 3D printing technology. 

Under a B2B2C model, the company, founded in 2013, creates personalised pharmaceutical drugs, facial skin care masks and eye patches, and food for dysphagia (difficulty in swallowing).

3D printing is really about localisation, customisation.

Lynette Kucsma, Natural Machines

In the food sector, Natural Machines works with hospitals and care homes to feed people with dysphagia, which is a notable cause of death for patients with Parkinson’s disease.

The company says the way it prints food “ensures the texture and viscosity are correct” while the “pleasurable look and feel of the food leads to people eating more and preventing malnutrition”.

Natural Machines uses what co-founder and former Microsoft executive Lynette Kucsma calls an “open capsule model”. Customers use ingredients to fill up the stainless-steel food capsules of the machines, which then form a dough-like mass into the desired shape.

“I will say, it’s not like a food processor. So, if you’re printing, cookies, you’re not going to have a dose of flour, a dose of milk [or] water. You would actually make that cookie dough outside of the machine and then you put that cookie dough in the machine itself to actually shape the food.” The cookies then have to be baked.

Natural Machines’ ‘Foodini’ food printer. Credit: Natural Machines

Kucsma says the process sounds different to traditional food manufacturing but points to the similarities. 

“Anything you eat from a supermarket that’s packaged by a food manufacturer, you’re probably eating 3D printed food. We just don’t call it that,” she asserts.

Lynette Kucsma, Founder and CMO of Natural Machines

“A food manufacturer takes ingredients, they push it through machines, they shape it and they form it. We took that exact same concept and created kitchen appliances […] but the big difference is you use your own fresh ingredients.”

“We use the term 3D printing because it’s controversial [in connection with food] so it garners interest but, in reality, we’re selling a kitchen appliance that helps you make things with fresh food, rather than buying things packaged.”

Kucsma says the VC-backed Natural Machines is not focused on large-scale food printing and she doesn’t believe the technology is going to become a significant force at a larger scale in any food categories. 

3D printing, she says, “whether it’s food or something else, is really about localisation, that customisation effort”.

Personalised nutrition

GlobalData’s Cleland says 3D-printed nutritional supplements are “much closer to becoming a mass-market product [than regular food items]”. 

Cleland points to Rem3dy Health, a UK start-up offering personalized nutrition, which has received funding from Japanese food and beverage giant Suntory Holdings. The company behind the Nourished brand uses patented 3D-printing technology to produce personalised nutrition stack gummies from 32 nutrient options – including folic acid, vitamins A through E, iron, beta-glucan, ashwagandha and milk thistle.

“Nourished uses the precision capabilities of 3D printing to offer customers hyper-personalised supplement ‘stacks’ that give them more accurate amounts of nutrients needed for their bodies,” Cleland says. 

“The current gap in the market is that some supplement companies are using a more rigorous diagnosis for the consumer by collecting blood samples (but don’t use 3D printing) whereas Nourished uses a simple questionnaire. Therefore, a company that can do both would revolutionise targeted health in the supplement/ over the counter market.” 

Kucsma says some companies already print 3D gummy vitamins where people can customise the vitamins to their lifestyles. 

“There is a lot of talk about that in the industry now,” she says. 

Kucsma agrees the technology is capable of personalising nutrition but adds: “It’s not so cut and dry, where you can just kind of figure out what nutrients are low in [in your body] and print a meal with them and you’re ready to go”. 

She says Natural Machines’ technology is capable of adjusting food to calorie requirements. The machine “intelligently scales” the shape the user wants to print and it creates the right size to reach the pre-set calorie level. 

“If you want a dessert that’s 200 calories, we can print a dessert as 200 calories and it stops printing when it hits,” Kucsma says.

The sector’s challenges

Scaling up, waste management and meeting the food industry’s requirements are the principal challenges for the fledgling 3D printing sector, Steakholder Foods believes. 

The company’s “heavy-duty machines” have the capacity to produce 300 kilograms of biomass per hour. The meat replacement products are made as larger pieces, and cut up later, while the fish fillets are produced by a “drop jet printer” that creates “slices of a fish fillet”.

If they are not good enough like the first electric cars, they are not going anywhere.

Giuseppe Scionti, Novameat

Kaufman says Steakholder Foods found building any kind of scale very challenging at first.

“You need to create 3D printers that are capable of outputting at a very high pace at the commercial level,” he explains.

Kaufman adds the Nasdaq-listed group is “in a very comfortable position” right now.

When the company started out, the company tried to develop printers that make “fully cultivated products,” but is currently focusing on plant-based, hybrid meat replacements.

Giuseppe Scionti, Founder and CEO of Novameat

“I think that we’ve learned a lot from this, [it was] a moonshot level that we’ve aimed for.”

For Novameat’s Scionti, a key challenge for the 3D printing of plant-based meat is “the difficulty of reaching the combination of a product that tastes good, has a good texture, and a good price with great nutritional values and versatility”.

He adds: “If they are not good enough like [in the case of] the first electric cars, they are not going anywhere. There has been a lot of hype and now it’s back to the reality based on really what people buy, how much people buy it,” says Scionti.

A long road to consumers’ homes

Scionti and Kucsma say it will take a long time for 3D food printers to reach individuals’ homes on a mass scale. 

Kucsma says the machines need to be much more intuitive because consumers buy kitchen appliances to make cooking easier and anything that requires a user manual would be too complicated.  

“I used to say a while back that would be ten to 15 years away. It’s going to be longer,” she says. “Technology dates slide and things take longer than everybody expects. I think it will get there.” 

However, Kucsma says the technology needs to “get to that next level where it can actually do the cooking for you if required and do a bit more rather than just the shaping”.

A lot of people don’t even know that 3D printing exists.

Lynette Kucsma, Natural Machines

She adds: “The shaping is quite a big thing. I think it has to do more to get into the consumer households and we’re working on technology to do that. But it’s not yet available on the market.”

At Novameat, Scionti says that one of the barriers to the wider use of the tech in people’s homes is that the machines are too complicated.  

 “I think we are far away. Some start-ups have invested [in it] and they didn’t sell enough of these machines,” Scionti says. 

The pricing and size of the machines have also been obstacles, as well as the fact customers probably wouldn’t use them as often as a blender or an air fryer. 

And Kucsma adds a broader hurdle to the more widespread adaption of the technology. “A lot of people don’t even know that 3D printing exists”.

A plant-based future?

At Steakholder Foods, Kaufman says he thinks “integrating very advanced printing technologies and platforms can take plant-based products to a whole new level”. 

He adds: “Sophisticated lab technology can create textures and organoleptic categories that don’t exist today. It’s very exciting.” 

Novameat’s Scionti insists it’s just a “matter of time” for “very large companies and governments” to begin to prioritise plant-based ingredients instead of animals, just because it’s more efficient” regardless of considering ethical reasons or not. 

“There are very few companies with the right unit economics or the right business model that can serve this industry in a way that gets the right metrics and is capable of producing in scale,” he says. “So, we can detach from the previous generation of companies that have done a little bit different.” 

Scionti concedes he doesn’t know when the breakthrough will happen but insists 3D printing companies will be there to capitalise on the opportunity.