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WILL YOU BE PRINTING YOUR NEXT MEAL?

Mon Mar 3 2020 Michael McQueen

In the lead-up to Mother’s Day a few years ago, I teamed up with the engineering team from Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, to take part in an experiment live on national television. In this experiment, my engineering colleagues and I would print an intricate necklace from scratch over the course of the morning show with the hosts periodically cutting back to us in the studio to check on our progress. The angle for the story was something along the lines of ‘Don’t buy your mother a gift this Mother’s Day, print her one instead!’

Much to my relief, the televised experiment went off without a hitch and the TV network’s Facebook page almost melted down with the flood of comments and posts from fascinated viewers who wanted to get more information about how they could get their very own 3D printer. 

3D printing technology seems so futuristic, you could be forgiven for assuming it was fairly new. In reality, the concept actually dates back to 1982 and the pioneering work of Hideo Kodama at Japan’s Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute. [1]

In the years since Kodama invented it, 3D printing technology has remained at the fringes of commerce – mainly used for prototypes, architecture, construction, aerospace or the military. However, 3D printing has become increasingly mainstream in the last few years, and has brought significant implications with it.

In their book Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler name 3D printing as one of the world’s most exciting new technologies – referring to it as the ‘democratisation of distribution’.[2]

This idea of democratisation is spot on. With such technologies becoming increasingly available, the access to products and distribution will drastically tip the scales of power toward the everyday consumer. Consider recent advancements in the printing of consumer goods such as shoes. 

In the past few years, all the major shoe manufacturers, including Nike, Adidas and New Balance, have taken significant steps toward 3D printing. A few years ago these advancements centred on the creation of printed insoles and orthotics designed to prevent or eliminate foot pain. Now they have moved into printing the whole shoe.

New Balance CEO Robert DeMartini reported in mid 2016 that his company was working on a design for 3D-printed running shoes. ‘It’s really just the beginning,’ DeMartini said. ‘As personalisation takes the next step, and as the 3D ecosystem gains steam, we’re envisioning being able to print these in consumers’ homes.’[3]

This technological capability means that customisation and mass production are no longer mutually exclusive. As the technology becomes more common and more efficient, prices will drop too. Consumers will no longer choose between personalisation and price but will want, and will readily get, both.[4]

Another democratising effect this technology is having is in an unexpected and highly futuristic form: food.

The world’s first 3D printing restaurant, Foodink, opened in London in 2016 with many other locations following. Boasting an extraordinary combination of virtual reality, smartphone technology and 3D printing, it made for a totally unique dining experience.[5]

The main value of 3D food printing lies in convenience and customisation. As specialised diets become more commonplace, 3D-printed food is poised to enable more personalised on-demand eating experiences. Furthermore, the level of precision achieved by the robotic construction of dishes cannot be paralleled by humans, making possible the intricate dishes that were once limited to the finest of dining.

Spanish company Natural Machines predicts its Foodini 3D food printer will become as common as home microwaves within the decade, and there is a pizza printing company named Beehex.[6]

While the culinary advantage and convenience of 3D food printers is easy to imagine, the benefits in reducing waste and increasing environmental sustainability are fairly compelling too.

Dr Angeline Achariya, CEO of the Food Innovation Centre at Monash University, suggests that 3D printing may be the solution to global food inequality. ‘Worldwide, we have to look at how we will be able to feed nine billion people soon,’ Achariya says. ‘There are parts of the world that can’t eat, and then parts that waste up to 40 per cent of their food. The technology to change that is here, and households can have a huge impact around how they manage waste.’ 

Achariya likens 3D printers to piping bags on steroids, with pipes hot enough to melt chocolate or cook pastry. So hypothetically, a mushy banana, with a binding agent added, could be printed into banana cookies or snack bars.[7]

Along similar lines, The Meat and Livestock Association is experimenting with how 3D printing could be used to reduce waste by retexturising offcuts into more appealing products that go beyond sausages and burger patties.

While all this talk of mushy bananas and retexturised meat offcuts may seem neither enticing nor exciting, you don’t have to think about the possibilities of 3D printed food for long before the significance of this one technology starts to sink in. 

Looking to a different part of the kitchen, the democratised benefits of 3D printing were powerfully demonstrated in a recent example in the Australian city of Townsville. A man by the name of Brian Worley discovered the brackets attached to the wheels of his dishwasher tray had broken – rendering the dishwasher largely useless. Rather than ordering expensive replacement parts from the dishwasher’s manufacturer, Worley used Google’s free Sketchup design app to create a 3D image of the triangle-shaped bracket and then 3D printed the replacement. Illustrating the very scenario I shared with my electrical hardware clients those years ago, the total cost of this exercise was a mere $1.60 – roughly 2 per cent of the retail price of a replacement part.[8]

Clothing and food: two of the most basic elements of the everyday consumer’s life and two areas that are being transformed by the influence of 3D printing technology. Moving forward, businesses would benefit from considering the effect this will have on their own customers. Why would a consumer come to you for a product rather than their personal printer? Or better yet, how could your business take steps to embrace this technology of the future, or to put it more accurately, this technology of the present?

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Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 8 books. To order Michael's latest book "The Case for Character", click here.

To see Michael speaking live, click here and for more information on Michael's speaking topics, michaelmcqueen.net/programs.

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[1] Canton, J. 2015, Future Smart, Da Capo Press, Philadelphia, p. 163.

[2] Collister, P. 2017, How to Use Innovation and Creativity in the Workplace, Pan Macmillan, London, p. 14.

[3] Columbus, L. 2015, ‘2015 Roundup Of 3D Printing Market Forecasts And Estimates’, Forbes, 31 March.

[4] 2019, ‘New Balance’s Latest Shoes Come With 3D-Printed Soles,’ Wired, 28 June.

[5] 2018, ‘Are you ready to eat at the world’s first 3D-printed restaurant?’ SBS, 10 February.

[6] Kolodny, L. 2017, ‘Beehex Cooks Up $1 Million For 3D Food Printers That Make Pizzas’, TechCrunch, 1

March.

[7] Rawson, S. 2017, ‘Robots, 3D Printing, Bleeding Vegan Meats’, GoodFood, 23 May.

[8] Sharma, M. 2014, ‘3D Printing Confronts The Everyday World’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 2 July.