On the 1st April 2016, the Guardian newspaper published an April Fool’s article describing the Foodini – “the first 3D-food printer to print all types of real, fresh, nutritious foods”. Many people smirked actually tempted to buy. But it wasn’t a joke. 3D food printing is no sci-fi experiment or Wallace & Gromit invention. Today 3D food printers actually exist and are coming to your kitchen!

So what? Why is that any different to my yoghurt fermenter or Thermomix – another shiny gadget sitting proudly on the kitchen worktop? The answer lies in economics and customisation. 3D printing is set to have far-reaching impacts on the economy and society.

3D printing is now more commonly known as Additive Manufacturing – “additive” because printing “whole” products is less likely than printing components which can then be assembled into the final product. Once just printing plastic layers and used primarily for prototyping; now it has endless applications from food to body parts, including materials such as metal and tissue. 3D printing is moving into mainstream manufacturing and will soon transform industrial settings in countries across the world. The global 3D printing market size was estimated to be $9.9 billion in 2018 rising to $34.8 billion by 2024. Whilst still only a small percentage of the $80 trillion global economy, current growth rates in 3D printing support the economist Jeremy Rifkin’s view that it is a key part of the Third Industrial Revolution – when a convergence of new communication, new sources of energy, and new modes of transportation fundamentally change the way we manage power and move economic activity across the value chain. Imagine your household food printer powered by solar energy and connected to a digital encyclopaedia of designs and recipes.

Currently, the 3D food printing market is significantly smaller, with the market expected to reach $526 million by 2023, rising at an annual growth rate of 46.1% from 2018 to 2023. However, with a global food market of $12trillion, the target and potential impact for 3D food printing could be significant – adoption rates of 3D printing technology would allow the total value of the 3D printing industry to reach $3 billion in 10 years. This growth could deliver substantial economic change and help to tackle the economic challenges of poverty and sustainability.  

3D printing could lead to lower prices for consumers. Although there will be the initial outlay for the printer and then ongoing costs of associated maintenance and software, the kitchen could become a customised manufacturing site where from basic raw materials, consumers can “print food” on demand, eliminating the need for intermediary manufacturing plants. Similar to the impact of onshoring or re-shoring in the broader 3D printer market, this shift in localised food manufacture could lead to a reduction in unskilled labour in food manufacturing, offset by increasing demand for skilled labour – required for recipe design, maintenance of the printers and development of source food materials. This could result in many people being unemployed but changes in education should lead to up-skilling workers to find a job in an increasingly competitive labour market. A 2017 AT Kearney report highlighted the potential for 10% of US imports to be re-shored through 3D printing and with a multiplier effect, the economic value could be $600-900 billion with the creation of 3-5million jobs in the US.

Then, there are the environmental benefits. Whilst transport of raw materials may still be required for your “basics” larder for the printer, this transport will become less frequent and more concentrated, reducing the negative externalities of carbon emissions and lost working time from overloaded road networks – trucks no longer transporting the unnecessary air or water “trapped” in finished products. In addition, it may lead to less food waste and less packaging as you print your food on demand from your bulk source materials (in recyclable jars!). Future developments could see 3D food engineers focus on sustainable materials such as vegan meat or insect protein. 3D printed meat, as being trialled at the Maastricht University, Netherlands, could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 96%, while utilizing just 1% of the land, 45% of the energy and just 4% of the water compared to conventional beef production.

Finally, the social impacts may be huge. For those in the developed world it may be indulgent to have quicker and tastier customised food, but it could contribute to human well-being by healthier meals – optimized on the basis of your biometric data. A German nursing home already uses a 3D printer to create Smoothfoods – easy to chew soft-moulds of original shaped vegetables. It is unlikely that we will see 3D food printers in the poorest rural communities as they barely have sufficient basic food; the global population set to reach 9.7 billion by 2050 and UN reports that one in nine people in the world is hungry and malnutrition accounting for 45 percent of children deaths under the age of five. A positive externality of production and consumption from 3D printing will be less food waste and innovative sustainable food sources. Also, cheaper more nutritious meals designed by 3D printers that can be easily distributed by governments or charities. This will ensure better management of resources and feeding the global population could no longer be troubled by overconsumption. Well-fed and healthier communities being a step forward to provide a more productive workforce which would drive local economic development.

So get ready for the change. Clear space in your kitchen – it could be the size of an American fridge- freezer. Throw away the packaged foods and make space for your feeder materials – like an enormous labelled spice cupboard. And if you don’t have a kitchen (like many people in the developing world) or you just don’t like the kitchen and prefer Deliveroo, then don’t worry – localised start-ups, charities, restaurants, and multinationals will all be ready to use 3D food printing which can still deliver similar social and economic change  – from Pixel to Plate for everyone.

By George Fountain