As 3D Systems, Stratasys and ExOne press forward in their efforts to increase the speed and material capabilities of additive manufacturing in relation to traditional manufacturing, it may well be that the fleshier side of the technology will provide the vanguard for 3DP going forward.
There are some startling figures to suggest that it may be the case and investors seem to agree.
A third of the available land in the world is used for livestock production. Some 50 gallons of water are needed to produce a quarter-pound hamburger. 20 percent of all leather goes to waste in a process which is both toxic and labor intensive. It's easy to see why the advantages of using additive manufacturing to produce food and leather have a tantalizing appeal.
So you'd expect that some forward-thinking farmer in Iowa is working on adapting additive processes to take on those markets, right? Well, not so much. That work is taking place in Brooklyn, NY, inside the labs of Modern Meadow.
Gabor and Andras Forgacs, the father and son co-founders of the firm, are working with scientists Karoly Jacab and Francoise Marga to bring bioprinting to bear on the problem of streamlining livestock production.
And it's not necessarily as crazy a dream as it might appear.
"In the case of meat, if you think about a hamburger, its lateral dimensions are much bigger than its thickness so that makes the printing considerably simpler. So we're not dealing with incredibly complex 3D shapes, intertwined channels, and so on. We want to build something that has this quasi-2D shape," says the elder Forgacs.
And there may be difficult boundaries as to what the market can easily stomach, as it were, when it comes to how such products are presented. While the engineered meat is made up of what is euphemistically called "post-mortem tissue," it does have a singular moral advantage.
"It eventually will be killed. Not killed in the sense of killing an animal, but killing the tissue construct," Forgacs said. "We're still struggling with coming out with the right term for our meat. (If) you say 'engineered' or 'lab-made' meat...folks on the street probably are not going to be very happy to hear that."
But even with those barriers to adoption, the Modern Meadows concept may well be the first in a long series of forays into what people are willing to accept when it comes to their food and garment choices.
The Forgacs also happen to be the founders of Organovo, leaders in the production of functional 3D printed human tissues now in development for medical research, and while their work at Modern Meadow is far from a finished product, they have managed to create leather and beef grown in a lab, and they've also eaten the stuff.
Modern Meadow recently raised $10 million in venture capital financing to fund their R&D work with an eye toward setting up shop at the Brooklyn Army Terminal in New York City.