Alex Lightman is a futurist who spends a lot of his time thinking about what new food technology will mean for the way people eat. And he believes that one of the surest things about the future of 3-D printed food is that it won't work the way people imagine it will.
"People think that things are going to be automated and scaled, but that's not true," he said. "The truth is that people really misunderstand how it's going to work."
Lightman serves on the advisory board of Natural Machines, a Barcelona-based company that is getting ready to launch a new 3-D printer called Foodini that will allow both amateur home-cooks and Michelin star chefs to manipulate food in ways that weren't previously possible—at least commercially. The machine, which will be released later this year, can produce almost any shape and process many different inputs (not simply chocolate, like other proof of concepts). Homemade pasta of almost any shape and size, perfectly packed veggie burgers, carefully portioned, identically shaped servings of mashed potatoes—these things will all be easy tasks for the new food toy.
"We already have a number of restaurants, including national chains, and Michelin starred chefs who have expressed interests," said Lynette Kucsma, the founder and chief marketing officer of Natural Machines. "We expect the demand to be very big, and very broad."
Like so many innovations before it, 3-D printed food will give rise to all sorts of projections—some truer than others—about what the future of food will look like. One vision is a dystopian future in which much of our food is mass produced by some later mutation of current 3-D food printing technology. But there's another possibility: that by taking different ingredients, combine them together and producing food to exact three dimensional dimensions, the future of food could be wildly creative—and fun.
"The key word here is customization," said Lightman. "I really don't think people quite understand how much control they will have over the things they will be able to order."
The future Lightman sees is one that takes Burger King's long-held slogan, 'have it your way,' to a much more literal place. Once the price of 3-D printers has fallen enough that large food companies, like Starbucks or McDonald's, have them at stores around the country, and the machines are advanced enough that they can handle a nearly endless list of food items, traditional menus will serve only as inspiration.
"Eventually, you'll be able to get a custom meal that looks exactly as you want it, that meets the most ridiculous and precise requirements," said Lightman. "I mean, the sort of asks you'll be able to make are things that would get you kicked out a restaurant today. But they'll be completely normal, and pretty cheap to prepare, too."
Lightman isn't the only one who expects 3-D printing to uproot the food ordering experience by introducing endless customization. Others familiar with the technology feel similarly about its promise. Hod Lipson, a professor of engineering at Cornell University who runs the Creative Machines Lab, has written an entire book about 3-D printing.
"It's incredibly disruptive, but not in a way that replaces production," said Lipson. "You'll never see Doritos made with 3-D printing, because the production process is too slow."
You might, however, see the precision the technology allows for change the way you buy a specific pack of Doritos.
"Imagine a future where you could dial in what you want from, say, a granola bar or cookie or chip," said Lipson. "That's what we're going to have."
Otherwise impersonal, commercial purchases could eventually warp into highly individualized experiences.
And it could actually prove even more exacting—and useful perhaps—than that. 3-D printing will eventually allow not only for ingredient or portion-specific customization, but calorie-specific requests. Two friends, wanting the same dessert but in different sizes, in other words, could order it in not somewhat nebulous relative sizes—small, medium, or large—but precise calorie portions.
Foodini, as it will be introduced this year, won't allow for such specificity. Nor will it cook the raw ingredients it molds into ravioli, or hamburger patties. (The next generation of the machine, which won't be introduced for another few years, will.) But it does have WiFi-connectivity, which Lipson argues is a feature that could shape food in the way the iPod has shaped music.
"If people are sharing recipes online, and a recipe goes viral that can be replicated by merely the push of a button, they will spread incredibly quickly," said Lipson. "Recipes will go viral in the way songs do today."
Eventually, he suggests, there might be restaurants that have no cooks, or waiters, or cashiers—only iPads with thousands of recipes to pick from and 3-D printers to meticulously process each order.
Lightman, on the other hand, offers a slightly more romantic scene of what the future of 3-D printed food might allow for. Picture a table set for ten of your closest friends, a dinner party where everyone dines together, but eats, quite literally, exactly they want and no one has to adjust for what others do.
"You could have a different food prepared for each guest, where each guest has a meal they would deem a 10, a perfect meal," said Lightman. "And it would be easy to do."