Taking Complexity Head-on: Why 3D Printing is Best-Placed to Replicate Animal Meat

Friday, January 22nd, 2021

The alternative meat sector has grown exponentially over the past few years and the pursuit is on to create meat products that are not only much more sustainable than animal meat, but as delicious. 

Taking Complexity Head-on: Why 3D Printing

While the impact of meat on the environment has been much discussed in recent years, COVID-19 has only exacerbated the issue even further, exposing the fragility of the current food supply chain and causing widespread shutdowns of slaughterhouses due to large-scale outbreaks*. Interest in alternative meat has certainly risen, but the lack of products tasty enough to convert the mainstream majority of meat lovers still prohibits the industry from truly taking off and driving any meaningful change in global meat consumption. While trailblazers Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have no doubt made great strides in this area, the reality is that a substantial gap still exists. 

With years of R&D and billions of dollars of investment to date, you would be forgiven for asking yourself the question—“So what exactly is stopping the industry from moving forward? Why have we not been able to truly replicate animal meat by now?”. The question is simple to answer, but the answer is far from simple.


The Complex Muscle Structure Of Animal Meat

The ability to replicate the taste, texture and appearance of animal meat has long been heralded the holy grail of alternative meat and is a milestone that has still not been fully achieved. To effectively replicate animal meat means firstly understanding what it is exactly that makes meat, ‘meat’. Indeed, the biggest function in meat, and the one that contributes the most to our sensory appreciation of it, is the fact that almost all “meat” we eat is actually an animal muscle. While this is widely-acknowledged across the industry, understanding the composition and behaviours of animal muscle structure has yet to be tackled, as well as the muscle structure’s function in texture, flavour and mouthfeel. 

Having evolved over millions of years through evolution, and perfect for millennia by cross-breeding agricultural sciences, the structure of meat is highly sophisticated and intricate in its composition. In fact, one can argue that meat, in the form of muscle, is the most complex food product that exists. This complexity is apparent in many forms—in the raw status of meat, the transition during cooking, and finally, during the complex sensorial process that takes place in our mouths when we eat meat. All of these elements together deliver an experience that is not only tasty and enjoyable, but one that is truly special to meat. This is also why the challenge in recreating it is so big and cannot be simplified to one magic formula. After all, the one carrying all of the load in making meat is an animal, with its biology, life and movements. 

This challenge is especially notable with steak and other types of meat we consume whole, and the very reason why it has been virtually untouched by the alternative meat industry to date, with products replicating minced meat. In products like hamburgers or sausages, a butcher or meat processor actually destroys the original complexity of meat and simplifies things. Instead of structure, interactions and complexity, we have homogeneity. In other words, everything averages out and instead of muscle we have mass. The list of attributes that are necessary to create a ‘perfect steak’ is far more extensive than a hamburger: stiffness, fibre structure, cohesiveness, colour gradient, heterogeneric structure, changes in heat, smell, flavour and many more. There are so many parameters that we as humans do not know how to quantify or articulate, but when we bite into our favourite cut of steak, we definitely feel them. 

Tackling this challenge requires a new approach and a fundamentally different way of thinking when it comes to alternative meat—embracing complexity, not avoiding it. While developments are being made in several areas, one technology that has drawn a lot of attention in the past year is 3D printing. Beyond the hype, or even gimmick for some (“it’s like the Star Wars replicator”), the reality is that the technology’s inherent attributes may just hold the most compelling proposition for alternative meat production today. And no, it is not a replicator making food out of air, but a real solution to specific needs.


Replicating Meat From The Ground Up

While 3D printing is generally considered a relatively new technology, it’s actually been around for over thirty years. Today it plays a key role throughout the design and manufacturing process of a number of industries, from automotive and aerospace, to consumer goods and electronics, right through to dental and healthcare—enabling companies to optimise product development and reduce time-to-market. 

Crucial to this is 3D printing’s ability to create complex geometries unachievable with traditional methods. When parts are built layer by layer, there are virtually no limits on how complex the part can be. This enables designers and engineers to have total freedom of design to produce parts with no geometric restriction. In recent years, we’ve seen the introduction of new multi-material 3D printing technologies that take this freedom of design to the next level—and it’s perhaps here that lies the greatest potential for alternative meat production in replicating the complex muscle structures of animal meat. Especially in contrast to simpler processes used in the food industry today to make plant-based burgers. 

Multi-material 3D printing provides engineers and innovators the unique capability to create products comprising multiple different materials all in a single process. If you take a pair of sunglasses for example, today manufacturers are 3D printing the rigid frame, the interior rubber lining to sit on the ears, and the transparent lenses simultaneously in one print—something previously unimaginable. For Redefine Meat, applying a similar approach to multi-material food printing (MMFP) has been integral to cracking the compositional challenge of steak. Designed especially for Alt-Meat, the Redefine Meat 3D printer lays down blood, fat and protein simultaneously at a voxel-level according to the digital structure mimicking that of animal meat. Furthermore, these ingredients can also be precisely combined on-the-fly during the printing process itself to create entirely new digital materials designed to replicate a specific animal composite. This advanced capability is what allows an alternative-steak to go beyond just taste, but also replicate texture and mouthfeel. After all, this is the same approach that is being used today to try and mimic human tissue in bioprinting, so why not extend this capability to replicate a much simpler target—slaughtered animal tissue.

Additionally, MMFP enables alternative meat producers to address the current lack of product variety witnessed today. Using the same 3D printer, companies can print different meat types (e.g. beef, pork or lamb) and different meat cuts (tenderloin, sirloin, rib-eye etc.) by simply changing the digital file. 

This level of flexibility in production helps them provide the same variety of products, cooking methods and culinary applications we would expect from a traditional meat aisle or restaurant. 


Print, Test, Repeat

As with any development process, the ability to test and iterate designs quickly—commonly known as rapid prototyping—can very much determine the speed at which the final desired product can be achieved. Across industry today, 3D printing has become an essential tool for prototyping, enabling companies to iterate their product’s design significantly faster than ever before at greatly reduced cost. These same capabilities are also being applied by companies such as ours to accelerate the development of Alt-Meat and overcome the limitations of traditional food industry methods. 

While traditional food production processes, such as extrusion, enable alternative meat producers to modify ingredients and test new formulations during product development, it requires a large quantity of material and long production cycles to test each new formulation. Modifying the structural composition of meat using these analogue processes is even more challenging. Heavy machinery needs to be reconfigured, a step that can take days or even weeks, and typically a very costly process. In addition, much of the variable in the process remains a form of art more than science, making it much more of a trial and error effort than structured endeavour. These are inherent barriers within alternative meat that naturally slow down developmental breakthroughs in achieving the structure and texture of the final product.

MMFP, however, brings the benefits of rapid prototyping and digital production to the meat industry. The foundation of 3D printed meat is based upon digital building blocks that are precisely allocated and assembled during the printing process, which crucially enables engineers to go beyond just the manipulation of ingredients and actually manipulate the meat’s structure and texture. During the development phase, new design iterations to the meat’s structure can be made digitally via software within minutes, and several new sample ‘meat prototypes’ with different structural parameters can be printed and compared almost immediately. This process of ‘print, sample, repeat’ offers unprecedented speed in product development and a significant competitive advantage in tackling the complexity of replicating animal meat structure—especially when cracking steak.

This approach also opens the door to advanced AI & machine learning technologies that can further optimise the alternative meat experience for consumers. With the ability to learn consumer habits, likes, dislikes and more, these learnings can be fed through into development and refinement of meat production—further enhancing the product to consumer requirements. For example, if consumer feedback data suggests the meat is too fatty, digital files can be optimised using computational methods to re-structure the distribution of fat to address the issue.


Beyond Technological Innovation, What Is Required?

While it is clear that new innovations are required at a technology and process level to replicate the complex composition of meat, understanding the fundamentals of what makes meat, ‘meat’ will be critical throughout this journey. And to do that requires industry-wide collaboration—no one company can do it alone. Technology developers and food companies need to work closely together with chefs, butchers, meat scientists and other key stakeholders across the industry to share their expertise and learn from each other. 


Contributed by Daniel Dikovsky, Head of Innovation and Technology at Redefine Meat.


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