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Outside the box

Learning from...Cows?

Columne Outside the box / by Thomas Masuch — 3 March 2023

In the world of AM and every other sector of industry, managers, engineers, and CEOs wrack their brains to figure out how they can make their companies more efficient. Ideally, they’re looking to generate higher output with their existing equipment, and with the same or even better quality. While efficiency gains like these are still relatively easy to achieve in the young AM industry, it typically gets more difficult to make advancements the longer a production method has been in use.

Illustration: iStock / Veronika Karpenko
Illustration: iStock / Veronika Karpenko

Even in cases like these, though, the last word need not have been spoken on the subject of productivity. The optimization-obsessed among us can find inspiration in unlikely places – at the nearest farm, for instance. The increases in productivity that have been attained in agriculture over the past several decades are virtually incomparable to anything else, especially in milk production. Simply put, cows are giving more and more milk.

That doesn’t really do the recent developments justice, though. Let’s take a look at the numbers, which are rather astounding: Back in 1900, the average German cow produced 2,165 kilograms of milk per year. By 2021, that figure had soared to 8,488 – that’s about four times as much! Meanwhile, cows have been raised as cattle for around 10,000 years. In some modern stalls (many of which are getting larger all the time), an app monitors the cows’ health and fills their troughs with customized granulate feed. Other stalls are now so industrialized that one might start wondering whether the cows are still animals, or more like machines.

Bioreactors instead of udders

All this notwithstanding, a number of nutrition experts believe that the days of the traditional dairy cow are numbered. A major shift is likely in the offing in the global milk market, which has a current volume of over €800 billion. The U.S. think tank RethinkX, is already predicting that the number of cows in its home country will decline by half by 2030. These days, the new mantra in milk production is precision fermentation. This involves using a bioreactor to turn plant-based materials into milk with the help of microbes and genetic technology, which generates much less CO2 and requires significantly less water. Here, it’s important to note that dairy farming accounts for around three percent of the world’s carbon emissions. Perhaps even more crucial to the success of precision fermentation, however, is the fact that milk from bioreactors is projected to be significantly less expensive than the type from cows kept in stalls.

Ice cream and cream cheese produced using this method are already being sold in supermarkets in the United States. So far, we haven’t heard anything about the taste, and it remains to be seen whether the predictions associated with some of these “disruptive” food innovations will come true. Come to think of it, additive manufacturing can offer some solid insight in this regard: The hype that comes with overly optimistic expectations can eventually give way to bitter disappointment, but over the long term, there’s just no stopping new technologies.


  • Outside the box
  • Additive Manufacturing