Getting Rid of Batches: Another Possibility from 3D Printing

In Lean Flow the as-needed delivery of value (as opposed to working in batch mode and putting things in inventory or making people wait) is a central principle. 3D printing has been heralded as one pathway to decreasing the focus on batch processing. Here is another example, but one which is related to the production of liquids, in this case, alcohol.

A team under Dr. Alshakim Nelson, from the University of Washington, has developed a way to print tiny (1 centimeter cubes) biogenerators. According to the website 3D Printing Industry:

The process is all enabled by a 3D-printed hydrogel lattice. Not only has Nelson’s team developed the hydrogel material themselves, with 70% water and 30% polymer infused yeast, they have also created the unique 3D printer to extrude it.

With a consistency akin to peanut butter, the material has been developed especially with extrusion in mind. Once 3D printing the material in thin lattice layers to create a cube, the hydrogel is then cured with ultraviolet light to solidify its shape. The cubes produced are currently 1 cm in each dimension.

These 3D printed cubes are then placed in a solution of glucose in order to ferment just as they would in a brewery setting.

Nelson and his team were expecting the cube to ferment using the glucose, however they were definitely not expecting the cube to keep on giving. Reportedly, the bioreactors have been producing ethanol for four months straight so far and show no signs of stopping.

Dr Nelson and his team are unsure what causes this continuous fermentation phenomenon but explains the confinement of the hydrogel lattice is simultaneously stopping the yeast cells from reproducing or ageing.

Traditionally, fermentation of alcohol is through batches. Waste occurs because the batch approach requires regular shutdown of the reaction in order to clean the vats of the accumulated dead yeast cells and excess yeast cell reproduction. Dr. Nelson’s discovery, however, that the tiny cubes of yeast do not create waste and can operate continuously paves the way continuous fermentation to replace today’s batch-processing methods.

Cheers to that.