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On-farm 3D printing still a pipedream

Ag Technology: So far, the plastic parts that can be printed are only short-term farm solutions

When a non-standard equipment part breaks during harvest or spring planting, most farmers don’t have time to wait a few weeks for a replacement to arrive.

What if they could print a new part right on the farm?

That’s the dream being peddled to agricultural industries by a burgeoning 3D printing market, and it’s close to reality.

According to Steven Thorstad of Outlook, Sask.-based Thor 3D, a distributor of MakerBot 3D printers and accessories, farmers aren’t yet buying 3D printers individually.

“The bigger market is agricultural equipment manufacturers,” he says. “Using 3D printers, they’re able to rapidly prototype parts.”

Thor 3D’s printers are called fused deposition modeling (FDM) printers, which means they lay down materials in layers, the most common type of 3D printing. Thorstad says the company sells to the lower end of the manufacturing price range and the upper end of the consumer price range. In other words, the company doesn’t sell entry-level consumer machines.

The MakerBot printers they do sell range between $2,000 and $3,400 per unit. They print mostly in Acrylonitrile-Butadiene Styrene (ABS) plastic, a thermoplastic that is malleable when heated.

“It’s all plastic in our realm,” says Thorstad. “There are metal 3D printers but they cost $100,000 and up.”

Limited materials in the lower price range 3D printer models means not all parts can be replaced with MakerBot printers.

“Because it’s 3D printed it has really good strength in two planes, but between the layers is the weakest direction,” explains Thorstad. “It’s probably 90 per cent the strength of injection molding, and around 70 per cent in the layers.”

This means many farm equipment parts can’t be replaced with MakerBot printed parts for more than a very short time.

A second drawback is that anyone wanting to replace a part on-farm needs 3D modeling experience or training with the drafting tool AutoCAD. “There are scanners but the deal is if it’s a mechanical part, scanning isn’t as good as 3D printing. It’s not a usable scan for producing the part,” says Thorstad.

“What we see slowly happening is that more and more manufacturers are releasing 3D models of their weird parts. Eventually you should be able to call John Deere, they can send you the model and you can print it yourself.”

When parts can be printed, it’s a lifesaver. “One good example is that I had a farmer with a broken heater part from a 1990 Ford, but Ford wouldn’t sell the part because they don’t make it anymore,” says Thorstad.

“3D printing is useful for unique parts that aren’t standard, things that are limited production.”

Significant investment

Allan Cronen, chief executive officer at Litchfield, Minn.-based GVL Polymers, a rotational molding company, says the return on investment of having a 3D printer on the farm is probably still 10 years away.

“It’s a significant investment but it’s a theory that will some day become a reality,” he says.

The alternative is farmers cooperating to share small 3D printers. Regional service bureaus with 3D printing capabilities are popping up across Canada and the U.S.

GVL Polymers offers 3D scanning or reverse engineering; they can make modifications to parts or start from scratch design-wise. Their customers are mainly manufacturers — including five “major” ag manufacturers who hire GVL to print test pieces or low production pieces.

“Our founder is a farmer and he does a lot of field testing,” says Cronen. “And most of the manufacturers will do the same thing.”

GVL’s services are in high demand, but not because 3D printers work any faster than other machines, says Cronen. The benefits come in reduced design time and machine setup, and minimal waste.

“We’ve printed some test pieces for a large equipment manufacturer last fall,” he says. “It took two weeks to produce all the parts, where it would have taken a traditional manufacturer three to four months.”

3D printing technology is constantly improving, so farmers may not have to wait long until on-farm use becomes economically viable.

And there’s some specific hopes on the horizon, Cronen says. Work is being done on planting mechanisms, seed wheels and a variety of sprayer nozzles. “We’ll probably see faster application there than on the harvesting side,” he says.

About the author

Contributor

Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer and editor. Contact her at [email protected]

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