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Need an equipment part for your machine? Just print it

As the cost falls and the technology improves, 3D printing is becoming relevant to agriculture

When you think of printers, farming isn’t the first thing that comes to mine. However, the ag industry is no stranger to creative thinking, and as 3D printing technology becomes more accessible, it is being used to make everything from machinery parts to demonstration models.

Basically, 3D printing allows you to print a three-dimensional object rather than just a flat picture. First, you create a design for the object, using digital modeling software. Then, the printer produces a three-dimensional object by adding layer after layer of material.

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The material is usually either sprayed or squeezed from the printer onto a platform. The Makerbot Replicator 2, for instance, uses renewable bioplastic. The 3D printer acts much like an inkjet printer and passes over the platform making deposits in layers until the product is complete.

As the technology advances, plenty of stories about innovative creations are surfacing on the web. Alex Hansen, a third-year engineering student at the University of Saskatchewan, for instance, used 3D printing technology in an attempt to replace a part — a small directional button — on the joystick of the farm family’s combine. While the broken button was still usable, it was uncomfortable to use for extended periods of time, especially at harvest, says Hansen.

Hansen had access to 3D modeling software and a printer. “Printing took a few tries to get it to work, but once it printed it was good,” he says. “The plastic used in printing solidified into a hard piece that, at the time, looked perfect.”

But it wasn’t perfect and unfortunately didn’t work. “Even though it didn’t work, it was an interesting idea to try,” Hansen continues. “Given more time to try and fix the problem, I’m sure it could have been done.”

Hansen isn’t the only one to try printing a part. Jason Knott, CEO of Framework Animation, was contacted by two of his regular clients and asked to recreate a part — in this case the ‘packer’ component of the Technotill Seeding System — for testing purposes.

“In order to create the part, I was first given one of the actual cast metal parts, which I carefully measured and replicated in my 3D modeling software,” explains Knott. “From there, we made certain modifications to understand how they might affect the characteristics of fertilizer placement.”

The part was printed from PLA plastic using a MakerBot Replicator 3D printer. The plastic is made of cornstarch, and is both non-toxic and biodegradable.

Knott wasn’t sure if the part would work. In fact, he suspected that it might break under the pressure of running it through the soil. “Thankfully, it did just fine and we ran several passes through the soil bin at the Ag Tech Centre here in Lethbridge,” he says. “The part performed admirably and we were able to determine useful information about the modifications we were testing. We will likely make further modifications, retest and then decide if it’s beneficial to recase these parts in iron.”

Allan Cronen, CEO of GVL Polymers, a rotational molding manufacturer in Litchfield, Minnesota, purchased a 3D printer for similar projects. His clients have requested 3D printouts of everything from corn snouts to augers, seed discs to closing wheels. All of the parts have worked out well, he says.

“They have been used to test form, fit and sometimes functions,” says Cronen. “Three-dimensional printed parts from GVL Poly are often used to verify design or field test before the OEM purchases expensive moulds and tooling.”

Cronen says there are almost no downsides to using 3D printing technology. “The only con of 3D printing can be the cost,” he says. “We have printed large parts to small parts. All of the projects have had successful outcomes. Moulds can be very expensive, and producing test parts before this large investment has helped bring product to market faster.”

Both Cronen and Knott see huge potential in 3D printing, particularly for expensive test parts. “Three-dimensional technology will continue to provide new ways for engineers to improve products and equipment farmers use,” says Cronen.

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