The ag industry is using 3-D printing technology to develop prototypes of a wide range of products.
How 3-D printers could help reshape the ag industry
By Ben Potter and Nate Birt
The media loves to report about the weird, wonderful ways 3-D printing is being used. From printed meat (which reportedly tastes OK but "needs salt") to guns, if you can dream it, you can print it. But for all the hype, 3-D printing is used in every industry—including agriculture—in highly practical ways. Some day, farmers might even be able to print tractor parts, tools and more on-demand from their own shops.
The core concept is actually fairly basic. An engineer renders a computer assisted design (CAD) drawing of an object. This blueprint is fed into the 3-D printer along with "ink," which could be any number of materials, including plastic, rubber or metal.
Next, the printer adds the material layer by layer until the object has been rendered three dimensionally. This is why 3-D printing is sometimes referred to as "additive printing."
For the time being, 3-D printers have one overriding purpose in the agricultural industry: build better prototypes. Many companies use 3-D printing techniques in research and development efforts to speed up the process of designing everything from tractor parts to tire treads.
AGCO’s new 9000 series of White Planters were the company’s first machines engineered with assistance from 3-D printers, says Rye DeGarmo, engineering manager for seeding and tillage. For three months, engineers at AGCO’s Hesston factory in Kansas ran the printers around the clock to build and test designs for the seed meter.
"We got a foot in the door and realized the value," DeGarmo says. It takes a day for the printers to create a plastic part at a cost of $1,000 to $2,000 for the required materials, he says.
That represents a significant savings, since tooling meter prototypes out of aluminum would cost $5,000 to $7,000. DeGarmo says the printers pay for themselves in just a few months.
Designers at Michelin use 3-D printers to look at new tread patterns, sidewall design and more, says Anne-Laure Fraenkel, manager for the company’s European industrial design.
"These printers help Michelin designers study the feasibility of very complex rubber shapes and sizes, and to analyze the tire molding and de-molding feasibility," she says.
Michelin has been using 3-D printers for the past eight years. Fraenkel says the company plans to use them even more in the future and work with more advanced materials.
Ford Motor Company, meanwhile, has been using 3-D printers since the 1980s. Jake Dylik, corporate communications with Ford, says one popular use of the technology is fluid analysis. Designers can print out engine parts and observe how fluids travel to see where tweaks need to be made.
"In the past, these parts might have taken 16 weeks and a half a million dollars to make; now, it can take 24 hours and $400," he says. "That’s such a huge advancement—it’s revolutionary."
Future uses on the farm. Some have speculated that smaller 3-D printers will be a common home appliance by 2025. Users would simply buy one-time usage rights for the CAD files they need and print on demand. Break your favorite coffee mug? Print a new one. Can’t find that crescent wrench attachment you need? Print a new one.
"This definitely has the ability to allow farmers to produce certain parts on an as-needed and immediate basis," says futurist Bob Treadway.
An even more likely scenario: Ag retailers and equipment dealers would use 3-D print kiosks as an inventory control solution. Then, for example, when a tractor part breaks, the local dealer could simply print a replacement part without worrying whether or not it was in stock.
"I think some OEMs will move quickly to this system to streamline their supply chain, cut costs and generate higher-margin revenue," he says.
- November 2013