First, let’s get the name right. Until now, we’ve been calling it 3D printing. It’s a name that will probably stick around for a while, but those in the know are already calling it by its newer name, “additive manufacturing.”
“The technology is far, far more user friendly and there are really good desktop printers in the range of a few hundred to a few thousand dollars,” says Joshua Pearce, professor at the Ivey School of Business and at the University of Western Ontario’s department of electrical and computer engineering.
“For a farmer trying to find a part that’s no longer being manufactured, using a combination of low-cost 3D printing and some fairly simple metal techniques will justify the cost of the printer,” he says.
And let’s also get our time frames right. Yes, this is a technology that was only used by geeky hobbyists 10 years ago, but it’s increasingly mainstream now, and it has huge potential to be a game changer in the farm equipment industry.
Basically, 3D printing makes solid objects from a digital file. Using a computer aided design (CAD) file, the printer lays down micro-thin layers of material (plastic or steel), which eventually build up into the final product.
For farmers, Pearce says there are a couple of new directions that are of real interest.
Start with a smart phone
Computer vision is also a new technology that could be useful on the farm. Basically the idea is that you take pictures of the object with your smart phone and convert it to a mesh that can be 3D printed.
“You can take a tractor part that’s broken, duct tape it together, take pictures of it and have it 3D printed,” Pearce says.
Steven Thorstad says his business stopped selling 3D scanners about five years ago because of the poor quality. Now, applications that can be loaded onto smart phones have better quality 3D imaging.
Thorstad and his family own a computer store and run Thor3D.ca, an Outlook, Saskatchewan-based company that distributes Makerbots, a mid-level 3D printer that retails for $2,000 to $3,000.
“Our biggest customers are schools, where they teach kids how to use the technology,” Thorstad says, adding they also sell into agriculture — right now, mostly machinery manufacturers who use the printers to develop prototypes. He says it’s quicker and cheaper than having to machine the prototypes that they can use to determine if the design will work.
“You can make a design change in the middle of the day, have it printed overnight and test it the next day,” he says, and notes that having a 3D printer on hand keeps all the information in-house and confidential.
Thorstad says a few local farmers have started to pick up on 3D printing — the printers that he sells only make plastic components.
“I think the big thing we’re going to see before the printers get on regular farms is a catalogue of designs for plastic and metal parts to make it really become standard,” he says.
Right now, if a farmer has, say, a broken gear out of a combine, they have to bring it in to someone who knows CAD programs and knows what’s needed to make the part. It can take a half-hour for something simple, or several hours for something with complex geometry.
Thorstad anticipates a manufacturing company like John Deere, for example, will be able to provide the design to the farmer for the part, and the farmer will take it to a local 3D printer.
In fact, that company is looking at the possibility of having spare parts on demand at dealerships, which would cut down on downtime at the crucial times of planting and harvest. CNH Industrial, the owner of Case and New Holland, has also started making 3D spare parts for agricultural equipment.
Thorstad says that makes sense. “You don’t have to stock parts and the cost savings would be great for the manufacturers.”
While he doesn’t have a lot of this kind of business, he says “every couple of months, a farmer comes in with a broken part and we will print him a new one.”
Or think further out
In plastic recycling, there’s Distributed Recycling for Additive Manufacturing (DRAM) in which plastic waste is cleaned, shredded and put into a recycle bot — an extruder that produces material that can be used in 3D printers. Agricultural plastic waste would be a good candidate.
“It drops the cost of filaments — which are about $20 a kilogram for commercial applications — to under 10 cents, depending on the cost of electricity and so on,” Pearce says.
A newer direction is that there are 3D printers in a mid-range price (more than $5,000) that can take shredded plastic directly — without the recycling step.
“That’s mostly for making larger components,” he says.
In his previous life with Michigan Technological University, he says his group developed extrusion moulds that could be 3D printed and then used to produce many of the same type of component.
“For example, you could make a mould that weighs a tenth of a kilogram and it could then produce components that weigh, say, two kilograms,” Pearce says. While the products wouldn’t be perfectly refined, they will serve the purpose.
The next step
Thorstad says that there are higher-end printers — about $200,000 — on the market that use high-powered lasers to melt powdered steel into the shape that you want that are 80 to 90 per cent as good as machined parts. Kit printers are a lot better quality than they used to be, and around $300 to $500 will get a build-it-yourself printer to make things you’ve broken around the house or the barn.
There’s also a huge number of 3D designs that are available for free on open source websites like Thingiverse.com
Says Thorstad: “It’s getting more and more accessible over time, and it’s really good for everyone involved.”