How 3D Printing Helps Save Time in Agricultural Manufacturing

As 3D printing technology continues to evolve, farming equipment manufacturers are adopting the process to help improve efficiency.

By Caitlin Kelly

The relentless pressures to improve efficiency in the field mean a continued push toward innovation, including the design and speedy delivery of farm equipment..

Enter 3-D printing, an additive manufacturing process in which a digital file directs the printer to lay down successive layers of liquid, powder, paper or even steel to make a three-dimensional, solid object. The new technology is increasingly giving agricultural equipment manufacturers like AGCO new and faster ways to improve their existing products and turn out parts faster.

“It’s extremely valuable to us,” says Rye DeGarmo, director of engineering, global seeding and tillage for AGCO. The cost of 3-D printers has fallen dramatically, making them an even more accessible tool for AGCO to use for rapid prototyping in the early design phase of new and redesigned products.

“It really gives us the opportunity to move more quickly,” DeGarmo says. “We can create a piece and refine it within days, instead of waiting six to 10 weeks and spending $30,000 in tooling to put it into full production.”

Monte Rans, senior technical project engineer at AGCO, says that various divisions within the company use the prototypes to test “concept, verification and fit-up. The 3-D printed parts we test are not field-worthy, but we get a sense if what we designed was what we expected in size, shape and the sort.”

DeGarmo adds that “using the 3-D printer has definitely allowed us to be more inventive. We take what we’ve learned from our experience into the next generation of products, so a 2017 design doesn’t look like a 1985 design. This helps us create work that looks even more professional and finished. We can give it some style.”

While there are innovative do-it-yourselfers who share digital 3-D printer files and even sell their home-printed items online, it turns out neither the technology nor the know-how is quite here yet to make 3-D printing a widespread reality in today’s farm shops.

Farmers with a 3-D scanner and printer could scan a worn or broken gasket or latch, or make a prototype of it and scan it, then either print it themselves or outsource it to a site like shapeways.com. Rans and DeGarmo envision a day when AGCO dealers might supply digital parts files or even 3-D printers and materials to customers for certain replacement parts.

“In the near future—maybe the next two years—3-D scanning will be a lot easier to use and a lot more powerful,” predicts Ben Bernard, computer services specialist at North Dakota State University, thereby adding to a long tradition of farmer self-reliance, even printing with plastics made from corn they grow.

“That’s a world farmers already live in,” he adds. “This won’t replace the welder or saw, but it will be another tool in the toolbox.”