Reap What You Sow – Agriculture and Additive Manufacturing

2021-05-19

Lee-Bath Nelson  

Fields in Scotland 2009 photo by Lee-Bath Nelson

It’s harvest time and there are harvest festivals aplenty. A great time to take a look at additive manufacturing (AM) in agriculture, as part of our #AMapplications series. Just to frame the discussion: I’m talking about agriculture not food-tech (that’s for a separate #AMapplications post). Agriculture is one of those industries were we literally need work horses and where an ill timed breakage can derail the annual harvest. With farm equipment lasting 40 years and more it is no wonder that there is a challenge to find spare parts for agricultural equipment when and where you need them and, of course, AM can help. However, this is not the only application we’ll be discussing -farmers have been very active in the right to repair movement and being handy with fixing their machines sometimes also means they have ideas on how to improve them with a jig or fixture or with a whole new apparatus. Read on…

Sourcing

When it comes to the farmer toiling the land, there isn’t much difference between a needing to replace a spare part or needing to replace a jig that’s suited for the particular crop this farmer is growing. The key is to provide a timely replacement (or emergency spare part until a replacement gets there) and that can be difficult for traditional (non AM) parts. British company, BuyAnyPart, offers to source these parts for you and some of the parts they offer for agricultural applications, such as this egg washing agitator, are 3D printed. Another example is the 3D printed fruit picker below offered for printing on Garuda3D‘s printers – the design was initially proposed by Joshua PearceGaruda3D also show some examples of guides for irrigation as part of the agriculture tooling options.

3D printed apple picker by Garuda3D

 

Other small vendors are also offering add on tooling to their customers. Cifarelli used Desktop Metal machines to reimagine its tree shaker hook, especially for special fruit trees. While topological optimization did not reduce the overall weight of the hook, it did increase its strength without increasing the weight. The picture below shows the original hook (left top), the redesigned hook (left bottom) and the hook with pad in the field (right).

Cifarelli-attrezzature-agricole-stampa3d-metallo-dm-CeseStudy

Repairing

Farm equipment is crucial and expensive and farmers go to great lengths to maintain their equipment. This is why they have been very active in the right-to-repair movement and legislature and it has often put them on a collision course with the major vendors of heavy farm equipment, most notably as it pertains to access to their proprietary software on board the machinery. However, there is another aspect to this movement and that is the availability of spare parts. While independent initiatives, as we saw above, are welcomed by the farmers having parts available from the OEM is always important. Several vendors have experimented with 3D printed spare parts and tooling and here are some examples: CNH is vendor of heavy and agricultural equipment owned by the Agnelli family (of Fiat fame) – it is a consolidation of several veteran brands including Case and New Holland. In 2019 it started 3D printing 4 plastic spare parts and said it plans to explore metal AM as well. This announcement is from a couple of years ago so it would be interesting to see what they are doing now in production, beyond using 3D printing for prototyping (in this example a knotting system for a baler). In 2015 Caterpillar opened an Additive Manufacturing Factory in Mossville IL capable of producing small runs of parts. Some tens of different parts were additively manufactured by 2018 but since then there has been silence, even before the challenging 2020 COVID year. It is possible that such workhorses need tight control so that they can be certified to withstand the harsh conditions – time will tell.

At John Deere, tooling for internal consumption is already a success there with tens of 3D printers churning out tools for their manufacturing and assembly operations. As is the case in many places, initial success with tooling allows John Deere to look towards spare parts produced using AM. Chris Myers, global director of John Deere’s Tractor Platform Engineering, put it this way: “We’re looking at a situation where we could have spare parts on demand”. As the picture below shows, John Deere’s AM capabilities include using metal AM which comes in handy for spare parts that need to survive in rugged conditions.

John Deere 3D printed parts

Small Scale Agriculture

While tooling and spare parts are applications in many industries, now we come to new applications that can only be imagined thanks to AM, mostly for the smaller farmer and those people that want to grow their own food. The first example is a 3D printer that plants your plot based on your plans and the distance each plant needs and then waters each plant according to its needs. It’s essentially a frame similar to large scale construction printers that is used with a (3D printed) planting robotic arm and jig that holds a hose. It’s called FarmBot and you can see it in action below. While this is a system aimed at prosumers and enthusiasts, the thinking can potentially inspire other applications.

With our final application, let’s go back to harvesting but in a certain discipline of agriculture: bee keeping. One of the challenges of bee keeping is harvesting the honey without angering or harming the bees or the bee keeper. Father and son team, Stu and Cedar Anderson, reimagined the way bee hives are built and harvested, using 3D printing. Their story in fascinating (including a record breaking crowd funding campaign) – you can hear it below. This design depends on the ability to produce the geometrically complicated hives that allow for harvesting – they are 3D printed.

Clearly, there is a lot more that can be done in agriculture with additive manufacturing but it’s nice to be inspired by what’s already happening. For more insights and information follow us on LinkedIn or subscribe to our newsletter for weekly updates.

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One thought on “Reap What You Sow – Agriculture and Additive Manufacturing

  1. The father and son invention of a 3D printed bee-hive is indeed a very interesting story. Should be taught in schools as well as in entrepreneurial courses.

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