Printing an object in three-dimensional form, called 3-D printing, has been around since the 1980s. But it has received more attention lately because of the materials now used for printing, along with a concurrent price drop for 3-D printers, which are reaching levels consumers can afford. Companies like Amazon.com and Staples, for example, are advertising 3-D printers for under $2,000.

View a gallery to see 3-D printing at work.

At this year’s annual AMC Engineering Conference in Waterloo, Iowa, Advanced Technology Systems displayed a 3-D printer made by Stratasys, the largest 3-D printer manufacturer in the world. Stratasys is the company that trademarked the term “3-D printing.”

“We’ve been around longer than most people think,” says Mike Nagle, product representative for Stratasys. At the conference, Nagle had on display a small 3-D printer used to produce everything from a bike chain to an artificial limb.

He says the process is similar to 2-D printing in that engineers design the product on a computer using computer-assisted design, or CAD, software and then print the design with a printer. But with 3-D printing, what’s printed is the actual part through a process called fused deposition modeling, or FDM.

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“What that means, essentially, is that we use a really nice, accurate, hot-glue gun to lay down a thermoplastic material, layer upon layer, until we have a functional part,” Nagle says.

He says what has changed in his industry is not the actual 3-D printers, but the materials used in printing the parts. Some of the plastics used in parts are as durable as metal.

“People always ask about how tough these parts are,” Nagle says as he holds up an actual gear that was “printed” out of advanced plastics. “This is more than a prototype. This is a polycarbonate tool that companies can use in their production line.”

Most major farm machinery OEMs already use 3-D printing in their design process. They can print concept models to use in research and development. They also can print functional prototypes to test for design flaws before a product is factory-produced. Because 3-D prototypes can be printed rapidly, product turnaround can be cut dramatically.

Farmers benefit indirectly, Nagle says, by gaining more control over the products they eventually will buy. “Companies rely on customer feedback on their products,” he says. “If farmers don’t like it, they won’t buy it.”

In the future, though, the benefits may be more direct. In August, Stratasys announced its purchase of MakerBot, a company that makes desktop 3-D printers geared to the consumer market. On its website, MakerBot shows a picture of a green model tractor that was printed by its Replicator 2 desktop 3-D printer. You can buy the printer online for $2,199 and take shipment in a week.

“We are not quite to the farmer yet, but we are a middleman away from being there,” Nagle says.

Microsoft also is driving momentum for 3-D desktop printers. In June it announced that its next version of Windows will support 3-D printing platforms. In a blog post, Shanen Boettcher, general manager of Microsoft’s Startup Business Group, writes: “As Windows 8.1 becomes available later this year, now is the time for software and hardware developers to start planning for this new capability in Windows. We have free tools available to make 3-D printing as easy as clicking File > Print.”

Staples and Amazon started to sell 3-D printers in their stores this year. Amazon in June opened an online shop devoted strictly to 3-D printing technology. Staples sells 3D System’s Cube 3-D Printer for $1,299 and is among the companies that will offer 3-D printing services.

In the farm equipment industry, the technology is still largely in the domain of the OEMs for rapid prototyping and limited production runs — not for commercial sale. Factory floors are still considered the most feasible for mass production. However, specialty fields like aerospace, medicine and auto have used them to make actual finished goods.

So where will 3-D printing ultimately take the farmer? Eric Cullen, distributor application engineer for Cummins Central Power and technical session coordinator for the AMC Conference, sees a couple of scenarios: “At the far end of the spectrum, some people see 3-D printing as the first baby steps toward realizing the replicator technology from ‘Star Trek,’ ” Cullen says. “They foresee a future where, if you need a tool or an object such as a wrench or a vase, whether at home or at work, the computer will just make you one. If you no longer have need of that object, it can be recycled on-site back into the raw materials to build the next object.”

On a broader level, Cullen says the technology could lead to a renaissance of small manufacturing start-up companies capable of challenging big business. “Combined with inexpensive open-source computers like Arduino and access to crowd funding through sites like indiegogo.com, a kid on a farm with an inspiration for the Next Big Thing in Agriculture can launch that idea into the world right there from the kitchen table — and do it well.”

3-D printed parts

In theory, anything that can be designed in 3-D CAD software can be printed on a 3-D printer. The printers can be used to make concept models, functional prototypes, manufacturing tools and even finished goods. Fused deposition modeling, or FDM, machines have build volume capacities ranging roughly from 288 cu. in. to 31,000 cu. in. Larger parts can be printed in multiple pieces and bonded together.

Here are just a few examples, both inside and outside of farming:

  • Gears
  • Chains
  • Shock absorbers
  • Hinges
  • Planter meters
  • Combine attachments
  • Jigs
  • Fixtures
  • Gauges
  • Molds
  • Dies
  • Bono’s illuminated mic
  • Shoes
  • Bikes
  • Mounting brackets
  • Switches
  • Guitars
  • Dentures
  • Computer mouse
  • Watches
  • Computer stands
  • ATMs
  • Artificial limbs
  • Valves
  • Fabric
  • Artificial ears
  • Coffee cups

How AGCO uses 3-D printing

AGCO engineers at the company’s three North American factories are using 3-D printers as they research and design new products and as they build and test prototype components for new pieces of equipment. Recently, seed meters for the new White Planters 9000 Series were engineered at the Hesston, Kan., factory with assistance from 3-D printers.

Rye DeGarmo, engineering manager for seeding and tillage at AGCO, says the 3-D printers provide a significant savings over processes such as tooling parts prototypes from aluminum.

“For example, an aluminum prototype could cost between $5,000 and $7,000 per version, while the plastic part can be created by the printer at a cost of $1,000 to $2,000 each for the needed materials,” DeGarmo says. “And it takes about a day for a prototype part to be created by the printer.”

DeGarmo says traditional tooling could take up to five weeks for a third party to design the component, followed by two weeks of research by the manufacturer. Using 3-D printing allows engineers to create and test up to five iterations of the part in a five-week period.

AGCO engineers create plastic components by feeding a 3-D model into a computer that guides the printer. About the size of a large copier, the printer can make a component up to roughly a 14x14x8-in. part. For larger parts, several small pieces are printed and glued together.

How GVL Poly uses 3-D printing

GVL Poly is a rotational molding manufacturer in Litchfield, Minn. The company manufactures rotational molded, polyethylene parts for the agricultural, industrial and commercial industries. It was founded in 1992 by a local farmer who developed the first poly corn snout on his farm with the rotational molded process.

In 2012, GVL Poly purchased a professional 3-D printer, the Fortus 900mc made by Stratasys, and since then has spun off a 3-D printing business called GVL Proto Poly. Services include 3-D printing, scanning for reverse engineering, product documentation, quality control and tooling.

Using its 3-D printing capabilities, GVL Proto Poly has printed corn snouts, wear points (for the tip of the corn snouts) augers, fan blades, handles, knobs, jigs, fixtures and mold models. Parts are printed out of thermoplastics.

“Major OEMs have ordered short runs to test fit, form and function of parts in research and development,” says Allan Cronen, GVL Poly president and CEO. “Several versions of a product concept can be printed simultaneously for field testing. This allows the OEM to finish testing in one season rather than multiple years.

“Rotational or injection molding tools can cost anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000,” Cronen adds. “The ability to test a product’s fit, form and function before making a costly investment can help engineers complete several products in a budget cycle.”

“Crop material flow isn’t an exact science,” says Nathan Hulstein, GVL Poly’s vice president of product development and engineering. “So printing different-shaped parts has allowed us to find the sweet spot without developing multiple expensive toolings.”

This year the company completed a major project for Dragotec U.S.A. Dragotec management was looking to improve the poly snout and bonnet design for its corn header. The new Drago corn header poly was redesigned, printed and installed for field testing last fall. Other items, including wear points and fender augers, were printed to test fit, form and function in the field prior to ordering molds.

Hulstein says the project resulted in a successful introduction of the Drago Series II corn header with “Kernel Capture Technology” in 2013. “Many customers like to ‘kick the tires’ on a new concept,” Hulstein says. “3-D printing allows them to do that versus just seeing the concept on a computer screen.”

How to print a 3-D part

A 3-D printer creates objects from plastic or other materials in a succession of layers from the bottom, up. This is the opposite of traditional subtractive manufacturing processes, which produce objects by cutting material away from a block to create the shape desired.

Stratasys 3-D printers use fused deposition modeling, or FDM, to create a 3-D part. In the FDM process, each layer of molten plastic is deposited on top of the previous one and flattened slightly by a computer-controlled extrusion head. The layers instantly fuse to one another.

Here is how to make a 3-D part using FDM.

  1. Draw a product or concept using a computer-aided design software program.
  2. Import the CAD file to a preprocessing or “build-preparation” program such as Catalyst EX or Insight, used by Stratasys. The program sections and slices the part design into thin layers ranging from 0.005 in. to 0.013 in. in height. Using the sectioning data, the software then generates “tool paths” or building instructions that will drive the extrusion head.
  3. Send the build file to the 3-D printer.
  4. Prep the machine by inserting material cartridges. Add a base, and close the chamber door.
  5. Press “print” to start the building process.  Two materials — one to make the part and one to support it — enter the extrusion head. Heat is applied to soften the plastics, which are extruded in a ribbon roughly the size of a human hair. Alternating between part material and support material, the system deposits layers as thin as 0.005 in.
  6. When the 3-D printer display reads “complete,” open the chamber door and remove the build tray. Twist the tray to release the part.
  7. Remove the support material that held the part in place by either washing or stripping it.
  8. The FDM part is now ready for use.

*Source: Extracted from “3-D PRINTING WITH FDM: How it Works,” by Joe Hiemenz, Stratasys Inc. Contact Stratasys Incorporated, 7665 Commerce Way, Eden Prairie, MN 55344, 888-480-3548 (US Toll Free), 952-937-3000, stratasys.com, info@stratasys.com.

View a gallery to see 3-D printing at work.