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

At the annual Agricultural Machinery Conference in Waterloo, IA, this month, Advanced Technology Systems displayed a 3D printer made by Stratasys, the largest 3D printer manufacturer in the world. Representative Mike Nagle, Advanced Technology Systems, showed engineers at the show how farm machinery manufacturers can use the process to make a functional part overnight.

Nagle points to a small 3D printer behind him, used to produce everything from a bike chain to an artificial limb, also on display. He says the process is similar to 2D printing in that engineers design the product on a computer using computer-assisted design (CAD) software and then print the design on a printer. But with 3D printing, what’s printed is the actual part through a process called fused deposition modeling.

“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.

Nagel says what has changed in his industry is not so much the 3D printers themselves but the materials used in the printing process. Some of the plastics used in the 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 a polycarbonate tool that was printed using a hydrofoam process. So this is more than a prototype. This is a manufactured tool that companies can use in their production line.”

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Nagle says the benefit of 3D printing to famers is that it allows them to have more control over the products they eventually are going to buy. That is, companies can print out a part overnight and get feedback the next day. But, in the future, farmers may be able to benefit directly with new 3D printers designed for them.  

“We are getting ready to introduce a 3D printer that farmers can buy and use on the farm,” he says. Use for what? Nagle wouldn’t say. But he hints, “As you continue to see growth in the farm equipment that farmers are purchasing now, it will allow them to customize equipment used in the field to get their crops out quicker and easier.”

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