3D printing technology has been used in the agriculture industry in various applications, to help create small-scale organic farms in developing countries, make cost-effective tools and plant crops, and set up urban gardens. Brooklyn-based Farmshelf wants to make it easy for anyone to grow their own food, and has developed an autonomous system, complete with custom 3D printed parts, that makes it possible for individuals, restaurants, and residential communities to do so on-site.
While the team at Farmshelf had its end goal in mind from the start, they knew it would be difficult to see it come to fruition. In order to set up autonomous processes involving growing organisms, they would need to quickly and cost-effectively manufacture, then test, plenty of customized tools, like mounting brackets and plant hangings, which would also meet the engineering requirements for the various components and subsystems.
As more conventional methods of manufacturing would be too expensive, and could easily throw the whole project off schedule if there were any unforeseen issues, Farmshelf turned to 3D printing to get the job done.
Andrew Shearer, CEO and Co-Founder of Farmshelf, said, “As a company, you can now look at 3D printing as a way to involve more people in the building process, and involve more in the prototyping and dreaming process, thanks to how easy it is.”
In order to create custom parts for testing, as well as refine its hardware and software platform, Farmshelf integrated Ultimaker 2+ 3D printers into the design process. The 3D printers gave the team the freedom, and the budget, to develop and produce multiple design iterations for its large system, as well as the custom, modular parts that went into it.
Farmshelf was able to use Ultimaker’s 3D printing technology for every single project stage, from design and laboratory research to prototyping and production of its “functioning, plant-ready prototypes.”
“As we approached prototyping all of these parts, Ultimaker proved to be a great solution,” Shearer said. “For all the different needs we’ve had, from prototyping to small batch, short-run production parts, this technology enabled us to push forward our timelines, and keep this company on the fast track. It is always tough to build hardware, but Ultimaker makes it a lot easier.”
If Farmshelf had been forced to outsource the work, they would have had to shell out a lot of money for supplies, services, and materials; but, since the team kept its Ultimaker 2+ 3D printers on-site, they only had to purchase filament for the prototypes. In addition, the design iteration process would have been much slower, since they would have had to wait weeks, and possibly even months, for new custom parts.
“Without access to the Ultimaker printers, we would have had to resort to using off the shelf components, and would have had to design our product around those off the shelf components. Or worse, we would have had to extensively machine parts using CNCs, which can be a time-consuming and expensive process,” said Farmshelf’s Product Designer Jaeseong Yi. “Having the Ultimaker machines really empowered us in our design process.”
Because Farmshelf used 3D printing technology to develop its autonomous system, it had the freedom to quickly, and inexpensively, customize parts. The team was also able to create 3D printed functional prototypes, in order to test their products through, as Ultimaker put it, “entire growth cycles of plant pods.”
“The Ultimaker 3D printers, in the simplest terms, made it even possible for us to build early Farmshelf prototypes. Without them, given the number of plastic parts that we use in the system that are custom, I cannot even imagine how many tens of thousands of dollars it would have cost us to make those sets of parts,” said Gabe Benton, Farmshelf’s botanist and the lead Ultimaker operator in the early stages of the business.
Thanks to 3D printing, the team had an efficient, cost-effective product expansion process as well, and was able to install, and exhibit, several beta models of its innovative product at various public sites, including a historical, iconic location in New York – Grand Central Station.
Claus Meyer, a renowned chef and co-founder of Noma in Denmark, invited Farmshelf to install three of its functioning autonomous units as an experiment in the station, and because the team had saved time and money by 3D printing its plant pods and system parts, they were able to accept his invitation far before they had planned on introducing its system to the public. The experiment was a success, and Meyer’s Grand Central restaurant, the Great Northern Food Hall, was able to use Farmshelf’s prototypes to harvest several leafy greens and microgreens. Now, the team is working to expand beyond its initial concept, and continue harvesting a future for urban farming.
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