The State of 3D Printing in Agricultural Equipment

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The agriculture business might conjure images of old, rusty tractors and humble family farms, but, in reality, it is a global industry worth $2.4 trillion dominated by some of the world’s biggest corporations like corn king Cargill, John Deere, BASF and Bayer. For most of these companies, technology is key to success and the “smart agriculture” market was estimated to be worth around $7.53 billion in 2018. With that in mind, we thought we’d examine how agricultural equipment manufacturers are using 3D printing.

Though it is one of the largest manufacturers of agricultural equipment in the world, John Deere has yet to use 3D printing for the production of end use parts. However, as of March 2019, the company was said to be “quickly building momentum toward how it could be used in producing parts and integrated into new product programs.” Tooling is described as John Deere’s “biggest success story”, with over 40 printers used to fabricate tools for the company’s factories. The corporation is also exploring additive production of spare parts.

A 3D printed metal part for heavy equipment. Image courtesy of Caterpillar.

We went into greater depth about Caterpillar in an article on the use of 3D printing in the heavy equipment space, but it’s worth noting them here, as some of its equipment is used in the agricultural sector. The company is performing research and minor work in the 3D printing of spare parts. In an article with Engineering-News Record, additive manufacturing product manager at Caterpillar Stacey Delvecchio said, “We’re at the point now where we actually have parts in production that are being 3D-printed. We have less than 100 parts’ SKUs, so it’s not like we conquered the world. But the fact that we actually have parts in production that are 3D-printed is a big accomplishment.”

One of the corporations furthest along in the adoption of additive manufacturing is CNH Industrial, one of the largest producers of industrial vehicles and agricultural and construction equipment in the world. Like nearly every large manufacturer, CNH uses the technology for prototyping and design purposes, but it began to kick up its use of AM, purchasing a selective laser sintering system and 3D printing DuraForm sand casting patterns to cast metal prototypes and low volumes of end parts.

In 2019, the company began to 3D print spare parts, specifically four plastic parts for use on buses and agricultural equipment. However, the company is also researching the use of 3D printing for replacement of metal parts.

U.S. agricultural equipment maker AGCO has said that it so far uses 3D printing for prototyping and that the “3D printed parts we test are not field-worthy.” Instead, the printed components help designers and engineers validate form, fit and aesthetics. Despite its limited use of AM, the company is heavily involved in researching the use of the digital twin, in which products out in the field are linked via sensors and IoT technology to virtual versions located on corporate computers. This data is then used for the purpose of maintenance and future design iteration.

An AGCO employee wearing Google Glass. Image courtesy of AGCO.

While it’s becoming obvious that, for many agricultural equipment manufacturers, spare parts are the entry point into 3D printing for end parts, there’s an interesting dynamic between some manufacturers and their users. Specifically, John Deere has been under fire for preventing equipment owners from repairing their machines themselves, via software locks within their computers. According to John Deere, this software is protected under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

As a result, owners have to bring their equipment into certified dealers that can be located far from their remote farmland.

One Nebraska farmer said of the scenario, “You want to replace a transmission and you take it to an independent mechanic—he can put in the new transmission but the tractor can’t drive out of the shop. Deere charges $230, plus $130 an hour for a technician to drive out and plug a connector into their USB port to authorize the part.”

Alternatively, farmers have turned to software possibly written in Eastern Europe that allows them to bypass the software blocks just so they can implement repairs. Apparently, such hacks are actually legal, even when applied to the computers in ordinary personal and commercial vehicles, so long as the engines still meet emissions regulations. In turn, John Deere is having customers sign licensing agreements that prohibit tampering with the software.

This may put a temporary damper on third-party businesses, like BuyAnyPart.co.uk, wishing to supply 3D printable replacement parts, alongside traditionally made spare parts, for agricultural machines and other heavy equipment. Understanding that in fields like agriculture, farmers are not unaccustomed to tinkering with and repairing their own tractors, the site hosts over 500,000 parts, only three of which are 3D printable, for potentially obsolete equipment to customers within the U.K.

There’s also a Minnesota-based firm called GVL Poly that uses a Fortus 900 mc to 3D print prototypes, tooling and end parts for the agricultural industry. In the case that repair work requires bypassing a computer system, 3D printed parts could be difficult to install. The company sells parts, though not necessarily printed ones.

What this suggests is that there is a gap between many leading players in the agricultural sector and their customers, as well as emerging technology. Just as record companies struggled to come to terms with digital music and how to protect the fortunes being made from owning the rights to artists’ catalogues, overprotective business could impact progress driven by digital technologies in other sectors.

If the agricultural industry is anything like the music world—which is a somewhat difficult comparison to make—then it will likely be the startups and big corporations that know how to take advantage of these new trends that will primed to succeed as this digital transformation occurs.

Join the discussion of this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com.

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