You've likely heard of 3D printing, and may have even seen it in action. 3D printing, otherwise known as additive manufacturing, involves using a robot to create a synthetic three-dimensional object of almost any geometric shape. Those shapes can be used in everything from art to manufacturing. It turns out, that includes manufacturing prototypes of agricultural equipment. It's something agricultural equipment companies have been using more and more in recent years.
At the Nebraska Power Farming Show in Lincoln in early December, 360 Yield Center of Morton, Illinois, showcased the use of 3D printing technology to make prototypes of its 360 CHAINROLL stalk roll system.
"Early on it would take a week or even two weeks to develop our prototype, and we can now print a prototype in 24 hours. We can have a part created overnight, and it's ready the day after," says Tim Sauder, director of product development at 360 Yield Center. "We've got a part we can actually use. It's really about speeding up the innovation process for us."
Sauder explains 360 Yield Center uses a 3D design program like Pro/Engineer or SolidWorks to design the dimensions for the product before exporting that design to the printer's computer, which uses polymers or similar material to accurately print the design layer by layer – from 10% fill up to 100% fill.
And Sauder says those prototypes hold up surprisingly well in field tests. "It's not like it's something that just sits on display," he says. "The 360 CHAINROLL itself is a casting, but for prototyping we're able to get quite a few runs out of a plastic part in a few runs in the field. We've been able to run plastic parts in testing underground and they've held up in testing there as well."
The big benefit of using 3D printing to develop prototypes, he says, is the speed of production and how it helps in the overall design process.
Stalk conditions change as the plants dry down, and with prototypes, it's important to test different designs in those different conditions. With 3D printing, Sauder notes it was easy to print prototypes quickly to test and adjust designs for these different conditions. "We've worked through probably 40 iterations to come up with the current design," he says. "With the conditions we had in the fall, we could run the designs in the lab, and print a new design every day as those stalk dried down and the season progressed. We were able to adjust day by day on the fly."
"The vast majority of teams designing products for agriculture are using this kind of technology. If they aren't, I think they will be in the near future. I think it's probably going to stay more on teams developing new products than farmers using it to print parts," Sauder says. "I think it's helped make us faster, leading to better designs, and do that at a tenth of what it could cost to use other services that would take longer."