Could 3-D printing revolutionize the parts and service department in the dealership of tomorrow? 3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, refers to the processes used to create a three-dimensional object in which layers of material are formed under computer control. It is already being used in a number of industries, and it’s likely that agriculture could be next. Robert Saik, author of The Agriculture Manifesto and founder of The Agri-Trend Group, thinks 3-D printing is one of the drivers that will shape agriculture in the next decade. He says the growth and adoption is going to be exponential, meaning adoption will start off slowly before it quickly becomes mainstream.

“The thing about exponential growth is it is sub-linear in its early stages. In other words, people dismiss exponential technologies because at early stage, the growth rate is actually sub-linear. It will have a huge, huge impact on agriculture but right now it’s sub-linear. Not many people are aware of its impact or that it’s even on the radar screen,” Saik says.

A good example of a product that had exponential growth is the smartphone. Ten years ago when the iPhone first hit the market, very few people had one. “Its growth curve was exponential. At first, people said, ‘What are you going to do with that?’” he explains. Today, nearly everyone has some type of smartphone.

An agriculture example, Saik says, is auto-steer. “Farmers, for a long time said, ‘I don’t need that. I can steer straight. What the heck would a guy need that for?’ Auto-steer is an example of exponential growth. Trimble retrofitted hundreds of thousands of tractors with auto-steer. Today, it’s very rare to find anybody who doesn’t have it to the point where the word is ubiquitous. It’s everywhere. It’s coming now embedded inside of all the equipment,” he says.

3-D Printed Food?

Saik says there are a number of companies who are working on technology to 3-D print food. He says there are going to be a large number of 3-D type food printers coming on the marketplace. “In Holland right now, I came across a hospital that was using 3-D printing to make food for patients based on their blood type,” he says.

“My question has been, what’s the ink in the cartridge? What is going to be the food ink? What will be the substrates be that are going into the ink cartridges? You have to think about the commodity, the crops that we grow. You’d have to give pretty high marks to crops like soy, corn, wheat and canola, because they’re going to lend themselves to the extraction of substrates. We may be growing crops in the future, not for wheat’s sake alone, but actually the substrates that we extract out of the wheat that go into ink cartridges, that go into 3-D food printers. That’s a little bit of a wild thought, but some people are doing that today.”

Advancing the Technology

There are a number of 3-D printer manufacturers and there are a number of different types of printers. Saik says right now the 3-D printer market is experiencing a Moore’s Law like phenomenon. More’s Law states that the rate and speed of the microchip doubles every 12-18 months, and as a result the cost comes down by half as well in that period.

“Much of that is going on right now in the 3-D printer world. This leads to two things. One of the problems right now with deposition modeling or fused printing is that they lay down the materials in layers. You could get two-dimensional layering that’s quite strong, but you get the third dimension between the layers is a weak point. Those early iterations of 3-D printers may not have lent themselves to really good strength with respect to parts and that sort of thing. But where we’re headed with 3-D printing in the future would allow us to gain strength through that third dimension. That’s really where it gets really interesting.”

Currently most 3-D printing is done with plastics because plastic can be heated, melted, reformulated and ink-jetted in a two-dimensional fashion, Saik explains. But, he adds that the number of possible materials that will be used in the future are infinite. “Just as we’ve seen amazing growth in our understanding of biology because of genomics. There are people out there working on material genomics right now, where they’re breaking apart a molecular structure of different substrates to form new compounds that have never been formed before. This is going to lend itself to 3-D printing,” he says.

One new substrate Saik thinks will proliferate in agriculture is graphene, a material similar to graphite. Graphene is strong and a tremendous electrical conductor and insulator. “There’s a lot we’re going to be able to do with graphene. I think graphene is absolutely going to revolutionize how we grow materials. That’ll actually dovetail right into 3-D printing,” he says.

Printing 3-D Parts

While Saik says the opportunity for 3-D parts generation — either on the farm or at the dealership level — is still pretty small it will come over time, especially once the technology gets to the point where the strength of the third dimension is increased. “There are a number of 3-D companies that are already working with steel and different metal substrates to create the ability to 3-D print in metal. The interesting thing is where you can fuse two different materials together, like a metal and a Teflon, to actually build whole parts with different materials, all 3-D printed together,” he says.

The time will come when the farmer won’t go to the dealership for a part or the dealership won’t go to the OEM for the part, Saik says. Instead, the manufacturer would send out an email with the 3-D drawing or pattern for the part. Then, the part would be printed at the dealership or at the farm. “This really starts to impact one area of our business, which is oddball parts, very strange parts or parts that are very unique to a piece of equipment. Or when you start thinking of vintage automobiles and vintage tractors and equipment that the manufacturers don’t want to keep stocking,” he says. “Eventually, the manufacturers will simply stock CAD drawings, 3-D printing templates, of these parts and send them out to 3-D shops for printing.

So how far in the future is “eventually?” Saik says in the next 3-5 years. He also says that the place it might all start is with obsolete parts that manufacturers simply don’t want to stock any more for two reasons. “One is that nobody wants to stock and make those parts anymore [because of low volumes]. Secondly, the failure of a part on a vintage automobile or a vintage tractor isn’t of as significantly economic importance as it is on a combine that’s in the middle of harvest,” he explains.

“I would probably guess that in 3 years, a lot of dealerships will start to experiment with the 3-D printed parts in their dealerships,” Saik says. “The more progressive dealerships and parts departments are already paying attention to this technology.”

One possible roadblock that has been suggested to 3-D printing parts is the unwillingness of OEMs or part suppliers to provide dealers or farmers with the CAD drawings. However, Saik says while this is a valid point, what will happen is third parties could scan the part with a laser scanner and creates a replica that way. “There’s ways around it, and the other side of it is just think about the profit attached to sending an email with a 3-D printed pattern, as opposed to making the part and shipping that. Where are you going to make more money?” he says.

Overcoming Costs

Depending on the machine, the material being used and the object’s size, this process can take a few hours or a few days. 3-D printer manufacturer 3D Systems added direct metal 3-D printing to its portfolio a few years ago. But, direct metal 3-D printing comes with a higher price tag, says Cathy Lewis of 3D Systems. The company offers three printer sizes ranging in cost from $250,000-$800,000.

Lewis says some of the plastics that 3-D printers use have the same longevity and mechanical properties as some metals and are much lighter weight. Plastic printers can cost as little as $5,000, but most that are used in end-use manufacturing range from $300,000-$700,000.

However, as Saik points out those prices will drop once the adoption of the technology starts to catch on. “I think that there’s going to be a natural progression as costs come down initially. I still remember back when we brought the first fax machine into our town. We advertised in the paper that we had a fax machine at our fertilizer dealership. People would come in and use it. Can you imagine?

“But you can see that regionally, either a state or province, people would set up companies with 3-D printers, and they would print out stuff. That’ll be the first level, and eventually, it’ll be at dealerships. Then eventually, because of Moore’s Law, prices will continue to drop to the point where farmers have it in their own shop.”

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