Additive Manufacturing in Agricultural Technology:

3D printing enables lighter, more durable components in mobile machines

Industry experts agree: Additive manufacturing will greatly benefit agriculture, forestry and construction within the next ten years. Already today, it gives designers and engineers of mobile work machines the freedom to develop products with highly efficient and functional structures. While up until now the focus of 3D printing was on rapid prototyping, i.e. the manufacturing of prototypes, the focus of this year's SYSTEMS & COMPONENTS is increasingly on manufacturing "real" components in series production. A look at the range of products and services offered by the approximately 800 exhibiting companies shows that the potential of additive manufacturing is opening up in-house for an increasing number of OEMs.

More freedom for design and engineeringHere additive manufacturing refers to a process in which a component is built in layers by melting material based on digital design data.

The production process differs considerably from ordinary, ablative manufacturing methods in which the workpiece is, for example, milled out of a solid block. Using 3D printing and bionic design, geometries and complicated structures can now be realised in hollow bodies which could not be produced in the past. This results in weight and performance-optimised joint assemblies made of plastic, e.g. for tedders. They not only have a different appearance than their predecessors produced in cast metal but their weight is just one-tenth of that of their metal counterparts with the same loadability. To ensure this, a 3D printer inserts a thin Kevlar thread at points subjected to particularly heavy loads.

This enables individualisation through the close intermeshing of modern CAD and simulation tools integrated in the workflow of agricultural and construction machine manufacturers and their suppliers. As a result, designers are sure to not draft any idealised component parts, but instead components that will withstand the tough conditions of the off-highway sector dirt, dust, heat and jolts. Especially when used in the off-highway sector, high wear resistance is of utmost importance. Due to these special requirements, the choice of high-performance plastics for 3D printing in agricultural technology was limited for a long time. Up until now, parts for driver's cabs, air conditioners and plastic covers, in particular, were produced with 3D printers.

New materials and improved printing methods

But these times may soon be a thing of the past. The diversity of modern materials which companies will present for various 3D printing methods at SYSTEMS & COMPONENTS is well worth looking at. The growing range of materials in additive manufacturing processes also inspires the ideas of which components can be produced with them. Bionics is becoming increasingly important here as it applies successful solution strategies from nature to technical applications. The remarkable thing here is that both plastic and metal production are rapidly growing in importance.

Regardless of whether it's aluminium, steel or titanium for metal 3D printing as well, the components are built up additively in thin layers. To do this, metal powder is melted with a laser, electron beams or another heat source. Thanks to their high density, the workpieces are resilient and have good mechanical properties. Even complete assemblies including moving joints are produced in this way in a powder bed with selective laser melting. The specialists for metal 3D printing are currently promoting the combination of various materials and the connection with ordinary methods like milling, turning and pressing on a machine.

Spare parts on demand from a printer

The outlook for SYSTEMS & COMPONENTS shows that additive manufacturing has made the grade from the research laboratories to prototype and small series production. Now the next step follows: in the field of customer services, the agricultural machine manufacturers and their OEM 

partners, who already use modern 3D printing methods for plastic spare parts as a production method today, are considering expanding their range of products and services to printing metal components – and they're not the only ones. Suppliers for the construction machine sector intend to use additive manufacturing routinely to produce spare parts. Here it is primarily a matter of flexibility and cost reduction. The challenge in the spare parts business lies in also ensuring the supply for model ranges that are no longer produced. With the 3D printing method, this is a thing of the past. Instead of manufacturing and storing spare parts in large numbers, they can be individually produced "at the press of a button" within a few days and delivered in consistent original manufacturer quality. In addition, the production of individual products explicitly tailored to customer requirements opens up the possibility for OEM manufacturers to differentiate themselves on the B2B market.

However, the value-added chain in agriculture will also change decisively through 3D printing. The new production approaches enable the digital supply chain to be closed in the spirit of "assisted farming" – the guiding theme of this year's SYSTEMS & COMPONENTS. The key term here is Predictive Maintenance, for as a direct source for supplying spare parts, additive manufacturing can perfect the maintenance of mobile work machines - always linked to the goal of zero downtime – since any unplanned standstill is a hindrance to productivity.