Someday, farmers will not only grow their own filament as a crop, but they'll also use it to create critical parts to keep their machinery turning over and harvesting their fields.

At least that's how Ben Bernard sees it happening.

Bernard, an information technology specialist at the North Dakota State University Architecture and Landscape Architecture Department, believes farmers and ranchers will be able to quickly fabricate parts for their machines via 3D printing. That scenario makes sense on many levels. Equipment is often older and parts can be hard to come by, and every day spent in the workshop and not in the fields cuts into profits.

Working in conjunction with David Lehman, a manufacturing engineering extension specialist, Bernard played host to a demonstration of 3D printing at the Burleigh County 4H Building in Bismarck, ND.

Jake Clark, the cofounder of Fargo 3D Printing, demonstrated the technology this week. Clark, who also happens to work for Alderon Industries in Minnesota, is that company's lead 3D designer, and his day job sees him using 3D printing to create part prototypes.

As Bernard sees it, there's an obvious overlap in the technology for farmers. Many printers use material made from corn products – PLA or poly-lactic acid – and he says that's an interesting fit.

"PLA prints pretty easily to a resolution level of 100 microns per layer," Bernard said. "The stuff comes on a spool of plastic filament, which is relatively inexpensive."

And 3D printing is already in use at the sharp end of the manufacturing spear in agriculture. The latest 9000 series of White Planters marked the first time the company's machines were engineered with assistance from 3D printers.

Rye DeGarmo, the engineering manager for seeding and tillage at White, said that for three months, engineers at the AGCO factory in Hesston, Kansas, kept printers humming 24 hours a day to build and test designs for the planter's new seed meter.

AGCO seed meter prototyped with 3D printers

"We got a foot in the door and realized the value," DeGarmo said. "It takes a day for the printers to create a plastic part – at a cost of $1,000 to $2,000 – for the required materials. Tooling meter prototypes out of aluminum would cost $5,000 to $7,000."

Bernard works with Chad Ulven of the NDSU mechanical engineering department, and the pair are working on a grant they've submitted to the North Dakota Corn Growers association they hope will spur the use of 3D printing materials rendered from corn products.

"How cool would it be if NDSU could make our own 3D printing filament?" Bernard said. "We could do research with making composites and maybe some custom blends to make it stronger, more flexible."

Bernard is impressed with the design possibilities inherent in the 3DP process as well.

"You can set a printer to print solid, or hollow, or anything in between," he said. "Most things are pretty darn strong with just a 10 percent in-fill. You can get a lot of components made with a small amount of in-fill."

But it's the day when the technology becomes affordable to print in metals like stainless steel or brass that Bernard sees as a watershed moment for agricultural use of 3D printing.

"A challenge to producers and agricultural folks is keeping up with the technology year after year, and then applying it to the businesses to be more profitable," Bernard said.