Three-dimensional printing is making its mark on agriculture

As 3D printing advances and the cost of the printers fall, this technology offers interesting potential in farming

The robot can use 3D-printed tool
The robot can use 3D-printed tools to carry out computer-controlled tasks such as mechanical weeding and watering

That’s not just in terms of making components to form machines for agricultural use – on a small scale it’s also influencing how farming is actually carried out, and in the near future field-scale agriculture looks likely to benefit too.

In the 3D printing process, highly-accurate ‘printer’ nozzles are used to build layers of thermoplastic material to build up 3D objects, in a process known as fused deposition modelling. Such material has been developed to create parts that are as durable as many metals, and using the technique allows various elements of machines and implements to be created far faster and more cost-effectively than would traditionally be possible. Work on 3D printing with other materials is also being trialled.


One US-based firm has developed a small-scale crop husbandry task robot which can be created via the internet from a supplied kit complemented by commercially-available software and 3D-printed parts. When assembled, it is capable of performing tasks including seeding, irrigation and weed destruction. The firm says its open source hardware, software and data solution allows anyone in any part of the world to build and operate the robot and its tools.

The program can print tools that can do most of the typical small-scale farm jobs that would normally require physical labor and/or individual machines. They include seed drills, ploughs, burners, robotic arms for harvesting, shredders, tillers, discs, watering nozzles, sensors and more, all of which can be fitted to the gantry-type robotic unit, which is operated via computer numerical control (CNC). Although currently small-scale, the hardware used is completely open source and totally scalable for use on any sized fields or plots.

3D printing technology
3D printing technology can print components for the creation drones which can be used for crop inspection


From a different angle, one web platform developer aims to provide a collaborative environment where makers and final users can share their knowledge, provide feedback and print tools for trials or for daily work. The management behind the company says the core aims to its business include faster in-field trialling of new agricultural toolsbefore mass production. Among these is new designs of insect traps for monitoring and capture, with the aim of hastening the research into improved designs. The firm says its plan is to become the reference crowd-testing platform for new kinds of tools that the user can improve, print and test in the field in order to make a successful trial before the production.

The company also says it aims to provide two types of agricultural tools to rural farmers, primarily those on theAfrican continent. The first are simple products such as hose adapters and irrigation system components that can be printed locally, while the second is more sophisticated tools that can be printed as models before being taken to local engineers to illustrate requirements before they are made.


Most major farm machinery manufacturers already use 3D printing as part of product design processes, enabling them to print concept models for planning, research and development. It’s also possible to rapidly print functional prototypes of components to test for design flaws before a product is factory-produced, and the speed with which this can be done significantly cuts product development time. Ultimately, that means more productive tools available more quickly to today’s farmers. In combination with the potential offered by on-farm printing of components for repair and replacement, 3D printing looks to have a good deal to offer the future of agriculture.