Apr. 21, 2015 | By Alec

While we’ve already seen numerous individual examples of what 3D printing technology can do for people in the developing regions of the world – remember the Wakati tent? – that wasn’t enough for dr. Joshua Pearce. Pearce is a 3D printing guru at the Department of Materials Science & Engineering at Michigan Technological University, and is known for his economic approach to the potential of 3D printing technology. In his latest paper, he turns to organic farming in third world countries and the economic advantages basic 3D printers offers to farmers.

As he explains in his paper in the Organic Farming journal, entitled Applications of Open Source 3-D Printing on Small Farms, the growing number of free and open source designs for tools applicable to farming can offer serious economic benefits to farmers. ‘There is growing evidence that low-cost open-source 3-D printers can reduce costs by enabling distributed manufacturing of substitutes for both specialty equipment and conventional mass-manufactured products. It has also been hypothesized that this technology could assist sustainable development in rural communities that rely on small-scale organic agriculture,’ he writes.

That’s a very important realization, as approximately a third of the world’s organically managed land (over 11 million hectares) is located in developing countries and owned by poor landholders. ‘While the application of 3-D printing in developing countries is still at an early stage, the technology application promises vast solutions to existing problems [23,24]. For example, most small farmers in the developing world use labor-intensive agricultural hand tools; Ishengoma and Mtaho hypothesize that superior tools can be developed with 3-D printing improving the efficiency of agriculture in the developing world,’ he writes. To gauge those economic benefits, Pearce devotes his article to reviewing the totality of available open source designs and evaluating the ability of low-cost 3D printers to reduce costs.

3D printed apple picker.

In giving that overview of available products, Pearce understandably limits himself to objects that can be 3D printed in PLA on the very affordable MOST RepRap delta 3D printer. ‘This type of 3-D printer was chosen for this study because of the value—it has low capital costs [just $450] for the quality of the prints and the build volume (250 mm in radius and 270 mm high) provided. In addition, farmers, who are generally handy at fixing equipment, would best be served by a 3-D printer they could maintain themselves,’ he writes. When relying on open source software for design, such as Open-SCAD, farmers effectively only need to invest in the initial parts for this RepRap 3D printer and the actual filament. PLA was also consciously chosen over ABS, and not just because PLA has a far higher average tensile strength. ‘PLA is a bio-based plastic, made up of a repeating chain of lactic acid. It is recyclable using conventional methods. In addition, PLA can be composted like other organic matter,’ he adds.

3D printed water analyser.

So what can farmers do with a PLA extruding RepRap 3D printer? While there are literally thousands of free designs applicable to organic farming, Pearce has resorted to reviewing a series of examples from five crucial categories: 1) hand tools, 2) food processing, 3) animal management, 4) watermanagement and 5) hydroponics. These represent classes of objects that are realistically used by small scale farmers on an everyday basis.

As it turns out, there are devices in in every category – from apple pickers, shovels, corn shellers, ant traps, irrigation stakes to peristaltic pumps - that can be effectively and affordably made using 3D printing technology. Of, for example, corn shellers, Pearce explains that commercial products are already in use, but can be more suitably and more affordably designed using 3D printing technology. ‘Maize comes in different sizes so different shellers are needed in different regions—and the various DIY shellers are a major task to fabricate. Using the OpenSCAD design code, corn shellers (Figure 9) can be customized for an exact location and corn type and 3-D printed in a short time. Various designs are possible, again by changing variables in clearly documented OpenSCAD scripts,’ he writes.

3D printed chicken feeder.

In just about every example included in this review, Pearce argues, 3D printable designs offer clear advantages in regards to customization and cost-effectiveness. ‘All of them offer direct cost advantages over purchasing commercial equivalents.. In all of the preceding cases it was assumed that virgin commercial PLA filament was purchased and average U.S. electricity rates were used. In general, these assumptions enable a RepRap to print products for much lower costs than what is available commercially, even if shipping and taxes are ignored,’ he writes.

Furthermore, he argues that this already substantial economic advantage can be massively increased when recyclebots that turn waste into 3D printable plastic are used. While it is something that each individual farmer would have to evaluate for himself, Pearce feels that small organic farmers on a whole will benefit. ‘It is likely that there could be one or several highly utilized products or components that would economically justify purchasing the 3-D printer, and then the other products it manufactured would simply be extra side benefits adding to the profitability of the investment,’ he writes. ‘Capital costs of an open-source 3-D printer can be saved with the on-farm printing of a single advanced analytical instrument in a day or replacing of hundreds of inexpensive products over a year.’

At the same time, however, there is a role the rest of the 3D printing community must play before such a fanciful future can be realized. In fact, Pearce recognizes five core areas that need improvement: 1) designs of 3-D printable objects, 2) materials, 3) 3-D printers, 4) software and 5) 3-D printable repositories. In part, this simply means increasing the efficiency (and decreasing the costs) of 3D printers, software filament and repositories. But there are also practical issues typical for the third world that need to be covered; what to do, for example, during a power shortage (which are quite common throughout Africa)? ‘Most types of firmware, loss of power represents a catastrophic print failure as the chain of g-code is lost and it is extremely difficult to find the exact location of a failure when the 3D printer is operating without observation,’ Pearce argues.

While certain steps thus definitely need to be made before 3D printing can become a viable organic farming tool, Pearce definitely believes 3D printers can play a crucial role in organic food production. Perhaps food 3D printers aren’t the real revolution in that field, after all. To read Pearce’s intriguing article in its entirety, go here



Posted in 3D Printer Applications


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