3D printers

3D printers are especially helpful in making less expensive prototypes quickly. Joseph Fischer, a mechanical engineer, also uses them to make tools for the production process. 

While 3D television never really caught on, 3D printing has earned itself a permanent spot in agriculture for creating tools, making replacement machine parts and crafting models for large projects such as grain facilities or 3D models of terrain for erosion control.

Saves time, money

For Yuahui Zhang, a University of Illinois professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, 3D printing has been a valuable tool in making prototypes for his research on air cleaning and dedusting.

For more than 20 years, he has been working on air cleaning devices, but developing prototypes is a time- consuming and expensive process. Having the option of 3D printing prototypes saves money and time, he said.

For the last year and a half, he and his students have been working on aerodynamic air cleaning devices, which have applications in buildings where dusty work is being done, and in machinery engines, including tractors and combines 

“Five years ago, it took so long and was so expensive to make a prototype,” he said. Now it’s a matter of having the design ready for the prototype and “here we go,” the Urbana-Champaign professor said.

For his research and product development in the field of bio-environmental engineering, 3D printing is a valuable tool.

“It’s cheaper and it makes my life a lot easier,” he said.

Go-to 3D guy

For Joseph Fischer, a mechanical engineer at 360 Yield Center in Morton, 3D printing in various materials, including polycarbonates, helps develop shape and design of the company’s new products for ensuring crops get the right nutrients to succeed.

“I’m the 3D guy at work,” said Fischer about his enjoyment of working with the tool. 

He also likes using 3D printing for non-work items, including for replacement parts around home, fun things for his siblings and Mother’s Day gifts. It can be used for anything you can dream up, said Fischer.

He first started using 3D printing three years ago when he joined the company, founded by Tremont farmer, inventor and entrepreneur Gregg Sauder after the 2012 drought. Sauder’s goal is to provide tools for farmers to make the most out of every season, and 3D printing is just one of the tools.

Sometimes the team prints a whole assembly and tests it in a field. It’s a good way to see if an idea works, Joseph Fischer said. Then, if the concept works, it can be made of tougher materials to be field-ready.

In recent months, a practical application for 3D printing has been creating the parts for face masks. Normal Public Library, in central Illinois, was among the organizations performing this service in the spring.

“During the quarantine a couple of our staff took home the 3D printers and made the mask parts,” said John Fischer, manager of adult services and circulation at the library.

While the library is closed to the public during the pandemic and people can’t use the 3D printers themselves, they can send in their plans and have items printed, he said. 

The library got the 3D printer in 2015-16, at a time when a lot of schools and libraries were doing so. The items printed include cogs for the 4-H Metal Cow Robotics Club and a skull for an Illinois State University researcher. The professor and archaeological researcher in Normal wanted to make the skull available for researchers around the globe and was able to with 3D printing, the librarian said.

Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.