The new 6R series tractor from John Deere features a 3D-printed fuel valve.
The new John Deere tractors rolling off the manufacturing line in Mannheim, Germany, have a first for the company: a metal 3D-printed engine part. CNC Milling Machine Parts
The global manufacturer of agricultural and turf equipment is no stranger to 3D printing, having used it for more than 20 years to make thousands of prototypes, tools, jigs, and fixtures across its global factories. But the 3D-printed stainless steel valve in the tractor’s fuel system is a new direction and part of what the company calls its Smart Industrial Strategy.
Launched in 2020, John Deere announced its vision to rapidly integrate new technologies in three focus areas: production systems, their technology stack, and lifecycle solutions.
3D printing is part of this vision, and this valve is one of its first fruits. It’s more efficient than if it were traditionally manufactured. It’s about 50% cheaper and significantly smaller, using less material. But this is just scratching the surface of why John Deere chose to 3D print this part.
John Deere has 3D printed thousands of thermal diverter valves for its new 6R and 6M series ... [+] tractors.
The First of Many 3D Printed Parts
The new thermal diverter valve on the latest versions of John Deere 6R and 6M tractors isn’t just an innovative application of increasingly accessible metal 3D printing technology, it’s the culmination of about two years of R&D.
It started with a challenge to ensure John Deere tractors would perform in cold environments. Engineers were tasked with developing a valve that could maintain fuel temperatures without affecting engine performance.
“First, you start with what you want the part to do,” says Udo Scheff, engineering director for John Deere’s small and midsize tractors, “and work through optimizing the computational fluid dynamics and simulate it in the virtual world, then you transfer that into digital designs for a prototype model.”
The idealized prototype model, the one that let the fuel flow with the greatest efficiency, had rounded, smooth internal channels. A feature, Scheff says, is only possible to create with 3D printing.
“In fluid dynamics, when you have two drill holes that are intersecting, you always have sharp corners if you use machining tools. With 3D printing, you can have round corners, which is the element that brought us another step up in optimization of the valve.”
To test if the part would work as expected, engineers at John Deere worked with additive manufacturing staff at Germany’s GKN Additive (Forecast 3D), a digital manufacturer of metal parts and materials, to further optimize the design of the fuel valve for metal 3D printing. GKN printed prototype valves in steel on the new metal 3D printer from HP HPQ , the Metal Jet S100 Solution. This printer uses one of the metal 3D printing technologies – there are several – called binder jetting, where a metal powder is joined together with a binding agent layer upon layer to form a part that is then sintered in an industrial-grade oven. Afterwords, the part is machined and assembled.
Design engineers at John Deere's Mannheim, Germany, factory.
The thermal diverter valve underwent rigorous testing in order to ensure the required pipe quality, which is equal to machined or investment cast metal. Field testing of the part was also a success.
“So this is the point where we had to decide how we were going to manufacture this part to meet the material property and other requirements,” says Scheff, who also had to consider his tight deadline for this part, how much tooling would cost, and how the part would fit in the assembly workflow.
“And that's when we decided, okay, if this 3D-printed part works in tests and the additive manufacturing is cost-efficient, then it will work in production as well,” says Scheff.
Creating prototypes in the same material and method that will be used for the final production part gives engineers greater assurances of performance. “We chose the metal jet process from HP because it is much faster than other metal 3D printing processes,” adds Jochen Müller, John Deere’s global digital engineering manager. “We are discovering opportunities to deliver more efficient, reliable, and sustainable equipment, and HP provided us the perfect solution for that.”
The new 3D-printed John Deere tractor thermal diverter valve ensures consistent fuel temperatures.
Metal 3D Printing at Production Volumes
Currently, more than 4,000 valves are being shipped from GKN to the John Deere tractor factory for final assembly at a price per part that is less than forging or milling. Tractors with this 3D-printed part are already in the field, literally.
Müller says another benefit of 3D printing this particular part instead of using traditional methods, is added agility in the manufacturing process. Because 3D printing does not require molds or tools, part prototypes were faster and cheaper to create, which accelerated the design process. The design can be tweaked and improved at any time. Plus, when it comes to replacement parts, no standing inventory is necessary. The digital file of this value can be sent to any third-party manufacturer with HP Metal Jet technology and produced relatively locally and quickly.
Although a complete digital inventory of repair and spare parts for current and legacy John Deer equipment is still a distant future project, the company already sees the potential benefits.
“We have a huge spare part organization that is very, very interested in 3D printing,” says Müller. Already, the company is thinking about which and how many spare parts can be converted to 3D-printable digital files, which would eliminate warehousing. “Usually, we have spare parts in stock for roughly 20 years, sometimes even longer, and it’s very hard to predict what to do with the available stock and how to replenish stock if you run out.”
Beyond 3D printing spare parts on demand, Müller envisions a future where John Deere can analyze worn-out or broken parts and 3D print custom parts that are reinforced for individual use cases.
John Deere tractor assembly plant in Mannheim, Germany.
3D Printing Proven Through Prototyping
John Deere, like many manufacturing and automotive companies, began 3D printing in their engineering lab with polymer design prototypes of parts and vehicle concepts.
The company quickly learned that having physical models to handle, fit, and compare to existing parts are invaluable in the design phase. “People from the assembly line can check whether your concept part is feasible from a manufacturing perspective,” notes Scheff.
These prototypes are more efficient and and significantly faster than machining or carving out of wood, which was one of the techniques used before John Deere started 3D printing in 2000.
“Our internal 3D printing capabilities allow our designers to easily test their ideas and verify their concepts at a very early stage within the development process,” adds Müller. “It’s a ‘fail early’ type of mindset. We want to bring all concepts to the floor as physical models and have diverse groups together in order to come out with the right concept. So 3D printing and additive manufacturing, in general, empowers us to do that.”
The thermal diverting valve is just the first of many 3D-printed tractor parts to come.
3D-printed parts at John Deere start as digital models.
3D Printing Factory Jigs & Tools
3D printers are found in almost every John Deere factory worldwide churning out fixtures and factory tools 24/7. Scheff says there is still traditional manufacturing taking place because 3D printing can’t replace everything, but when it comes to parts with unique contours or special tooling, 3D printing is the method of choice.
Factory fixtures are almost always unique to a factory line and expensive to machine in small quantities. To facilitate 3D printing these parts, John Deere established a global network of 3D printers with different printer technologies at various locations and larger factories serve the needs of the smaller factories.
In every John Deere factory, the manufacturing engineering department, which is tasked with finding the most efficient manufacturing processes, proposes new tools and determines if they are best made with additive or traditional technologies. Then, Müller’s digital engineering group develops the digital models that are sent back to the factory to 3D print or outsource to a local 3D printing service.
Investment Casting Manufacturers From prototypes through to final components, tools, and spare parts, 3D printing is one of John Deere’s major assets in its quest to be a more digital and agile organization, says Müller. It enables engineers to develop concepts from idea to physical part faster through rapid prototyping parts, and now, with its latest project, to bring more efficient engine parts to market faster and cheaper.