The Higher ED Blog: 3D Printing and other technologies farmers should get excited about
Barry Potter / December 15, 2014
Recently I attended the University of Waterloo’s advanced economic development course (Year 3) in Kitchener. It was held at the Communitech Hub, a former hide tanning facility has been converted to a centre where digital media geniuses converge to invent the latest in techno gadgets. Where cow hides were once made into leather, now tech companies at all stages of development are supported so they can innovate and grow. Companies such as Google, Desire 2 Learn and Christie Digital, the company that created the 3D graphics for the London Olympic Games, have office space there. While at the course I was exposed to new ideas that could enhance farming, including the “Maker Economy”
The Maker economy sounded like a made up story when I first heard about it. Apparently, people with design skill are realizing that they can manufacture and market products on a small scale basis. This is part of something called a DIY industry. When I asked the presenter what DIY stood for, everyone else in the class laughed at me. Apparently there is this concept called Do It Yourself, or DIY.
Is this a new concept or something farmers and rural people have done for ever? Tara Vinodrai, a professor at the University of Waterloo, described the “Maker” economy as a part of an emerging next industrial revolution. Digital design experts will use 3D printers to create and produce products as required, to custom specifications. The basic concept is to build a digital model of something on a computer, and then send it to a 3D printer which will print out an exact 3-dimensional copy in the specified material. For example, a Stradivarius violin has been printed with a 3D printer that cannot be differentiated from a real one. MIT (Massachussets Institute of Technology) instituted a course called “How to Make Almost Anything.” Students can manufacture anything they can think of. Some examples from the real world include the McDonalds fast food chain considering the use of 3D printers to print Happy Meal toys as required, and Staples experimenting with the introduction of 3D printers in their stores for use by patrons. Another fascinating use of 3D printing is the printing of skin tissue-like material for covering burn victims. The potential of the technology is mind boggling.
What does this have to do with farmers? Farmers have always had a Do It Yourself mentality. Imagine unlocking the power of the digital universe with the creative thinking of a farmer! Any tool needed on the farm could be produced as required. For example, can’t find that wrench that has gone missing? Just punch the specs into the computer and print away so you have another one. Want to design a custom handling facility? Measure the length and width, and height. Enter it in the computer and print on the material of your choice. Currently plastic and steel are working materials.
Some other cool technology that could be put to use in farming operations is the virtual reality 3D digital technology. Imagine being able to design your barn or handling facility, then putting on 3D glasses and walking through it to check sizing, penning and air flow in your new barn. Or how about walking through your handling facility to see if it works? Is the sizing right to fit your space? Do the doors open the right way, and is there enough clearance? Are there any handles you are going to hit your head on? Being able to visualize this before having it made, or printing it yourself, would eliminate a lot of the “I wish this was set up different,” maker regret.
One of the new companies that recently graduated from the University of Waterloo’s Velocity program housed at the Communitech Hub is Thalmic Labs. They have invented an arm bracelet that allows your hand to control computers that are across the room or in different rooms. I thought this would work really well with a head gate system where you could open and close head gates from a distance as if you were right at the head gate.
All of the above sound like good concepts, but where can you actually use 3D printers and design labs? Like any technology, as it becomes more mainstream it becomes more accessible. Right now, in my area, the ICAMP facility at Canadore College at North Bay is a Maker paradise, with AutoCAD (computer assisted design), 3D printing, and other high tech digital equipment. It is a bit of a drive, but for a creative designer, well worth the effort. In southern Ontario, there are several facilities as well.
In the breeding stock industry, more and more technology is being brought to play. Most major sales now provide real time online bidding, and video of the animals on a website prior to the sale. With surround picture capability, this view can be enhanced to provide the potential buyers with better visuals of the animals.
Another technology being used by many farmers today is social media. Sure, Facebook works to keep in touch with friends and relatives. But Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, among others, can be good social media tools to connect with clients, fellow farmers and the general public. Social media is a great promotion tool, as it can be an instantaneous reminder of an upcoming event. Twitter can be a great way to converse with a fellow farmer about how to solve a problem on the farm. If you have not tried social media such as Twitter, I recommend the Nike approach, “Just do it”.
Farming remains challenging even as prices increase. But these new tools could make operating easier and more interesting.
An earlier version of this blog was published in Ontario Farmer
About the author
Barry Potter works for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs as an Agriculture Advisor. He is based out of New Liskeard, Ontario, and covers northern Ontario, assisting farmers with adapting new technologies.
He and his wife, Liz Potter also operate Golden Meadow Farms, a beef and crop farm near Earlton, Ontario. They market beef breeding stock across North America. Their crops are used by companies like Quaker and ADM to produce human food such as cereal and margarine.
About the series
Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.
Established in 1988, the Local Economic Development program is the only master’s program in Canada devoted solely to local economic development. It offers a balance between theory and practice by combining coursework, a major research paper, an internship, and weekly seminars featuring guest speakers. Students are prepared for careers in local, community, or regional economic development.
The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.