Organic Farming | 2015 | Volume 1 | Issue 1 | Pages 19–35
DOI: 10.12924/of2015.01010019
Research Article
Applications of Open Source 3-D Printing on Small Farms
Joshua M. Pearce*
Department of Materials Science & Engineering, Michigan Technological University, MI, USA;
E-Mail:; Tel.: +1 9064871466
Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, Michigan Technological University, MI, USA
Submitted: 6 January 2015 | In revised form: 27 February 2015 | Accepted: 11 March 2015 |
Published: 16 April 2015
Abstract: 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. The rate of 3-D printable designs under open licenses is growing exponentially and there are
already hundreds of designs applicable to small-scale organic farming. It has also been hypothesized that
this technology could assist sustainable development in rural communities that rely on small-scale organic
agriculture. To gauge the present utility of open-source 3-D printers in this organic farm context both in
the developed and developing world, this paper reviews the current open-source designs available and
evaluates the ability of low-cost 3-D printers to be effective at reducing the economic costs of farming.
This study limits the evaluation of open-source 3-D printers to only the most-developed fused filament fab-
rication of the bioplastic polylactic acid (PLA). PLA is a strong biodegradable and recyclable thermoplastic
appropriate for a range of representative products, which are grouped into five categories of prints: hand
tools, food processing, animal management, water management and hydroponics. The advantages and
shortcomings of applying 3-D printing to each technology are evaluated. The results show a generalizable
technical viability and economic benefit to adopting open-source 3-D printing for any of the technologies,
although the individual economic impact is highly dependent on needs and frequency of use on a specific
farm. Capital costs of a 3-D printer may be saved from on-farm printing of a single advanced analytical
instrument in a day or replacing hundreds of inexpensive products over a year. In order for the full potential
of open-source 3-D printing to be realized to assist organic farm economic resiliency and self-sufficiency,
future work is outlined in five core areas: designs of 3-D printable objects, 3-D printing materials, 3-D
printers, software and 3-D printable repositories.
Keywords: 3-D printing; agricultural tools; distributed manufacturing; farm equipment; intensive agricul-
ture; small farms
1. Introduction
World wide, the area of organic farmland continues to
increase significantly [1,2]. Approximately a third of the
world’s organically managed land (i.e. 11 million hectares)
is located in developing countries and nearly half of the
world’s organic producers are in Africa [2]. In the devel-
oping world in particular, these farms are owned by rel-
atively resource-poor landholders. However, such small
farms may contribute significantly to agricultural produc-
2015 by the authors; licensee Librello, Switzerland. This open access article was published
under a Creative Commons Attribution License (
tion, food security, rural poverty reduction and biodiversity
conservation, despite the historic challenges small farm-
ers face in terms of access to both productive resources
and markets [3]. In addition, small farms in the developing
world must overcome new challenges including adapting
to climate change, market volatility and risks and vulnera-
bilities associated with integration into high-value chains
[3–5]. There is some disagreement in the literature as
to whether investments in infrastructure and technical effi-
ciency alone are sufficient to address the negative impacts
of climate change for developing-world farmers [6,7]. Al-
though, it is clear that these challenges can at least in part
be overcome by increasing the profit of organic farming
in the developing world, which in turn is influenced by in-
creasing revenue (e.g. by increasing yields, selling in more
lucrative markets, etc.) or by reducing costs. Many or-
ganic farmers in both the developed and developing world
save money and produce high-quality crops with few or no
off-farm inputs, but most producers rely on at least some
purchased inputs [8]. In addition, those farmers above
the level of poverty subsistence also purchase their own
equipment. As one of the costly inputs for organic agricul-
ture is tools and equipment, this study investigates reduc-
ing farm-related tool costs for organic farms using open-
source 3-D printing. In this way, distributed on-site man-
ufacturing of tools and equipment can aid in organic farm
There is a growing body of evidence that low-cost open-
source 3-D printers [9,10] can reduce costs not only for
high-end products like scientific equipment [11,12], but
also for conventional mass-manufactured consumer goods
[13–16]. There has been an explosion of open-source sci-
entific equipment [12,17–22] and the number of free con-
sumer designs has been rising exponentially [14]. There is
also a body of work proposing that 3-D printers would also
be useful for sustainable development [23–25]. 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 im-
proving the efficiency of agriculture in the developing world
[25]. At the same time it appears likely that the cost-saving
nature of distributed manufacturing of 3-D printing could
also benefit developed-world small-scale organic farms.
To gauge the current viability of the utility of open-
source 3-D printers for organic farms both in the developed
and developing world, this paper reviews the current open-
source designs available and evaluates the ability of a low-
cost 3-D printer capable only of fused filament fabrication
(FFF) plastic manufacturing to reduce the cost of small-
scale farming. A range of representative products are
grouped into five categories of prints for review: 1) hand
tools, 2) food processing, 3) animal management, 4) wa-
ter management and 5) hydroponics. The advantages and
shortcomings of each technology are evaluated. Conclu-
sions are drawn on the economic potential of open-source
3-D printing in the organic farming context and future work
is outlined to reach this potential.
2. Methods
2.1. Equipment—MOST Delta RepRap
Following lessons developed in free and open source soft-
ware [26–30], the RepRap project has undergone a rapid
technical evolution and offers the lowest cost 3-D printing
equipment, which is also capable of printing its own re-
placement parts [9,10,14,31,32]. The early RepRaps used
a Cartesian design, however, several RepRap 3-D printers
now use delta robot designs similar to those used for pick
and place in the electronics industry [33]. Delta RepRap
3-D printers have a stationary print bed and an extruder
that moves in all 3 axes. The 3-D printer works by taking
plastic filament into the extruder, melting it and depositing
a 2-D pattern on the substrate. The extruder is then moved
up a fraction of a mm (normally 0.1–0.35 mm) and the next
layer of the 3-D printed object is deposited. The process
repeats until the entire object has been fabricated in solid
plastic. Delta RepRap 3-D printers use standard AC elec-
tricity to run and while printing consume <50 W. In order
to operate effectively this power should not be interrupted,
the results of which will be discussed below.
Although delta 3-D printers are operationally less intu-
itive, they require less time and are easier to assemble, re-
quire fewer parts and have lower capital costs. The MOST
(Michigan Tech Open Sustainability Lab) Delta RepRap
has three linear actuators arranged vertically around a cir-
cle 1. The MOST Delta RepRap costs under $450 in parts
and can be built in approximately eight hours once the bill
of materials (BOM) has been collected by inexperienced
first-time 3-D printers [34,35] (the ability of new users to
build working machines has been demonstrated over 100
times in a number of contexts from college classes to sem-
inars and hack-a-thons). This type of 3-D printer was cho-
sen for this study because of the value—it has low capi-
tal costs for the quality of the prints and the build volume
(250 mm in radius and 270 mm high) provided. In addi-
tion, farmers, who are generally handy at fixing equipment,
would best be served by a 3-D printer they could maintain
themselves. Having access to a machine that they can
take apart, fix, upgrade and try their own modifications on
provides far more value at a significantly lower cost than
a conventional tooling arrangement with warranties that
simply may not be available in all parts of the world. In
addition, such RepRap technology can contribute to farm
self-sufficiency. All of the MOST Delta RepRap design
files, schematics, build instructions and bill of materials are
available on Appropedia for free [34]. The results of this
study are not limited to this particular RepRap, however,
all examples can be printed with it—and most other (full
size) RepRap variants.
Figure 1. The MOST Delta RepRap 3-D printer. The yel-
low and black polymer components of the 3-D printer have
been printed on the same type of 3-D printer. The glass
hexagon at the base is print substrate.
2.2. Free and Open-Source Software Tool Chain
All of the software necessary to design and operate the
3-D printer is free and open source software that can be
used for free (at no cost). For farmers wishing to minimize
computing costs as well, older low-cost or ’junked’ com-
puters can be recycled into useful machines by installing a
GNU/Linux [36] based operating system, such as Debian
[37]. In addition, open-source computers such as the $35
Raspberry Pi [38] can be attached to recycled peripherals
to operate the 3-D printer.
3-D digital designs can be created by farmers them-
selves or customized from existing designs using Open-
SCAD [39], which is a free and open-source script-based
solid modeling program. OpenSCAD using parametric
variables that automatically manipulate the entire part to
enable simple modifications without the need for a deep
knowledge in 3-D modeling. Farmers that are comfortable
with basic geometry can create complex designs by manip-
ulating primitive shapes (e.g. spheres, cubes, cylinders) in
OpenSCAD, which then generates STL (STereoLithogra-
phy) files of the finished parts, which are in turn sliced with
the open-source Cura [40] before being printed (slicing is
the software process of dividing a 3-D model into print-
able 2-D layers and it plots the toolpaths to fill them in).
Parts that need structural strength are printed solid with
100% infill, while non-critical components can be printed
with lower infill percentages, saving time, energy and plas-
tic costs. Conventional RepRap firmware [41] or the new
open-source Franklin printer firmware [42] was used on
the printer itself and controlled with Printrun (open-source
printer controller) [43].
2.3. Materials—PLA
RepRaps typically print in polylactic acid (PLA) or acryloni-
trile butadiene styrene (ABS) for a wide range of colors. In
this study, PLA will be evaluated as it is a stronger plastic
than ABS; RepRap printed parts have an average tensile
strength of 28.5 MPa for ABS and 56.6 MPa for PLA [44].
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 mat-
ter [45]. When composted, the moisture and heat in the
compost pile break the PLA polymer chains apart, creating
smaller polymer fragments, and finally, lactic acid. How-
ever, abiotic hydrolysis has been shown to be a rate limiting
step in the biodegradation process of PLA and organisms
were not able to accelerate depolymerization significantly
by the action of their enzymes [46]. Both the smaller poly-
mer fragments and lactic acid act as nutrients for microor-
ganisms in the compost. As lactic acid is widely found in
nature, a large number of organisms metabolize it into car-
bon dioxide, water and humus, an important component of
soil fertility [47–50].
2.4. Categorization of Printable Objects
Utilizing the Appropedia wiki (—is the
largest collaborative site for solutions in sustainability, ap-
propriate technology and poverty reduction—that curates
many 3-D printing designs and Yeggi—a printable 3-D
model search engine for tens of thousands of designs
[51]—a range of 3-D printable objects that may be useful
for organic farmers was identified and reviewed. For eval-
uation in this study, four products or product components
were chosen in each of five categories: 1) hand tools, 2)
food processing, 3) animal management, 4) water man-
agement and 5) hydroponics. The selected prints are sum-
marized with their sources in Table 1. These twenty objects
were chosen based upon i) having free and open source
designs already available, ii) the ability to be printed on a
low-cost MOST Delta RepRap using PLA while preserving
their functionality, iii) having been previously demonstrated
to be useful in farming and gardening (e.g. not models
or toys) and iv) representing a variety of different types of
functions for demonstration purposes. As such this is not a
complete review of every 3-D printable object that may be
useful for organic farmers, nor every object organic farm-
ers may find value in printing, as there are literally thou-
sands of these and the number of free designs is growing
exponentially [14]. Rather, this study provides a survey of
3-D printing applications that represent classes of objects
already designed and a realistic approach of how small-
scale farmers could use available 3-D printers today. Thus,
the objects included in Table 1 may also be useful to the
broader general agriculture community as well.