John Deere 3D-Prints Production Fuel Valves for Tractors

HP’s binder jetting technology and GKN’s manufacturing expertise helped Deere realize its first 3D-printed metal part for mass production.

John Deere’s small and midsize tractors, including the new 6R series, feature 3D-printed metal fuel valves. (John Deere)

HP launched its new commercial Metal Jet S100 Solution in September 2022 and two months later showcased the 3D printer for the first time publicly at the Formnext exhibition in Frankfurt, Germany, along with a new John Deere production application. Together with GKN Sinter Metals, John Deere is using the Metal Jet technology to produce thermal diverter valves in the fuel system for its small and midsize tractors assembled in Mannheim, Germany.

John Deere’s metal 3D-printed fuel valve for tractors reportedly is the first technical application to be mass-produced using the HP Metal Jet process. (John Deere)

“Our focus on innovation and sustainability is at the core of everything we do for our customers,” said Dr. Jochen Mueller, manager global digital engineering at John Deere. “We are proud to be among the first in the agricultural industry to leverage the benefits of 3D printing for both prototyping and final-parts production. Leveraging industrial 3D-printing platforms for polymers and metals, we are discovering opportunities to deliver more efficient, reliable and sustainable equipment.”

John Deere also is leveraging HP’s Multi Jet Fusion technology to optimize its production process, using 3D-printed prototypes to test and fine-tune components such as windshield holders. The result is a reduction in pre-assembly from 30 to 10 days, in delivery times by up to 10 weeks, and overall production costs by 20 to 25%.

Binder jetting makes 3D metal printing scalable for industrial series production, says HP, which launched its Metal Jet S100 in September 2022. (HP)

HP says its thermal inkjet printheads significantly improve printing speed, part quality and repeatability – making mass-produced 3D metal parts a viable option for commercial manufacturing. The advanced latex chemistries developed by HP benefit the binder itself, the company claims, enabling stronger “green parts,” eliminating the need for de-binding and yielding industrial production-grade quality.

The process, called binder jetting, can boost productivity tenfold, while the use of metal powders is more cost-effective than laser-based 3D-printing powder, according to Ramon Pastor, global head and general manager of 3D metals at HP Inc. “Since announcing the breakthrough Metal Jet technology in 2018, we have been working to develop the industry’s most advanced commercial solution for 3D metals mass production,” Pastor said. “3D-printed metal parts are a key driving force behind digital transformation [in manufacturing].”

From prototypes to production parts

John Deere uses computer models to create complex parts layer-by-layer without the use of production tools. (John Deere)

John Deere factories have employed additive manufacturing (AM) for more than two decades, 3D-printing thousands of tools, jigs and fixtures each year to improve its processes and increase ergonomics. AM also is an essential part of product development at the manufacturer’s design center for small and midsize tractors in Mannheim, Germany, Mueller said.

“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,” Mueller said, citing a reduction in design and test iterations as a benefit. “Additionally, more agility is unlocked along the product lifecycle from development to manufacturing, and finally, service-parts supply.” The company envisions a “digital warehouse” where spare parts can be 3D-printed on demand, reducing the need for physical warehousing space.

The new thermal diverter valve for tractors – the company’s first 3D-printed metal part to go into production models – takes the process one step further. HP’s Metal Jet was a key enabler, Mueller said. “Due to this innovative process, the costs per part were reduced and the performance increased,” he said.

More than 4,000 valves have been shipped from GKN to the John Deere tractor factory in Mannheim, Germany, for final assembly. (John Deere)

The part is smaller and uses less material than a conventionally manufactured valve and reportedly is up to 50% less expensive. Product engineers at John Deere worked with manufacturing experts at GKN to improve the design of the fuel valve for 3D printing. For example, internal channels are rounder and smoother to improve fuel flow.

With Metal Jet, the metal powder is “glued together” with the liquid binding agent, layer upon layer, until a green part is created. The still-fragile part then is sintered in industrial-grade ovens common with conventional powder metallurgy to become a high-quality, durable metallic component. As a sinter-based process, the finished parts have characteristics suitable for real-world applications, GKN says.

“Industrial companies in all sectors can benefit from the advantages of additive manufacturing techniques with metal binder jetting,” said Roland Pahl, VP commercial Europe at GKN Additive. “Especially if they are under high pressure to innovate and have reached their limits with conventional technologies such as metal investment casting.”

Product engineers at John Deere worked with manufacturing experts at GKN to improve the design of the fuel valve for 3D printing. (John Deere)

John Deere’s thermal diverter valve underwent rigorous testing to ensure the required part quality, Mueller said, noting the valve is functional – i.e., maintains fuel temperatures without affecting engine performance – even in extreme weather conditions. More than 4,000 valves have been shipped from GKN to the John Deere tractor factory for final assembly.

“The thermal diverting valve is a result of a targeted John Deere strategy and just one of the many innovative 3D printing solutions to come in the future,” he said.