3D Printing in the Garden

You might have noticed a few posts on the Shedlandia Instagram feed about 3D printer upgrades, and a few people have asked me why I have a 3D printer in the shed. While 3D printing isn’t the solution to every problem, it can make some jobs much easier. Basic plastic filament (think 3D ink) for the printer is cheap enough to experiment with, and there are more exotic filament choices available for special jobs. Wooden filament (which is 40% recycled wood), flexible rubber filament (for squashy toys and stretchy rubber clips), and even water soluble filaments are available to solve particular printing and casting needs. With the right knowledge, you can use a 3D printer to make a wide range of tools, consumables, and replacement parts for other equipment.

A few weeks ago, I used the 3D printer to make some wooden brackets. I wanted to make a sturdy frame to grow butternut squash and other heavy crops vertically. I had some round wood tree supports and some lengths of treated timber that were suitable for the job. I could have just nailed them together into a ramshackle frame, or taken the time to flatten one side of the round posts so that they fit together smoothly, but I decided to make a 3D printed washer that would help me clip the pieces together.

I used a filament that contains 40% wood, so the finished parts blend into the garden well. I’m sharing this example because it illustrates my feelings about 3D printers quite nicely. I could have used a drill, a router, a bandsaw, or many other methods to make a frame like this. 3D printing gave me a nice, easy route that didn’t take too much time, didn’t leave me with a mess to clean up, and didn’t make a noise. Once the printer was running, I could leave it to make the parts while I went away and did something else instead. Screwing the frame together took 5 minutes, and in this case, using the printer saved me a lot of time and effort.

I made some growing grids that fit inside plastic guttering, so that we can plant some micro-greens. In this case, it would have been quite difficult to manufacture grids with different hole sizes for different seeds. The idea behind using standard guttering is that it’s easy to add extra lengths very quickly. By using the 3D printer, I can make as many grids as I want, whenever I want, and it takes me a few seconds to set the printer running. This flexibility means that an extra length of growing space is available with just a quick trip to the DIY store. As a test, I made some smaller versions that fit inside IKEA mugs. We use these to grow small batches of micro-greens in the Shedlandia kitchen window.

Not every task is suited to 3D printing, and the video above illustrates this. I expended a lot of time, effort, filament, and metalwork to make a vastly over-engineered product that I didn’t use. In the end, I solved the problem in a much simpler way without using a 3D printer at all. 3D printing wasn’t a good choice for this project, but I designed a solution for the tool I was using and not the problem I was solving.

Hopefully, these examples show that 3D printing is a practical tool that can be used to solve any number of one-off or batch manufacturing problems. It’s not a replacement for a skilled manufacturer, and it’s not suitable for every job. It goes without saying that there will always be room for more conventional tools in the garage or workshop – but in Shedlandia there’s definitely a space for a 3D printer, too. When all is said and done, a 3D printer is a tool like any other – and it’s up to the owner to decide whether it’s the right tool for the job.

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