AGCOM made use of 3D printing in the development of a prototype mobile processing machine for hemp crops, with assistance from AMTIL’s Additive Manufacturing Hub.

The hemp industry is worth more than US$3bn globally, and is expected to grow significantly over the coming years. The cultivation of industrial hemp was only legalised in Australia in 2017, and as a result our development of locally produced hemp fibre, seed, and oil-based products for global markets lags the rest of the world. Currently, the major constraint to market development in the Australian hemp industry is the lack of hemp processing facilities.

AGCOM was established in 2006 as an agricultural business. Over the years, AGCOM has been involved in the engineering, design and development of machinery for the primary industry sector. Within the hemp industry, AMCO has accumulated a solid base of technical knowledge and expertise in processing equipment, built up over many years through collaboration with partners from Canada, America, and Australia.

This knowledge has now been transferred to an engineering design for the development of a prototype mobile hemp processing machine (decorticator). The decortication process efficiently separates the short, woody interior fibres from the soft, long outer fibres of the hemp plant, each of which are used in the manufacture of a diverse range of industrial and consumer products.

The challenge

The project involved the design and development of a mobile hemp decorticator for transportation to and on-farm use within cropping regions around south-eastern Australia. The equipment’s mobility will enable the stalks of freshly harvested hemp crops to be separated into their long and short fibres and processed on-farm. The final system will be mounted onto a specialised trailer which can be moved from paddock to paddock and site to site.

A key feature of this versatile system is its non-reliance on mains power, which will avoid the double handling of the crop and the costs of its cartage to a processing facility, which, depending on the location, could be several hundred kilometres away. As the decorticator is connected to its own power supply, harvested hemp stalks can be processed in paddocks on farms with no access to electricity. Bypassing the double handling and transport of unprocessed hemp stalks also means that the long and short fibres separated by decortication can be shipped directly to businesses for manufacture into end-user products across multiple industries, including motor vehicle fit-out and in building and construction.

Most decorticators currently available can only process hemp stalks that have been pre-softened by retting. This is a naturally occurring microbial process that facilitates the separation of the long and short fibres when the harvested material is left in the paddock to partially decompose for several weeks prior to decortication. Retting greatly increases the time lag between harvesting and decortication, decreasing the value of the final product.

The project has been divided into three stages due to its size: feasibility; engineering design; and manufacturing. It is now in the second and most critical phase of design, with the aim of achieving a fully manufacturable system that can be commercialised.

A major constraint that AGMCOM faced was ensuring the final product was manufactured cost-effectively and identifying any needed adjustments and alterations to the design before fabrication. The initial concept engineering design has been developed and requires final adjustments to achieve the project’s objectives. The objective is to optimise the design by identifying any adverse product processing issues that could hinder the achievement of a high-performance system. The final design goal is the development of a cost-efficient processing system capable of extracting and separating long and short fibres from hemp stalks ready for use in various industrial and domestic applications.

The decorticator will be mounted on a truck and trailer combination, in compliance with national road dimension standards, enabling its transportation predominantly around south-eastern Australia. It is therefore essential that during the design phase the decorticator is created in accordance with these standards, which is why the 3D modelling and printing is such an important element in this process.

The solution

The major obstacle AGCOM needed to solve was ensuring there was space to enable the mobile machinery to process the material adequately. By 3D printing scale models of all the components, it was possible to establish the critical components and assimilate them to the finished machine. Although computer design provides informed mechanical structures, with all components having been 3D printed, AGCOM could identify major problems that need to be solved to achieve an efficient machinery process.

There are many examples of this, where critical components could be evaluated and all the engineers participating in the project were able to assess the fine detail. A good example of this was in the development of the three-rotor hemp crushing processor.

How the Additive Manufacturing Hub helped

Additive manufacturing has enabled AGCOM to bring the project forward to the end of its second phase. It helped all participating parties to conceptualise the final result, improving efficiency, accuracy, and communication. It also meant that AGCOM did not need to go to foundries to begin the design/manufacturing process from the ground up – which would have been both very costly and time-consuming.

By instead using the 3D printed model as guidance, AGCOM was able to order the required components and parts to begin manufacturing:

  • To evaluate critical design flaws prior to manufacture.
  • To evaluate occupation health & safety (OHS) issues.
  • To evaluate construction component options.

It has been possible to use additive manufactured parts have been able to be used to test the manufacturing process for the machine. In addition additive manufacturing enabled AGCOM to assess the ease of assembling each of the components into the machine, and of removing spare parts that are subject to wear and tear. Many variations of component options have been tested through 3D printing, allowing for rapid conclusions to be drawn, thus speeding up the full machine designs

The outcome

Through the use of additive manufacturing, AGCOM has been able to construct intricate parts and test them for clearances. In addition, fixing components could be printed, allowing testing for easy access and safety along with durability from the likelihood of wear and tear.

The final result is a completed 3D printed scale model of the mobile decorticator and its components. The AGCOM team and all participating parties now have clarity and understanding as to how the entire concept will come together. The scale model enables the team to demonstrate the concept to potential purchasers and users of the machine.