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3D Printing and the Mining Industry – The Age of Innovation

A decline in productivity in the mining industry over the past decade means industry leaders have been forced to look into an overhaul of existing processes as traditional methods are found wanting in terms of efficiency and cost. Technology within the mining industry.
Technology within the mining industry.

Use of technology is one proposed solution, but it will be innovation that will make a marked difference in streamlining the mining industry. With 3D printing (3DP) at the forefront of tech development, it is somewhat unsurprising that proposed usages of 3DP seem set to revolutionise supply chain operations in the mining industry.

What is 3DP?

3DP is an additive process whereby layers of raw materials are successively laid down to create a tangible object from a digital model. A digital image is looked at as thousands of layers, which are then recreated by printers. In the last decade, 3DP has grown enormously and is now utilised in the medical, automotive, and aerospace industries to name a few. Rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing have won the minds of industry and, with numerous projected advantages, stand to change the face of production as we know it. If 3DP evolves as anticipated, its potential will be rather unrestricted in terms of materials used, scale, strength, and advancement of design.

Out with the old

As it stands, the mining industry is a sector plagued by the demands of high outputs and efficiency weighed against the high cost of downtime and the contingencies made for same. These contingencies include the high cost of material inputs, excess inventory and associated warehousing and storage costs on-site, or logistical costs of urgently transporting parts when operations have come to a standstill.

Mining operations rely heavily on original equipment manufacturers to produce precision-engineered parts. This, often at great cost. It is against this backdrop that industry leaders are tasked with finding solutions that will have the practical effect of reducing costs, optimising extraction of products, and eliminating unnecessary time barriers to the effective running of operations.

In with the new: how can 3DP make a difference?

As with all evolving technologies, 3DP will have to prove it can produce high quality and precision-manufactured items out of multiple materials in order to withstand the rigorous demands of the mining industry. This will also have to be done in situ in some remote and unforgiving environments if 3DP is to be chosen over traditional manufacturing – something technology observers believe to be attainable in the next five to ten years. However, proposed adaptations of 3DP in the mining industry claim to counteract the problems associated with traditional manufacturing methods.

“Mining operators should not put off experimenting with various applications of 3DP in their facilities. Developing knowledge and skills, and testing the impact these technologies can have on their current operational strategies, will certainly stand them in good stead in the future.” says David Bullock, MD of Rapid 3D, resellers of professional and industrial grade 3D printers and Rapid 3D Parts, a full service 3D printing bureau service.

Parts failures and maintenance

Where downtime is related to parts failures, 3DP offers a facility to produce parts on-site and on-demand, allowing for effective in-sourcing of parts as and when they are needed. With access to a digital spare parts library and the requisite printing technology, the remoteness of a site becomes inconsequential and the high cost and environmental impact of transportation and warehousing of inventory is drastically reduced. Furthermore, the raw materials used for 3DP are usually in powder form and are thus easier to transport and store. A self-sustaining picture emerges where the operation itself is responsible for identifying an equipment failure and printing the solution.

3DP also allows designs to be customised to suit the needs of a particular operation. This comes off the back of the ease with which 3DP can be used to replicate an item from a digital copy on-site to suit the operation’s unique requirements. Predictive maintenance has also been proposed whereby a printer could be attached to equipment to fix components, increasing the life span of that component and addressing wear and tear.

Sustainability

3DP addresses many questions of sustainability that have become so topical of late. Not only would transportation costs be reduced as alluded to above, but evolution of the technology could make the designs themselves, more energy and fuel efficient. Unlike traditional manufacturing where raw materials are subtracted resulting in waste, the process of additive manufacturing in itself sees reduced waste in terms of energy used for production and that of raw materials. It is also foreseen that used or faulty parts can be recycled allowing for the re-use of their raw materials further adding to the sustainability of 3DP.

Simplification across the supply chain

The proposals made in terms of 3DP will mean simultaneous changes to the supply chain operations of the mines using the technology. These changes to the point of manufacture, inventory, equipment, labour, transportation, and products stand to be significantly simplified, seeing a far more efficient use of financial and material resources in future. As the complexity of the existing supply chains gives way to true on-demand in-sourcing of parts, operations strategies and policies would need to be adapted in order to ensure effectiveness.

The way of the future

In the coming years, we are bound to see 3DP disseminated and normalised in our daily lives, but not before it radically redefines various stages of production and manufacturing. In the mining industry, where the focus is output and productivity, 3DP stands to hold the answer to driving efficiency and creating mining-specific solutions in a largely sustainable manner.

David Bullock, MD Rapid 3D JV (Pty) LTD.

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