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Mining and 3D Printing: A Vision of Remote Self-Sustainability

Posted by: Megan Cartwright

What is 3D Printing?

3D Printing (3DP). The use of a 3D Printer to create a 3D model from a digtally-programmed schematic.

With roots buried in the 1980s, 3D Printing has gained progressive traction in the last decade due to the reliable curve of technology becoming both more refined and more affordable. If you ever get bored of living in your house, a car-sized financial investment would provide you with the means to build a 3D concrete castle. There are stranger things to invest in, that's for sure.

Currently, 3D Printing has its revolutionary claws sunk deep in industries such as automotive, aerospace, food, electronics, dental, medical, and prosthetic. The immediate benefits are the cost effectiveness and the on-site and on-demand capabilities.

From my perspective as a Senior Consultant in the Mining Industry at WRS, I have been curious about the potential role of 3DP in mining for some time. NASA and DSI have been making a number of curious forward steps with the intention of being able to deploy 3D Printers on asteroids and even other planets in the not-so-far future. Why? Well, the more innovative and universal 3D Printing becomes in the grander scheme, the more useful it could be to simply print basic commodities on-site (the site potentially being Mars) rather than wait a rather long time for delivery. Even Express First Class from Earth to Mars is slow. Secondly, having a 3D printer attached to any high-tech space craft will enable astronauts and other scientists to requisition any necessary equipment or perform immediate repairs. Third, being able to create and repair tools and equipment that can mine metal, heavy hydrogen, and oxygen from asteroids, could lead to a new method of producing materials that can be used in the production of rocket fuel. 

This second point, it has become clear to me during my research, is something that could lead to numerous monumental positive impacts on the mining industry. 

Changing the shape of the landscape. 

During almost all stages of a mine's life cycle, 2D topographical maps will be used in meetings involving site managers, superintendents, supply chain managers, regulatory committees, internal management, investors, and all of the other on-site workforce for whom a geographical and topographical knowledge of the site is paramount. As has been the case since... forever, the maps have been 2D, with coloured indicators and a legend utilised to depict the contours of the landscape. While these maps are often thorough and have been the norm since time immemorial, non-technical staff, such as members of a committee or an investor are likely to be rendered disinterested in a meeting when faced with a huge sheet of paper with technical jargon scrawled here, there, and everywhere, and the various topographical indicators might be difficult to navigate without a solid map-reading skill. 

Well! Innovative companies such as MineBridge and Whiteclouds have been working in tandem to create 3D variants of these maps, and you guessed it, they do so in the final stage by using 3D Printing. Using technology that can generate survey data of a site, and capture aerial photography, software from companies such as MineBridge can then be sent over to Whiteclouds or Cypress 3D Printing, and they will transform a digital model into a tangible object (the materials will be discussed later). The models can illustrate everything from topological and geological data, block models, mine designs, tailings and storage designs, and onsite facilities. 

Now, imagine that you are presenting a literal lay of the land and the site, to investors, or a committee, or your workforce. A 3D model of the site, in this age of interactive products being in increasing demand, provides opportunities for important business decisions to be made through not just a visual medium, but now a very tactile one, too. In some of Cypress's models, they have created 3D models with pieces that could be removed and attached at will. If the outer frame of the model has glass windows, then there exists the option for the model to have an "underground", visible from a side angle, say, that will enable experts to give far more detailed analyses on the construction, production, closure, and rehabilitation of a mine site. 

Make it here, make it now. 

Anyone with knowledge of the mining industry will know that one of the biggest problems with mining is downtime. This downtime can be a product of inclement weather, which is of course very hard to combat; however, more commonly, faulty or simply broken hardware and equipment can lead to large blocks of time that the workforce can utilise effectively. If a key piece of equipment needed within the construction or production of a mine is rendered inoperable, it can often take weeks for a replacement. Reasons for this firstly include the re-ordering and manufacturing of a replacement component; this must then be followed by transportation and delivery of the product. If the mine is situated within a remote and tough-terrain region of Africa, then the mine's operations can be paused for mind-numbing periods of time. 

3D Printing offers the promise of solutions. Rather than the current reliance on original equipment being manufactured in a distant factory and waiting for its arrival, an on-site 3D Printer would enable a supply chain manager to produce on-site, on-demand components. Not only does this remove the cost and downtime of delivery, the manufacturing time and costs would be significantly reduced, too. Reason number one for this is that, often, a single broken or faulty component can lead to an entire new piece of equipment being re-ordered; a 3D Printer can be fitted with a digital library of all required designs.

Reason number two is that the materials used by 3D Printers are inexpensive: bulk powders, plastic filaments, and resins. These are far more cost-effective than complex metals and compounds. With these considerations seemingly going to be solved if (or perhaps when) 3DP is integrated across mines, the remoteness of the site will become inconsequential. Furthermore, supply chain managers and other material staff will be able to reshape their budgets by reducing the inventory of spare parts kept in warehouses in the event of breakdowns or faults, given that on-demand and on-site means that a component need not be produced by a 3D Printer until required, knowing that transportation is not a problem. 

David Bullock, MD of Rapid 3D, recently commented that "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."

A key challenge that 3D Printing has been battling throughout its forty-or-so year short life is the need to produce parts - for anything, not just mining equipment - that are precision-engineered. 3DP must prove that it can undertake high quality production, using multiple materials, in potentially unforgiving environments. 

Gentle caveats.

A further comment from David Bullock

"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." 

If contemporary technology can obviate the potential challenges in the near future, 3D Printing might well provide significant advantages for mining environments.

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