3D printing: reshaping the mining landscape

Rachael Bartels asks if 3D printing could spell profound change for the mining supply chain?
3D printing: reshaping the mining landscape 3D printing: reshaping the mining landscape 3D printing: reshaping the mining landscape 3D printing: reshaping the mining landscape 3D printing: reshaping the mining landscape

A 3-D printed model of Barrick Gold's Turquoise Ridge mine in Nevada, US. Photo Barrick Gold Corp

Rachael Bartels

3-D printing (3DP) is the process of making physical objects from a digital model using a printer. Although still in the developmental stages, the technology has advanced swiftly since its introduction in the 1980s, and is already presenting opportunities in new areas, such as in the custom manufacture of prosthetics, dental products and other medical devices or high strength lightweight precision automotive and aerospace parts that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.

Over the next decade, technology observers predict that the pace of change will intensify and more and more applications will be found as sophistication increases and the cost of equipment falls, following the now well-established curve for technology products.

3DP has the potential to revolutionise consumer and industrial markets, increasing the opportunity to tailor products to individual needs in hours, not days. If the technology has even a fraction of the impact that experts predict, then it will revolutionise supply chains—changing the point of manufacture, shrinking transport costs and introducing potentially limitless product variants.

For mining companies, often operating in the most remote and hostile environments and requiring a broad array of inputs, most notably spare parts at high frequency, 3DP provides an opportunity to streamline and optimise in-bound supply chains. But there are many practical challenges.

How far has the 3DP technology advanced and are the ubiquitous predictions ever likely to be fulfilled in such a complex, challenging and safety-critical environment?

How does 3DP work?

3DP offers a digital approach to manufacturing by building solid objects on a layer-by-layer basis from a digital model. It is sometimes referred to as additive manufacturing, rapid prototyping or rapid manufacturing.

The approach is very different from traditional manufacturing methods that typically involve subtracting material and performing multi-step processing. In contrast, 3DP products are produced through an additive process involving the successive layering of material into its final structure.

At present, there are several 3D printing technologies including:

  • Stereolithography apparatus (SLA) – Concentrates a beam of ultraviolet light focused onto the surface of a vat filled with liquid photocurable photopolymer, hardening the material layer by layer;
  • Fused deposition modelling (FDM) – Extrudes powder that hardens when leaving the extrusion nozzle to form layers; and
  • Selective laser sintering (SLS) – Uses a laser to melt small particle powders that solidify to form a particular layer, working similarly to SLA but applying powdered material instead of liquid photopolymer.

The technologies are different in terms of material and process, but the principle is the same in that the 3D printers build solid objects on a layer-by-layer basis.

The most mature methods print hardened plastics, but even metals and ceramics are relatively developed. A vast array of other new materials is being explored for 3DP use, including carbon fibre, wood, foodstuffs and bio materials.

3DP can produce anything from tiny accessories, clothing and design items, plastic handles and car dashboards to custom artificial tooth implants and fully functioning parts with moving components.

3-D printing multiple materials simultaneously is already a reality, albeit in its early days, but composite materials across plastics and metals are possible.  Furthermore, researchers at a prominent US university have recently used ink-jet techniques to print a hydraulically powered robot using both liquid and solid materials simultaneously. 

The evolution of 3DP

3DP has advanced steadily as a technology since it emerged in the 1980s with the continuous progression of 3-D printers for industrial and, more recently, for domestic use. With the commercialisation of the 3-D printer, the price tag has fallen from the six-figure range to under a thousand dollars.

The core application and impact of 3DP started within industrial product development, where rapid prototyping and design visualisation have enabled faster solutions, which are well suited to low-volume production. The automotive and aerospace industries have therefore been early adopters, where the driving force is rapid prototyping, as well as cutting costs and lead times within the product development space.

Additionally, where cost is not an issue, 3DP can produce lighter weight or stronger materials that are ideal for the aerospace industry.  This may even move over time into other areas, where 3DP parts are superior, as in the case of one metals manufacturer who has tested building lightweight fuselage components for airplane manufacturers.

3DP has since evolved, and is used more widely in the manufacturing domain with the benefits of reduced wastage, minimal setup times and tooling. Today, the largest application for 3DP-produced parts is within the automotive, aerospace and consumer goods industries.   
The process can enable printing obsolete spare parts where the volume does not warrant a production line.  

With the recent evolution of 3DP and the emergence of printers that can print new and even multiple materials at once, producing more advanced and complex objects of increasingly higher resolution and larger scale, it is likely other industries will gradually adopt the new technology.

There will be technical limitations as to how advanced products and parts could be produced or even if they would be economically viable. Emerging applications such as biotechnology (e.g. teeth, bone, organ implants, etc.), however, are offering highly advanced tailored health care solutions and are already gaining steady attention, suggesting that the 3DP applicability is advancing swiftly. Should 3DP technology succeed in this regard, the impact will be significant across many industries, including mining.

In fact, recent media coverage suggests that the mining industry is taking 3DP to the next level, by exploring the use of 3-D printers to enable deep-space asteroid mining; one space technology company announced plans several years ago to launch a fleet of space-based mining exploration vehicles leveraging 3DP technology. Prospecting trips began in 2015, launching spacecraft to search rocks that can be harvested for precious metals such as platinum and other resources.

The company will rely on a patent-pending 3DP technology to help manufacture metal parts in space from pure asteroid that can then be used in the manufacturing of space habitats, platforms and satellites.

3DP at the coal face

While the hype is exciting and the impact on other industries has been significant, the characteristics of a mining operation mean that there are a number of barriers that 3DP must overcome in order to make a meaningful impact.

First, and most importantly, product safety and quality must be proven. Second, suppliers, both international and local, must buy in and have both the capability and desire to enable production in situ. Third, the economic case must be robust: the cost or speed of production at mine sites must be lower, including equipment, labour and raw materials, or the speed must be higher than for shipped goods.

As with all evolving technologies, there are also practical difficulties. While a good proportion of items used in mining are relatively simple and generic, many are still precision engineered in order to be able to withstand significant loads and challenging environments. Although production of items made of multiple materials, or composites, has become technically feasible, 3DP remains relatively unproven for precision-engineered parts. Moreover, metals or multi-material printing is currently not at production speed.

Furthermore, many spares required for key pieces of mining equipment are proprietary to and supplied by OEMs and, as in many sectors, there are likely to be concerns in ceding control of final production to customers, with potential implications for equipment warranty. At the same time, the cost of such parts is significant and dependency on the OEMs can become high.

There are practical application limits within mining given the complex range and varying nature of inputs required. The illustrative analysis outlined in the graph below estimates the proportion of spend with third parties, for which 3DP could apply today. As the diagram shows, the overall proportion is relatively low at five to ten percent of spend. This low proportion is due to the fact that major expenditure is normally on material inputs (e.g. structural steel, concrete, process chemicals, etc.), equipment (trucks, conveyors, etc.), a variety of services (from shaft sinking to contract mining) and transport. The type of mine (underground or open pit) and type of alloy or output are also likely to impact the level of applicability, as they demand different processes and equipment. 

However, it is important to recognise that the analysis tells only a partial story. First, it provides no visibility of potential usage by third-party contractors, who often undertake a significant proportion of work using their own equipment. It is difficult to estimate this accurately in practice.
Second, it focuses on whole life cost, including capital projects to establish and expand operations, yet the impact may be most significant in ongoing operations, due to the significant use of spare parts.

Therefore, if 3DP techniques could be used to produce equipment relating to 15-20% of an operation’s ongoing run costs, then its contribution could be significant.     

Nevertheless, if technology continues to gradually break down the barriers to implementation going forward, 3DP could provide some significant advantages in a mining environment. With high fixed production costs of both equipment and labour, any downtime is extremely costly, especially at points in the cycle where demand is high.

In many cases, downtime and production stops are related to equipment parts failure. This situation can mean that very high transport or part costs can be incurred in order to replace parts at short notice, or that operations hold excess inventory to guard against the potential for such a situation, or both. This significantly inflates working capital and operating costs.

The impact on mining

3DP has the potential to challenge the concept of economies of scale, and drive value in an era of scarcer resources, increased volatility and higher demand for flexibility and customisation.

So how would a mining operation look with an advanced 3DP capability?

There are a number of features of 3DP that are relevant to mining companies and their supply chain and operations:

  • On-demand and on-site;
  • Customisable and replicable;
  • Leaner and greener

These 3DP features could assist in reshaping mining supply chains and operations by significantly shrinking delivery lead times, removing excessive stock and complexity across the supply chain, impacting manufacturing, transportation, and service and location strategies. 

On-demand and on-site

A core feature of 3DP is that it requires no tooling and no minimum batch size for ordering or manufacturing. This feature enables the potential for true ‘on-demand’ supply chain management. The on-demand concept combined with the mobility of 3DP—making products wherever and whenever required—could effectively enable ‘insourcing’ manufacturing strategies for equipment and parts.

For a mine site, where downtime is costly, the impact of 3DP on spares and service parts logistics could revolutionise the concept of parts availability and stock-keeping within the supply chains. At present, redundancies are built into the supply chains, either by building physical stock on site or by having logistic networks in place to enable parts to be dispatched in a short time frame and at high cost to ensure machines are kept up and running.

With an advanced 3DP capability available on site, operations in remote locations would only need access to a digital service parts library for production of a required part when and where needed. With spare parts stored digitally, warehousing and inventory costs would be reduced and the lengthy and expensive process of transporting parts to remote sites could be eliminated. As a result, the high cost associated with delivering critical parts long distances could be reduced significantly.

New requirements to source and manage raw materials would emerge. Rather than sourcing finished goods, 3DP assumes availability of the required raw material. This material would typically be powders in bulk and thus more cost efficient to transport. Releasing cash tied up in finished goods inventory would also be significant, considering the value of raw materials versus that of complex finished goods.

The ability to produce on-demand and on-site would be particularly beneficial when setting up a new mine in a new location, where it is difficult to predict all of the restock points, if conditions are different from those usually seen with different spares requirements. This possibility is also a potentially advantageous one at times when observed climate changes and increased weather volatility impacting the supply chain. 3DP would make it easier to get the products on the ground should inclement conditions occur.

With the growing adoption of 3DP across industries, the supply chain strategies and inventory policies of mining companies would likely need to be refreshed, to optimise supply chain efficiency and operational effectiveness. As a result, stock-keeping could be further optimised across the supply chain, postponing the need for purchasing or producing the finished good to the point at which it is required.

Following the ‘asteroid mining’ approach, imagine the opportunities that would open up if traditional miners were able to become self-supplied, sourcing required raw material locally and producing required material on site.

Customisable and replicable

As the technology advances, we’re also closer to the moment where miners could not only customise specific components, but design their own mining equipment to be tailored to the particulars of the ore body/site that they are exploiting.

With supporting technology it becomes very easy to make a digital copy of an existing physical object and replicate the item where needed. This capability brings advantages when applied both as responsive repair and ongoing preventive maintenance, especially at remote operations with a multiple site setup. In particular, the service strategy of an operation would be impacted as it brings an opportunity to centralise certain services across units.

In the future, with evolved 3DP technology, when a particular faulty part is logged, a central service centre could locate a similar functioning part (either on site or elsewhere). Using a 3-D scanning device, it could create a digital replica of the part including the required raw material specification to the location for production on site.

The role of the service function would also change as the diagnostic and design capability could be further centralised to serve more sites, whereas the on-site service function would focus on identifying, reproducing and replacing parts.

3DP could enable a custom and yet flexible production setup, tailoring the entire portfolio of equipment that is made available to an operation site to support different mining conditions and the specific requirement. A mining site could have a limited set of physical products available on site, initially with the possibility to produce required components or tooling as required from an existing digital library or to design items to suit the actual conditions.   Mining has been on a bigger is better track as it comes to equipment, but with the increasing move to underground, 3DP could enable the move to small.

As 3DP technology develops, there could even be a point in time where printers are actually fixed to machinery on site and print ‘fixes’ directly onto components. With the increasing usage of predictive maintenance this capability would bring many new advantages. Not only would it provide a near-immediate custom part when required, but also the ability to extend product life spans by printing continuously onto base parts to counteract standard wear and tear.

Leaner and greener

3DP also enables a material- and energy-efficient approach throughout a product’s entire life cycle. New design possibilities that would be prohibitively more expensive or impossible to produce with traditional manufacturing setups could be more achievable through 3DP.

With 3DP, designs can be made lighter, smaller, and functionally more complex and efficient; advanced forms can be created even to the point of including moving parts. With the evolution of raw material available for 3DP, and the right design, it is likely products can be designed to last longer and operate with more energy- or fuel-efficiency, thus supporting a greener approach.

When it comes to the actual production stage, traditional manufacturing techniques typically involve subtracting excessive material from solid objects, which entails waste of raw materials and energy. 3DP could potentially optimise material and energy utilisation while only consuming the raw material required to build the final product. For example, if a 3kg metal part is made with 3DP, it requires only 3.5kg of input metals, whereas typically a 3kg part would require 15-30 times that amount of raw material, of which most is lost as waste. A mining business adopting 3DP—effectively insourcing manufacturing of certain product categories, equipment and parts—would indirectly support a more sustainable approach through this rebalanced supply chain.

As discussed previously, producing the right material where and when it is required presents opportunities to optimise stock levels and transportation and reduce the environmental impact.

Furthermore, as 3DP technology and materials develop, with products coming to the end of their working life span, faulty and used parts could be ‘regenerated’ if they can be decomposed and transformed back to the materials they were originally produced from.

This raw material could be used for the production of new parts, thus enabling a self-sustainable approach that would mean a further reduction in material utilisation and stock requirements.

The future

Mining companies face ongoing challenges to bring required supply to the market. 3DP holds the potential to address industry-specific challenges, especially as the technology evolves over the next few years.

There are many challenges still to overcome with 3DP to enable the potential benefits, including raw material development, speed of production, size of printing and sophistication of printed products required in mining. Yet, assuming the same pace of development and adoption, as seen over the past few years in the industry with technologies such as personal computers and the internet, 3DP is likely to advance quickly towards the production of ever more refined products at both a larger scale and from highly complex materials.

In the short term, when refreshing global operations and supply chain management strategies, mining companies should consider the opportunities and address associated challenges that 3DP, as a dynamic and disruptive technology, brings.

In the longer term, mining companies need to think about how 3DP could change the downstream customer landscape.  What happens when it intersects with digital and mass manufacturing.   How will that affect the industries the mining companies supply into – will mining companies need to sell direct to the 3DP cartridge manufacturers (or should they become cartridge manufacturers themselves?). 

The ecosystem of partner companies and customers will probably see a significant shift and the question of who controls the cartridge needs to be front of mind.  This is probably a long way away but for an industry that prides itself on making multi-decade investment decisions it is something that needs to be factored into scenario planning as well. 

Regardless of the maturity of 3DP, it is here to stay and is likely to change the way products are distributed and made available across the supply chain with some very interesting implications for us all. 

Rachael Bartels leads Accenture’s Chemicals and Natural Resources division. See www.accenture.com