Three-dimensional 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 the potential to revolutionize consumer and industrial markets, increasing the opportunity to tailor products to individual needs at leads times measured in hours. If the technology has even a fraction of the impact that experts predict, it will revolutionize supply chains—changing the point of manufacture, shrinking transport costs and introducing potentially limitless product variants.
These changes will impact businesses all along the supply and manufacturing chains requiring a major rethink in strategies and operations. For mining companies, often operating in the most remote and hostile of environments, the potential impact of 3D printing to their supply chain is vast in both the short and long term. What if we could imagine the future opportunities of an advanced 3DP technology for the mining business?
The Mine of the Future
Let us take you on a journey to the mine of the future. The year is 2030: rare-earth prices are pushing sky-high limits. As a kilo of neodymium trades alongside gold on the London metals exchange, the world’s newest and most remote mine grinds into production. Welcome to the Chelyuskin rare-earth metals mine, deep within the Arctic Circle in Siberia, Russia. The nearest large settlement is over 500 km away, with freezing temperatures being the norm for 10 months of the year, it has often been known to dip as low as -50c.
Despite its situation, the mine has been set up from exploration to production in timelines never seen before thanks to 3D printing. In developing the mine, one of the first “infrastructure pods” deployed on site was the mine’s 3D printing center. Through this facility, the mine’s operators have been able to print machinery equipment and parts from a digital library to support infrastructure and machinery arriving on site. Besides the improved setup time, 3DP has also offered the infrastructure team the opportunity to better tailor equipment need to the site as the conditions are continuously being explored.
Only days since extraction began, the mine’s crew of engineers have hit a problem: the separator on the site’s main processing unit has sheared. Soon extraction stops with lost revenue mounting by several thousand dollars an hour. With the Siberian weather closing in fast, the broken part is rushed to the site’s 3D printing facility and scanned using a 3D scanner. As the scan finishes, the results are being analyzed in real time by the plant’s response team on the other side of the world.
After identifying the broken part, the response team submits production instructions for the 3D printer on site to print the required part. The material required to produce the part has already been sourced locally and is stored efficiently in bulk form on site. In little over an hour, the part has been digitally redesigned and regenerated, and is ready to be taken back to the plant. As the engineer fits the regenerated part, she reminisces of days gone by when an expensive air drop of spares or a vast inventory were needed.
Soon the mine enters full-scale production and the mine’s team deploys robotic excavators. Guided by on-board telemetry and positioning systems, the autonomous plant is able to extract ore in all-weather conditions, 24/7. As weeks go by, the cutting heads on the excavators begin to wear and the excavator detects the loss in ore generated. In seconds, the robotic excavator automatically tasks the 3D printer on board to print replacement blades directly onto the worn base of the excavator’s cutting tool. With this unique feature, the excavator is improving productivity, maximizing extracted ore and dramatically extending its life span. Additionally, wear and machine performance are recorded constantly and relayed back to the plant’s operations team to drive predictive maintenance and further product development.
Furthermore, as the demand for rare earth metals increases exponentially mid-project, the management team decides to increase the site’s capacity. The plant’s operators task the 3D print facility to effectively replicate itself, and is soon up running, printing further required machinery equipment. As one of the engineers rushes to install the new kit in the drilling rig, a hammer accidently hits his mouth and a front tooth breaks. He knows that the chance of air evac is extremely limited by weather, so he runs in despair to the on-site medical team to see what they can do. After full examination and consultation with a dentist thousands of miles away, the on-site medial team—to his surprise—prints out the missing piece of tooth from the newly installed, on-site 3DP medical printer and fits it the same day. As he leaves the medical room he smiles to himself thinking that even living standards and safety have been improved by the on-site 3D printing capabilities.
Giving Space to 3DP
There are nearly 9,000 documented, near-earth asteroids, and probably thousands more within striking distance from earth, which contain a wealth of mineral riches, including platinum, gold and rare-earth minerals. What if 3DP technology could facilitate exploration and extraction of these resources?
Deep Space Industries (DSI) announced plans in January 2013 to launch a fleet of space-based mining exploration leveraging 3DP technology. Prospecting trips will begin in 2015, launching spacecraft to search for space rocks that can be harvested for precious metals such as platinum and other resources. DSI will rely on patent-pending 3DP technology to help manufacture metal parts in space from excavation of asteroids. This extracted material can then be used in the manufacturing of space habitats, platforms and satellites. The machines will even be able to reuse their own parts to manufacture new, required objects.1
Back to Earth …
These future scenarios may seem far–fetched, but as with most breakthrough technology, if you can imagine it—even on the brink of possibility—it could become a reality in the not-too-distant future. The Star Trek replicators may be some way off, but the 3DP developments we see today are already very rapid and revolutionary.
Mining companies face ongoing challenges including addressing environmental concerns, rising input and capital costs, costly disruptions to production, and having to set up and run differentiated exploration and extraction operations in remote locations with unique conditions to bring required supply to the market. The benefits of on-site, on-demand and custom production capability are a game changer.
Many barriers are yet to be overcome before our Siberian mine and asteroid exploration become reality, but as it looks, 3DP is here to stay and it may change the way products are distributed and made available across the supply chain.
The future is closer than you think.