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Could 3D printing spell profound change for the mining supply chain?​

Read Accenture’s report on the potential impact of 3D printing on mining and practical considerations for mining companies and their supply chains.

Overview

For mining companies, often operating in the most remote and hostile environments and requiring a broad array of inputs, three dimensional printing (3DP) provides an opportunity to streamline and optimize 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?

This article explains the 3DP concept and its evolution, followed by a discussion of the opportunity of 3DP—as it advances—and practical considerations for mining companies and their supply chains.

 

Download PDFRead the report [PDF, 672 KB]

Background

Nearly 600 years after Gutenberg invented the printing press, printing technology is fast approaching a point of evolution that could turn a century into hours with the latest developments in three-dimensional printing (3DP).

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 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.

Key FINDINGS

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 evolving into this capability, the impact will be significant across many industries, including mining.

In fact, recent press suggests that in particular the mining industry is literally taking 3DP to the next level by looking to use 3D printers to enable deep-space asteroid mining.

While the hype is exciting and the impact in 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:

  1. First, and most important, product safety and quality features must be proven.

  2. Second, suppliers, both international and local, must buy in and have both the capability and desire to enable production in situ.

  3. Third, the economic case must be robust: the cost of production at mine site, including equipment, labor and raw materials, must be lower than for shipped goods.

Recommendations

Nevertheless, if technology continues to eat away at the barriers in a not-too-distant future, 3DP could provide some significant advantages in a mining environment. With high, fixed production costs of both equipment and labor 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, significantly inflating working capital and operating costs.