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  • A New Landscape for Mining Could 3D printing spell profound change for the mining supply chain?

  • 1Introduction

  • 2Now, nearly 600 years after Gutenberg invented the printing press, the 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.

    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, not days. If the technology has even a fraction of the impact that experts predict, then it will revolutionize supply chainschanging 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 (notably spare parts required at high frequency), 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 paper explains the 3DP concept and its evolution followed by a discussion of the opportunity of 3DPas it advancesand practical considerations for mining companies and their supply chains.

    Before printing was discovered, a century was equal to a thousand years, Henry David Thoreau postulated.

  • 33DP offers a digital approach to manufacturing by building solid objects on a layer-by-layer basis from a digital model.

    3DP 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, some of them are:

    Stereolithography apparatus (SLA) Uses the process of concentrating 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 modeling (FDM) Extrudes powder that hardens when leaving the extrusion nozzle to form layers.1

    Selective laser sintering (SLS) Uses a laser to melt small particle powders that solidify to form a particular layer, working similarly as SLA but applying powdered material instead of liquid photopolymer.

    3DP defined

    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, as shown in Figure 1. 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 fiber, 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. An impressive example is the production of high-precision, safety hoop and air intake systems in titanium alloy materials for the Formula One racing industry, further increasing confidence in the performance of the materials produced by 3D technology.2 Industry leaders predict in the future it will even be possible to print multiple materials simultaneously making composites of materials possible.

    Figure 1. The 3DP process occurs through an additive, layer-by-layer approachSource: Accenture

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  • 43DP has advanced steadily as a technology since it emerged in the 1980s with the continuous progression of 3D printers for industrial and, more recently, for domestic use. With the commercialization of the 3D printers the price tag has gone down from the six-figure range to a few thousand dollars today, as shown in Figure 2.

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    Figure 3. Industries being served by additive manufacturing and 3D printing Source: Wohlers Report 2012

    The core application and impact of 3DP started within industrial product development where rapid prototyping and design visualization have enabled faster and more cost-effective 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, cutting cost and lead times within the product development space.

    3DP has since evolved into greater use 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 and consumer goods industries. (See Figure 3.)

    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. IT research and advisory company Gartner suggests that 3DP is currently at the peak of inflated expectation, anticipating 3DP to be fully adopted and productive within the next five to 10 years.3

    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.

    Figure 2. Indicative evolution of three-dimensional printer price Source: Accenture analysis

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  • 53DP to support mining in space

    Newly formed 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.

    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.4

  • 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.

    First, and most important, product safety and quality features 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 of production at mine site, including equipment, labor and raw materials, must be lower than for shipped goods.

    As with all evolving technologies, there are practical difficulties, also. While a good proportion of items used in mining are relatively simple and generic, many still are 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. Furthermore, many spares required for key pieces of mining equipment are proprietary to and supplied by original equipment manufacturers (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

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