3-D printed ball. Image: Pixabay
Equipment Technology

The Intelligent guide to 4D printing in mining

What is 4-D printing, and how can it be used in the mining industry? Carly explains

Just when you thought you’d got your head around 3-D printing and its place within the mining industry, along comes the next wave of innovation.

Here’s what you need to know about 4-D printing.

What is 4-D printing?

If possible, 4-D printing actually holds greater potential for applications within the mining industry than 3-D. But, first things first, what is it?

Like 3-D printing, 4-D printing is a type of additive layered manufacturing. Technology bellwether, Gartner gave a good description in a recent blog post:

“Four-dimensional printing is a technique where the materials are encoded with a dynamic capability — either function, confirmation or properties — that can change via the application of chemicals, electronics, particulates, nanomaterials and advanced designs,” the company said.

In practice, this means that objects printed using ‘intelligent materials’ can change form or function after their creation in response to natural or man-made stimuli. For example, items could assemble themselves, pack down for travel, adapt to the conditions they’re operating in, or self-heal when damaged.

What is an intelligent material?

In a 2017 paper by Li et al., an intelligent material is described as one that responds to external stimuli due to certain intrinsic qualities. These can be exploited to create products, systems or structures that exhibit active or ‘intelligent’ behaviours such as self-sensing, self-healing, self-actuating or self-diagnostics.

Certain materials also demonstrate the ability to change or recover shapes. For example, in response to heating or cooling (thermo-responsive), light (photo-responsive) or chemicals (chemo-responsive) amongst other things, following deformation. These are known as shape memory materials.

Many of these already exist in the form of polymers, peptides and alloys which have found uses in biomedical applications, as well as aerospace and defence projects.

SAP’s Digitalist magazine ran an interesting article last year on uses for 4-D printing in manufacturing, and there were some interesting cases where the technology is already being deployed.

In 4-D printing, singular or multiple types of intelligent materials are layered and bonded to create an object that can change state throughout time.

How is this relevant for the mining industry?

It’s still early days for 4-D printing, and not just in the mining industry.

3-D printers are now widely available and are relatively cheap to purchase. However, it is the development and production of intelligent materials with specific properties that currently limits the use of 4-D printing.

Gartner included 4-D printing in the Innovation Trigger phase of its famed Hype Cycle for 2019, and the company estimates that by 2023, start-up companies working to commercialise 4-D printing will attract US$300 million in venture capital.

Not all players will be start-ups though.

Global equipment producers such as Caterpillar and Sandvik have already invested significant capital into establishing additive manufacturing divisions.

Sandvik produces metal powders for additive manufacturing and offers the development of custom materials based on the required raw material, particle size and morphology, so I’d be very surprised if the company isn’t already looking at applications for 4-D printed materials in its mining products.

The benefits of 4-D

Like other additive manufacturing methods, 4-D printing will help to reduce waste by using just the right amount of material to create items. It will also speed up product development and enable companies, including miners, to print the spares they need on-site and on-demand.

The added level of benefit comes from using responsive materials to manufacture items.

For example, it would be incredibly useful if machine hydraulic hoses could repair themselves as and when they start to develop cracks or holes. Large, awkwardly shaped machine parts that need to be transported underground via mine shafts could be compressed for travel then reshaped.

And if 3-D printers were created using 4-D materials then these could also be packed down small for travel to far flung locations or even, say, the Moon.

Earlier this year, Sandvik announced that it has developed a new diamond composite for 3-D printing which will no doubt prove very useful in drilling and hard-rock cutting. Imagine the possibilities if the cutting tools created could adapt to different ground conditions as and when they encountered them?

The possibilities are endless.

Do you know of any projects or companies in the mining space that are looking into 4-D printing? If so, please comment below. I’d love to hear about them  

3 comments on “The Intelligent guide to 4D printing in mining

  1. Keep in mind that Sandvyk’s 3D-printed “diamond” is a composite which merely includes diamond dust. The real proof is if it can stand up to the pressure of a drill head of some kind.

    • True. I should also add that I was speculating about uses for the diamond composite; I didn’t speak to anyone at Sandvik for this article

  2. As for mining-related new things, I’d suggest that automomously-driven vehicles are now within reach of the average coder/maker. One could send a robot now far into tiny areas to do remote research.

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