A lot has happened in the two years since The Intelligent Miner first covered 3D printing in the mining industry.
3D printing is a form of additive manufacturing (GE has a great explanation of the definitions here) with wide applications across industries such as healthcare, automotive, aerospace, manufacturing and robotics – and, of course, mining.
As well as improvements to the process itself, there have been some breakthroughs in the materials used.
Just last month, Rio Tinto said scientists at its Critical Minerals and Technology Centre in Sorel-Tracy, Quebec, Canada, have developed a new kind of steel powder for 3D printing that is being tested by pump and valve manufacturer KSB. And, in February, Australian Strategic Materials (ASM) revealed that titanium produced at its pilot plant in South Korea has been approved for 3D printing.
Below are five examples of how 3D printing can or could be used in the mining industry. Comment below if you know any other applications that we have missed!
1. Stock management for spare parts
The most obvious use for 3D printing in mining is to print prototypes and equipment parts. OEMs such as FLSmidth, Caterpillar, Epiroc and Sandvik have invested in 3D printing for parts manufacture. Some mining companies, such as Fortescue Metals Group and Nornickel, have also investigated 3D printing spare parts themselves on site.
2. Building supply chain resilience
Related to the above point, 3D printing is especially useful where mining operations are located far from traditional supply chains.
In May 2021, Anglo American announced it had partnered with the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and US-based technology company, Ivaldi Group, to boost supply chain efficiencies.
They plan to do this by exploring opportunities to digitally distribute spare parts for mining and processing equipment to be manufactured locally using 3D printing.
3. Driving down the cost of drones
While drones aren’t unique to the mining industry – they are used in other industries like construction, agriculture and photography – they have many uses in mining like tailings dam management, stockpile management, safety monitoring, surveying and mapping.
This feature in 3D Printing Media Network outlines how mass production of drones is now possible with 3D printing, and at least one of the companies mentioned in the articles works in the mining industry.
4. Industrial-grade diamonds for cutting & drilling
In 2019, Sandvik manufactured a 3D printed diamond composite using an additive manufacturing process called stereolithography.
The diamonds are for industrial uses (rather than for jewellery) and can be used in a range of wear resistant tools for cutting, drilling, grinding and polishing. Sandvik said that outside the mining industry, they could also be used in machining and medical implants.
5. Print your own PPE
Of course, one of the most visible applications for 3D printing in 2020 was the mass production of personal protective equipment (PPE); indeed, the Covid-19 pandemic may have sped up its adoption.
Various companies working in the mining industry used their 3D printing knowhow to manufacture PPE for frontline workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, including Hard-Line, Jacobs, ArcelorMittal, SEW Eurodrive, Sandvik, Volvo, Rajant, Suncor Energy, GE Power and Eaton.
While this is not specifically a mining application, mine workers must wear PPE such as hard hats, protective eyewear, hearing protection and respirator masks while on site. I would not be surprised if 3D printing begins to be used to produce PPE for the mining industry in the near future.