As reported in a recent article by Mining Weekly online – which quotes information technology consultancy and systems integration firm Wipro energy and natural resources director Louise Steenekamp – mining organizations are beginning to realize that industrial 3D printing of equipment used in mines could make operations more cost effective and reduce the frustrations of equipment downtime.
The current methods of producing tooling and components are often time-consuming, expensive, wasteful and rely too much on third-party equipment manufacturers. Steenekamp believes that 3D printing is at the nexus of information technology and operational technology and that, as these realms are moving closer to each other, interesting opportunities for miners will emerge.
“By 3D printing the spare parts and replaceable components that complex mine machinery requires, operators can gain greater control over the supply chain and ensure the smooth running of equipment.” Steenkamp said. “Mines have to bear the brunt of excess inventory, warehousing and storage costs, as well as the logistical costs of urgently transporting parts.”
The dynamics described in the article (which you can read in its entirety here) are very similar to those experience by the energy sector – especially oil and gas – where on-demand 3D printing of spare parts and tools can offer enormous advantages in terms of reducing costly downtime. However the investments made so far by the energy industry in industrialization of additive manufacturing for on-demand part and tool production have been very limited.
Like upstream energy industry operators, on drilling sea and land based platforms – miners worldwide must dig at greater depths to find seams of resources and, therefore, use mining equipment that needs to be monitored and maintained. Subsequently, by leveraging this sensory data, companies can start to predict when equipment may fail, need servicing or require new parts.
“By using robotics and other machines fitted with sensors, we can create a digital representation – such as a hologram or on-screen display – of the equipment to [monitor and] understand its performance, and interaction with the environment kilometres below the surface,” Steenkamp explained to Mining Weekly. “The data can be fed into the 3D printing systems to ensure that the required components are produced on the surface and sent down, ready for when they’re needed.”
Different mining environments require different approaches and tools, which subsequently makes the cost-effective production of unique and customised items, even in small quantities, the most significant advantage of 3D printing, compared with traditional mass-scale manufacturing. Steenekamp believes that managers gain “unprecedented vision into the future”, while also having the ability to build customized components before they are needed and dynamically adjusting operations. Further, additional operations, such as labour-shift scheduling and truck dispatch timetables, can be configured to best fit with the ebbs and flows of mine operations.