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3D printing for the mining industry

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The mining boom may has slowed in recent times, and mining companies all over Australia are looking for ways to reduce costs and improve efficiency.

One such tool that has already helped so many other industries in this country is also ideally suited to the mining industry.

That tool is 3D Printing.

However the mining industry in this country is yet to embrace the benefits of 3D printing.

Most people think 3D printing and thoughts turn to the home hobby printerthat is getting so much attention these days. Looking at most media reports, you would be forgiven for thinking 3D printers produce roughly built trinkets the size of a coffee cup.

But what about hi-end professional, accurate, commercial 3D Production systems.

Yes, that’s right, 3D “Production” systems.

Systems capable of building parts up to 900x600x900high.

You choose the material you wish to build your parts, from a range of traditional thermoplastics including ABS, Polycarbonate, PC-ABS blends, and ultra-high performance Ultem and PPSF. Some of these 3D printedmaterials withstand temperatures of 160 to 180 DegC.

With the mining boom slowing, now is the perfect opportunity to learn how 3D printing can help reduce overall business costs while improving product quality.

The business costs 3D printing can reduce are wide and varied.

Low volume production parts, reduced cost of tooling, R&D development, reduced time to market, product development time and cost, producing scale models of mines or plants, marketing and sales models and the list goes on.    

Traditional manufacturing and or prototyping can be a slow and costly option compared with the speed and low cost manufacturing of 3D printed parts.

"We commonly see cost savings of 50-80% compared with traditional manufacturing and prototyping methods. Time savings can be even greater for parts or tools such as jigs and fixtures that are 3D printed," stated the managing director of Objective3D, a supplier of Stratasys 3D
Printers, the largest 3D printing brand in the world, 

He went on to address one of the major concerns for miners using 3D parts, saying “don’t think that just because the parts and tools are plastic that they won’t perform.

"Stratasys Production systems use the same thermoplastic materials that are traditionally used in the injection moulding process, so you
can be sure our 3D printed parts will produce tough, durable and functional parts.”

In a recent trial a Polycarbonate 3D printed tool was printed on a Fortus 400 3D production system.

The metal blank is hydro formed over the Ultem 3D printed plastic tool at a pressure of 10000 PSI.

While a site would not be able to get 100 000 parts off the tool, for low volume production runs such as would be the case for mining, 3D printing offers many compelling advantages.

During the trial the "tool was printed on the morning the CAD design was finished with the first part off the tool later that day. Compare this with traditional tooling where the cad data is sent to a toolmaker who CNC machines the tool and returns it a few weeks later," Objective's MD said.

When taking the trial into account the time and cost saving is dramatic and immediate: five days turnaround for CNC machined tools reduced to a single day for the 3D printed tool. 

On top of this is the cost difference - $1500 to manufacture the steel tool vs $450 to 3D print it.

3D printed tools can also be used to get production parts under way while the hi-volume steel production tool is still being manufactured, thereby drastically reducing your time to market.

These benefits combine to produce an extremely strong argument for investing in your own on site system. It's a simple case of doing the math and counting the savings.

"There are numerous mining (and related) companies in Australia that have embraced 3D printing in recent times, but I believe there are huge advantages that are going unrecognised today.

"Australia has the opportunity to take advantage of this situation as global industry leaders and benefit from the cutting edge technology and benefits 3D printing can bring to mining companies here.

“Whether you are at the mine site or developing related products for the industry itself, there are fantastic benefits and savings utilising 3D printing technology.”

Other industries that have already embraced 3D printing include automotive, defence, aerospace, education, consumer products, animation and entertainment, consumer electronics, architecture and dental.

There are many applications for 3D printing in the mining industry today, such as building scale models of mines to physically view progress of tunnels,mine sites and plants in preparation for full construction of plant and the prototyping of mining equipment

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