There are very few industries in which three-dimensional printing won’t impact the way we do business. Already, it is affecting the way we produce goods – everything from clothing, shoes and toys, to medicine, vehicles, buildings and even weapons.

Mineral exploration and mining is no exception. 3D printing has the potential to make our industry more productive, through the use of custom-built tools and equipment, and more sustainable, with onsite printers reducing the need for air and ground transport of parts and materials.

3D printers build objects layer by layer, in a process known as additive manufacturing. Rather than chipping away at a block of material until you are left with the desired shape, 3D printers create custom objects from scratch, following a specific set of instructions.

Digital design files for 3D printing can be created or downloaded from the Internet to produce almost anything. A range of materials are used, from layers of powdered metal, plastic resin, paper and ceramics, to organic materials like food or human cells.

3D printing can be used to rapidly produce prototypes and custom objects. It also eliminates the need for inventory, storage and shipping.

For example, if a drill rig breaks down in a remote location or deep in an underground mine, it takes time to find and transport the appropriate replacement part. Productivity grinds to a halt, and parts need to be driven or flown in to fix the equipment. But with a 3D printer on board, engineers are able to download or even design a replacement part and print it on the spot, vastly reducing downtime as well as the environmental footprint of manufacturing and transporting the replacement part.

3D printing isn’t limited to terrestrial applications, either. In 2014, the first 3D object was printed on the International Space Station, and companies are already using 3D printing in the construction of prospecting spacecraft for asteroid mining, as we search for resources beyond Earth.

Once researchers develop printers and materials strong enough to produce heavy equipment, the range of potential applications for the mineral exploration and mining industry will be unlimited.