Manufacturers’ Monthly finds out how Markforged 3D printers are improving business operations at Queensland-based mill relining technologies manufacturer Russell Mineral Equipment.
Russell Mineral Equipment (RME) was founded in 1985 by Dr John Russell, a mechanical engineer who had led maintenance at the Mount Isa Mines copper concentrator.
Relining mills for crushing ore was a difficult, slow, labour-intensive and dangerous job, which put up to 10 workers in a confined space.
Since its beginning, RME has pioneered reliner machines and associated equipment, which has made liner changes easier, safely moving plates up to 7,250 kilograms in weight, saving time and money.
The company leads this niche globally, and its machines are in use at the world’s biggest grinding mills. It exports about 80 per cent of what it makes, has won many awards, and entered in the Australian Export Awards Hall of Fame in 2009.
RME is headquartered at Toowoomba, about 90 minutes’ drive west from Brisbane, where around 330 of the company’s global workforce of 450 are employed. International customers are serviced through subsidiaries in Chile, the United States and South Africa.
RME has contributed innovations to its industry including through feed chute technologies, liner lifting tools, and Thunderbolt Recoilless Hammers, which remove mill plating.
Around 90 of RME 330 staff at Toowoomba are in technical roles, and the company is an enthusiastic adopter of technology to maintain an edge.
RME’s group manager – research and development, David Brander, says the company had dabbled in 3D printing for a while.
Their desktop units were mainly for prototyping, with the company hesitant to print any end use parts. Anything that required more precision or a better finish was outsourced to a local bureau.
“It sort of interrupts that process, and your iteration might only take a couple of hours and then you’ve got to wait another two days,” he explains.
The quality of what was possible in-house – and the workflow disruptions from using a third party – led Brander’s team to examine upgrades. It eventually invested in a Markforged X7 machine in May, 2020, impressed by the possibility of printing parts with superior properties to those machined out of aluminum.
RME uses its X7 regularly to create production prototypes, rather than functional prototypes. Onyx filament on its own is used in maybe 80 per cent of all jobs, with about 15 per cent using continuous carbon fiber when a boost in strength is necessary, estimates Brander. The remaining 5 per cent use glass continuous fiber.
The dimensional accuracy and material quality are big improvements on what they were used to.
“The materials get more expensive than consumer level plastic, but the cost of the material is outweighed by the saving of engineering time and labor,” he says.
Besides prototyping, there is a wide array of end-use parts produced.
One application is custom guides for the fibre optic cables used in RME’s seven- and eight-axis robotic reliners.
“It allows us to actually print an adaptor or a bracket or a holder or a path which would be impractical to machine from either solid plastic or from aluminium or from some other materials, and we can print it within a matter of hours,” says Brander.
Printed mounts for cameras and radio controllers find their way onto the company’s machines.
One client wanted custom RFID tags for users to tap on or off on their machines. To get them cast would mean a week for toolmaking, a week for the first production trial, followed by fine-tuning.
“This is a good, standard vanilla 3D printing application, nothing groundbreaking, just a perfect example where we have a customer and we can respond very quickly,” says Brander.
RME is approaching its fourth decade. It is eager to continue its supply of innovations to the mining industry, and equally eager to adopt whatever technologies will enable this.
When it comes to 3D printing, it is very closely watching metal-based technologies and opportunities these might unlock.
Brander says right now the company is looking at getting more value out of AM through applications like custom tooling for its workshop.
Then there are new ways to keep old customers with old machines happier.
“Obviously we have a large part of our business which supports and services equipment, which has been in the field and in the field for more than 20 years for some of these parts,” he adds.
RME operates at low volumes, with around one reliner produced every fortnight. They are on track to deliver their 500th in November 2021.
Their machines are also famously reliable, with the second and third oldest are still in service after more than two decades.
A lot of work for the company involves support and servicing, and it is not always easy to locate casts for parts that are maybe a decade or two old.
“Sometimes it’s easier that we simply either pull up an existing design or we redesign for 3D printing a component to supply to that customer,” says Brander.