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Digging involves removing material from the map and turning it into its component materials. Digging speed is determined by the Duplicants Digging attribute, and how hard the object is (sand is very soft with a hardness of 10, whereas abyssalite nearly impenetrable with a hardness of 200). Digging out blocks creates vacuum. Materials fall on the ground, which creates negative decor.
Any excavated material will lose 50% of its mass. This loss can be prevented by melting and re-freezing the material but takes more work.