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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 Excavation 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.
Digging out granite and similar materials requires that the duplicant at least have the Hard Digging skill, while digging out abyssalite requires that the duplicant at least has the Superhard Digging skill. Diamond and Obsidian even require Superduperhard Digging.
Any excavated material will lose 50% of its mass. This loss can be prevented by melting and re-freezing the material, but it takes more work.
Duplicants can dig a rectangle 4 tiles up from the floor and 2 to the side. They can dig 3 tiles down.