Mining & Automation

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Mining & Automation

OVERVIEW

With the advent of innovation in technology and new safety measures in mining, there is increased rationale for integrating automation in mining. Not only does it result in higher productivity, it also provides increased safety in overall operations. “ Automated mining solutions includes driverless vehicles which provides safety in underground operations and sometimes far away locations and our solutions reduce OPEX which makes the mine more profitable” says Marcus de Paz Global Sales, Commercial and Business Development Manager at Bombardier Inc. In Canada, Bombardier operates in partnership with Nordic Minesteel Technologies (NMT), a Canadian company and Schalke (Schalker Eisenhütte Maschinenfabrik GmbH) which provides locomotives and Bombardier provides the train signalling solutions. Crownsmen Partners believes mining companies and associated authorities are already recognizing and preparing for a wave of automation in the mining industry across the world.

The Global Mining Standards and Guidelines Group (GMSG) is watching the rising adoption of automation and created an Autonomous Mining Working Group (AMWG) in 2016. The groups is primarily tasked to develop and publish a globally relevant Implementation of Autonomous Systems (IAS) Guidelines by September of 2018.

 

AUTONOMOUS MINING WORKING GROUP

Started in 2016, the AMWG had its kick off meeting in February in Perth, Australia. The kick off meeting was attended by OEMs like Caterpillar, Leibherr & Epiroc, regulators from Western Australia Department of Mines & Energy and mining companies like BHP, Rio Tinto, Roy Hill, Goldfields and CITIC Pacific. The working group established five key task groups which will help develop the IAS guidelines:

  1. Business case
  2. Change management and planning
  3. Safety and regulatory
  4. Design, architecture and data
  5. Human factors

The key stakeholders involved will bring together their expertise to contribute to the five key task groups. Their expertise will play an important role in establishing the IAS guidelines so that they are fair as well as non -disruptive to operations but most importantly, ensure safety. The IAS guidelines will focus on the following key areas:

  1. Functional capability
  2. Functional safety
  3. Change management
  4. Communication with the workforce and local community
  5. Interactions with regulators

“The implementation of autonomous machinery will fundamentally change mining and will have a profound impact on the industry as a whole,” says Dave Goddard, of the Global Mining Standards and Guidelines Group (GMSG), a facilitator of global mining collaboration on common industry issues in a discussion with Canadian Institute of Mining Metallurgy and Petroleum (CIM). “Although there are a lot of mining companies currently taking a ‘wait and see’ approach to autonomous operations, the reality is that automation will be hugely disruptive in mining and will come whether they want it or not. And it’s more likely to come in a sooner and shorter time horizon than anyone is expecting.”

 

AUTONOMOUS MINING – DYNAMICS

 

Industrial giants like Rio Tinto, Suncor Energy etc. are continuously increasing automation in their operations so machinery and equipment manufacturers like Caterpillar are developing new technologies. Additionally, regulators like GMSG are developing guidelines to ensure that new technologies meet with standards and are safe to operate so all stakeholders are coming together to address the need for automation in mining.

Based on the technologies currently being used, automation in mining can be divided into two types:

  1. Fully Autonomous: These equipment/machines do not need a human to be present to start and stop operating. They can be remotely controlled without a worker being present on site. Technologies like truck spotting, load-positioning, remote -control dozing, GPS systems to locate holes for drilling etc. are some examples of fully autonomous technologies offered by Caterpillar.
  2. Semi Autonomous: These equipment/machines need some level of initial manual programming and they can continue autonomously from there. For example, Caterpillar has developed drills which have to be manually positioned at the start of a row of holes to be drilled. Once in position, the drill can be programmed to drill the entire row autonomously.

 

Benefits of Autonomous Mining

  1. Improve safety: Autonomous technologies eliminate the possibility of human error. Once programmed, they keep operating without deviating from the predetermined patch.
  2. Improve equipment availability: The time taken to perform the tasks can be accurately determined as the autonomous machines will not operate faster or slower than programmed. This optimizes time and makes equipment available for other work.
  3. Improve overall productivity: Safe operation and accurate time keeping leads to overall productivity improvement in the mine. “When we implemented our solution in Chile we increased capacity from 30,000 tons to more than 100,00 so not only we helped the mine be more profitable we also were able to make them haul more material than before” said de Paz.
  4. Solves labour issues for mine operators: One of the biggest challenges that mine operators face is sourcing skilled workforce. Using more autonomous machines reduces the reliance on human workforce.
  5. Reduces chances of injury:  By having less number of workers working in hazardous conditions, mine operators are able to reduce the chances of serious work related injuries.
  6. Working longer hours: Autonomous machines are able to work more hours and faster without fatigue and with no change in shifts, breaks or lunch.

 

Drawbacks of Autonomous Mining

  1. Increased costs: Maintenance and repair for highly sophisticated machines results in mine operators spending extra money.
  2. Possibility of substantial damage: In case of an accident (which is  expected to be rare) the damage could be substantial.
  3. Threat to employment: Probably one of the biggest opposing arguments for automation is the fact that it threatens to put a large number of people out of a job.  For ex: Suncor threatens up to 400 jobs by increasing its driverless truck fleet to about 150.
  4. Increased pressure on government: Automation is picking up pace and people are losing jobs. This put extra pressure on the government authorities to figure out ways of compensating for lost jobs and income.

 

OUTLOOK

The two biggest challenges that automation in mining faces are the high capital costs and integration. However, industry experts like de Paz feel that the industry is already moving towards integration by partnering with each other and bringing their respective expertise together. Bombardier itself is partnering with 2 different companies to leverage expertise and develop solutions which are catered for their customers’ specific needs. This will form the basis of success of automation in mining.

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