A brave new mining world

Mining is embarking on the same voyage of automation that the manufacturing industry has already made. Improved safety, productivity and energy efficiency are beckoning, but there is more to it than just technology.

“We will see a dramatic change in the industry in the next 20 years, particularly in new mining operations,” says Lawrence Lien, a specialist in management, financing and recruitment at mining operations.

“We won’t even recognize us,” Lien says, describing “factory mines” where the entire production is carried out with autonomous automated equipment and via remote control.

“The ambition will be to create a much more static mining environment that allows for repetition over longer periods, from six months to a couple of years, so that the movement of material can be automated as much as possible,” he says.

This means mining will go through the same process that has already transformed much of the manufacturing industry, facilitated by the rapid development in information technology. The result has been increased productivity and a better work environment for operators, combined with more efficient process control. These benefits are now also driving the development in mining.

Automatically safe and energy efficient

AutoMine is Sandvik Mining’s product family for mine automation. It offers increased safety and productivity with less environmental impact from energy use. AutoMine is a comprehensive system from Sandvik for mine automation. It starts at the drill bit and finishes where material leaves the last crusher or screen as it enters a processing plant. In between, large quantities of material are moved from production zone to crushers in an efficient manner.

This chain of operations includes a number of Sandvik’s automation solutions, such as computer-aided drilling with remote control, autonomous load-haul-dump fleets and automated crusher control. AutoMine can also be interfaced with production planning systems and equipment that is not included in Sandvik’s own portfolio, such as automated chargers.

“We are trying not just to automate certain parts of the work but to optimize the whole mining process,” says Taina Heimonen, marketing and sales manager, automation products at Sandvik Mining.

There are a number of benefits to reap from this approach. With the whole process under control it is possible to plan production and maintenance for maximum utilization of the machines involved. If condition monitoring is included in the package, the machines can be serviced in time before an unexpected breakdown occurs.

There will also be less maintenance overall, because AutoMine operates the equipment more smoothly than is possible in manual operation. All of this translates to increased productivity combined with higher energy efficiency, which will also reduce the mine’s environmental impact. But these are not the most important points, says Hei-monen:

“People’s safety was and is the key driver in the development of mine automation. The idea is to move them away from hazardous areas and avoid occupational injuries from repetitive work.”

Sandvik commissioned its first AutoMine System in 2004, at Codelco’s El Teniente Mine in Chile. This has been followed by installations in Canada, Finland and South Africa, and the results so far are encouraging.

“We have had cases where the hauled volume has doubled and the loaded volume has increased by more than 25 percent compared to manual operation,” says Heimonen.

Better productivity can help mining companies offset growing costs to reach the mineral, as mines are getting deeper and more remotely located. Automated machines can work long shifts with consistent performance in an unmanned process, controlled from safer or more urban locations.

Mine automation also allows an overall process control to optimize the product quality. With computer-aided drilling and accurate positioning it is possible to mine just what is necessary and avoid excess material that consumes resources without producing any income. The whole flow through the mine can be streamlined and the energy efficiency improved.

“I think you will see a reduction in the use of energy,” Lien says. “Mines are getting increasingly concerned about their carbon footprint, which also means there will be more electric-driven machines such as conveyors,
as well as trucks and shovels.”

A process control system in an automated mine can influence sustainability in more ways. Among other things it can keep an eye on factors that could affect the environment, such as groundwater levels and the status of settling basins.

Another part of an automation package is that one operator can monitor and control several machines, without any time or fuel spent on transportation back and forth to the production area. Fewer people in that area means less need for ventilation, a costly and energy-consuming part of any underground mining operation. Last but not least, there will be fewer people in hazardous areas.

Safety goes up dramatically when you work from a control room,” says Greg Baiden, a professor at Laurentian University’s School of Engineering in Canada, who specializes in robotics and automation. He is also chairman and chief technology officer of Penguin Automated Systems Inc. The company focuses on telecommunication solutions that control robots and other equipment in remote locations, from space to underground mines. Solid Ground reached him in Florida where he was testing a wireless underwater system based on light instead of radio waves, a principle he thinks will be useful in both surface and underground mines. As he sees it, continued development in mine automation doesn’t require any technological leaps.

“At this point I don’t really see any huge technical challenges,” Baiden says. “All that is needed is already there. There is some engineering work to do, but I can’t point to anything that we couldn’t achieve.”

He believes other parts related to mine automation may be trickier to develop, such as a culture of change.

“It can be a very difficult thing to handle, because people are often happy to do what they are already doing,” Baiden says.

Lawrence Lien shares the view that organization and culture around an automation project often hold the key to success.

“Oftentimes we’re concentrating on the hardware or the software, not on the organizational environment in which it is being utilized,” Lien says. “But you have to be aware that it isn’t just plug-and-play.”

As automation is introduced in an organization, particularly an existing one, it is crucial that the expectations in terms of new roles and results are well defined from the start, Lien says.

“You don’t have to be crazy about it, but you have to realize that the work is going to be different,” he says. “In many cases it is not at all about training the people – it has to do with how you’re managing the company.”