In these days of digitalization and automation, understanding R&D for mining equipment manufacturers can be an elusive endeavour. Senior lecturers Paseka Leeuw and Erhan Uludag of Wits School of Mining Engineering in Johannesburg, South Africa, share their thoughts with Solid Ground on what is driving R&D for mining OEMs in today’s modern mining landscape.
In your experience, what is the biggest driver of development? PL: A combination of safety improvement and the need to contain or reduce costs in the face of declining mining grades. The combination of these two factors ensures long-term sustainability of mining operations. EU: Visionary people and champions in the companies are the biggest drivers of development. There have always been technical challenges in the mining industry. People make it work or fail.
What drives R&D for mining OEMs currently? PL: In South Africa, particularly in the narrow reef mining sector, the focus is on mechanization. This sector is characterized by challenging mining conditions encountered daily by miners largely because of unfavourable geological and geotechnical conditions as well as increasing heat loads associated with increasing mining depths. In other sectors of mining, the focus should be on autonomous technology beyond hauling into a more complex part of the loop, namely loading. This is applicable to both underground and surface mining.
How much of the work in r&d is driven by client demand? EU: Challenging conditions present themselves in mining environments where the client operates, so a manufacturer’s focus is always on such conditions. Products should be able to work in these conditions, be safe and benefit the mining operation financially.
Client demand is the main driver, although sometimes clients might not be able to see how to solve their problem, and then equipment manufacturers might take the initiative to propose and develop solutions in collaboration with the client. Obviously there are many challenges and limitations on information gathering and exchange.
PL: For technology to be fully accepted in mining, it must be client driven. Very often off-the-shelf technologies in mining do not work because each mine has its own set of unique challenges. Technology developed by suppliers should be such that it can be adapted easily by mines according to their own circumstances.
What will be the most important areas of R&D in the future?
PL: I think real-time digital mining will be very important in the future, and universities must produce champions to steer this area of research. In the era of information technology and social media, young people tend to loathe physical and sweaty careers, and if mining is to attract appropriate talent, it should embrace digital mining. To the extent that digital mining improves the quality of decisions made daily, accidents and fatalities can be avoided, mines’ profitability can be improved, and better utilization of capital assets can be achieved.
EU: In South Africa we have deep and difficult-to-mine deposits of gold and platinum. Conventional mining methods are not viable because of extreme environmental and geotechnical conditions, which require remote mining methods. As I have been an advocate of keyhole surgery kinds of remote operations since 1999, I see that as an important field of development. Robotics or autonomous vehicles are also being developed in other industries, and there are well-established applications in the manufacturing industry. So technology transfer is also an important task for the mining industry in general.