Modern Mining

Hemmed in by low commodity prices, ever-increasing labour costs and safety concerns, South Africa’s mining companies are probably more receptive now to the benefits of mechanisation than they’ve ever been. This is the view of Niel McCoy, Key Account Manager, Business Development, at Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology, who says that Sandvik has a range of new technologies, some of which he describes as ‘disruptive’, designed to make mining operations faster, ‘smarter’ and more profitable.

Sandvik MN220Sandvik's MN220 reef miner can cut to a height of 1,10m and a width of 4,33m.

One of the technologies that McCoy is referring to is a Rapid Mine Development System (RMDS), which is currently being trialled at a mine in Austria. “This is an exciting development which is very likely to be deployed at a South African mine early in 2018,” says McCoy. “Essentially, it’s a continuous mining system for hard rock, which simultaneously cuts, loads, meshes and bolts and therefore could deliver face advances well ahead of those achievable using traditional drill-and-blast techniques.”

McCoy also points to Sandvik’s MN220 reef miner as another potential game changer. “This is an ultra low profile rock cutting mining machine,” he says. “It’s specifically designed for mining narrow reefs in hard, abrasive rock and is fully remote controlled for safer operation. It combines some of the best features of Sandvik’s road headers and tunnel boring machines and uses the ‘undercutting’ principle which allows for very efficient energy utilisation.”

The MN220 has a length of 9,80 m, a height of 1,10 m and a width of 2,72 m and has a total installed power of 350 kW. It can cut to a height of 1,10 m and a width of 4,33 m and allows for simultaneous cutting and roof bolting.

The prototype of the MN220 was developed some years back and was trialled at two South African platinum mines. The MN220 builds on this earlier experience and has been developed by Sandvik in collaboration with one of the largest platinum producers. “We’re now moving into the production testing phase,” says McCoy.

According to McCoy, the drive towards increased mechanisation of cutting operations is proceeding hand in hand with developments in automation (or autonomous operation, as it is sometimes referred to). “Automated trucking loops, for example, have proven themselves over a number of years and we also have 14 sites globally where Sandvik LHDs are operated remotely,” he notes.

Sandvik’s primary offering when it comes to the automation of LHDs is its AutoMine® loading solution which is a fully scalable fleet automation system that increases the safety and profitability of underground mining operations. Typical applications where automation is being used range from stoping to sub-level and massive-block caving applications.

Probably the biggest single application of Sandvik’s automated loading technology is at Northparkes, a copper/gold mine in Australia which claims to be the most automated underground mine in the world. Northparkes runs a fleet of AutoMine®-controlled Sandvik LHDs and in 2015 reached 100 per cent automation in its E48 block cave mine, an achievement hailed by the mine as a world first.

One of the latest mines to adopt Sandvik’s automated loading technology – and the first underground mine in the United States to do so – is Hecla’s Greens Creek silver mine in Alaska, which has the system installed in two areas where bulk longhole mining methods are used. The mine reports that – among other benefits – it has been able to increase mucking time by operating its loaders between shifts when personnel cannot be underground due to blasting activities.

The latest addition to the Auto­Mine™ portfolio is AutoMine™ Tele-Remote for underground loaders, which provides functionality for smart tele-operation and monitoring of a single loader from the safety of a remote location. It is easy to set up, operate and maintain without a need for advanced technical skills. Designed specifically for quick production area deployment, AutoMine™ Tele-Remote is particularly suitable for continuously changing mining environments, such as applications with small stopes or mine development.

Another important point that McCoy mentions is that Sandvik is delivering the tools – packaged as Sandvik OptiMine® – to enable mine managers to have a real-time view of their underground mining operations. “OptiMine® is a suite of tracking, scheduling and production management tools designed for the control of both manual and automatic mining operations,” he explains. “It’s a modular system that allows various modules to be combined as needed to build up the required functionality. Put simply, it gives managers the ability to see exactly what is going on in their mines on a real time basis, to manage processes and operations and to measure progress.”

The two latest modules in the OptiMine® offering are 3D Mine Visualiser and Drill Plan Visualiser. The 3D Mine Visualiser module generates a three-dimensional mine layout which significantly enhances comprehension of large mining environments and is a valuable tool in operations planning, analysing problematic areas and tracking mine development over time. For its part, Drill Plan Visualiser is an-easy-to-use visualisation tool for production and rock support drilling.

“Sandvik sees the opportunity to develop mechanised skills with our customers and other stakeholders as key to the success of this momentum in mechanisation,” says McCoy.

Commenting on the likely progress of mechanisation and automation in the Southern African context, McCoy says there are several opportunities inclusive of current operations, those being developed and future projects. “Many of the larger mining houses have publicly stated the need to mechanise and automate to the fullest extent possible,” McCoy adds. “It’s a long road we’ve been on to develop the appropriate machines and systems to facilitate mechanisation and automation of mining operations but much of the technology is now mature and it definitely represents the future of mining.”

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