Modern Mining: Featured News

There is a growing move towards the automation of underground mining operations. This is the view of Simon Andrews, who is Vice President – Sales of Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology Southern Africa and also MD of the Sandvik South African Group of Companies. He says the mining industry is ever more receptive to the concept of automation and believes that a ‘tipping point’ in market acceptance is probably fast approaching.

With autonomous operation, operators can control machines from comfortable control rooms located on surface.

Automation is part of a broader trend towards the ‘digitalisation’ of mining. “Within Sandvik, we see digitalisation as a means of leveraging digital technologies to drive efficiency and profitability,” says Andrews. “Most of our machines are now equipped to generate streams of data in real time which can then be analysed to detect trends, improve performance and enhance maintenance. But digitalisation also encompasses the full or partial automation of mining operations, also known as autonomous or semi-autonomous mining, and this is ultimately where the biggest gains are likely to be made.

“We’ve noticed an incredible interest in our digitalisation and, in particular, our automation technologies over the past year,” Andrews continues. “Increasingly, customers are seeing automation as being business critical. With deeper mines, narrower deposits and generally more difficult mining conditions, costs are steadily going up. The only way that much of the mining industry is going to survive is by increasing its efficiency through automation and other technologies.”

Andrews attributes the change in attitude in part to the emergence of a new generation of mining engineers and managers, who have been brought up with smart phones and the Internet and who are entirely comfortable with new technology.

Full-blown autonomous mining installations around the world are still relatively rare but they do exist and have generally proved successful. An example in South Africa is the Finsch diamond mine in the Northern Cape, where a fully automated trucking loop has been operating for well over 10 years. Sandvik was the supplier of the technology, which included a fleet of six ‘driverless’ trucks.

“One of the reasons there has not been a bigger uptake of automated mining technology thus far in Africa – and indeed worldwide – is that there has been a dearth of new mining projects over the past several years,” says Andrews. “The technology is best applied in greenfield projects. The good news is that we have a number of large new underground mines on the way across the African continent which will all use bulk mechanised mining methods and which will all probably be automated to a lesser or greater degree.”

Projects in South Africa that Modern Mining has covered in recent months and which lend themselves to mechanised – and potentially autonomous – mining methods are the Venetia Underground Project of De Beers in northern Limpopo Province, the Platreef project of Ivanhoe near Mokopane and the Waterberg project of Platinum Group Metals, north of Mokopane.

Further north in Africa, Ivanhoe is developing its Kamoa/Kakula copper project in the DRC which will see highly mechanised underground mines being established, while Resolute Mining is on record as saying that its new Syama underground gold mine in Mali – which it describes as a ‘mine of the future’ – will feature a high degree of mechanisation and that it is, moreover, amenable to automation.

In Ghana, AngloGold Ashanti is planning the redevelopment, at a projected cost of US$450 to US$500 million, of its Obuasi mine. In a recent announcement on the proposed redevelopment, it said the project “envisages a smaller but skilled workforce that can operate in a mechanised/automated operation with a strong sense of accountability.”

Apart from increased productivity, a key benefit of automation is safety. “Obviously, automation takes operators out of the underground work space and puts them in air-conditioned control rooms on surface. With fewer people needed underground, the potential for accidents to occur is substantially reduced. In addition, the lapses in judgement which can come from operators sitting in the cabs of machines and becoming fatigued are all but eliminated,” says Andrews.

He adds that automation also presents the opportunity for mines to employ a more diverse work force. “Traditionally, miners who work underground have had to be physically strong. Automation removes this requirement and could result in more women, for example, being attracted to careers in mining,” he notes. “It also opens the way for older people, who find an underground environment too demanding, to be employed.”

Better asset utilisation is another benefit as machines are able to work over longer hours with less of the wear and tear associated with manual operation. “Typically, one needs fewer machines to do the same amount of work and those machines will generally have longer life­spans,” Andrews observes.

Andrews acknowledges that automation is often associated with job losses. “We think this fear is unfounded. One can even look upon automation as a form of job creation as it allows mining to go into areas that were previously regarded as unsafe and/or uneconomic. Nevertheless, it’s absolutely imperative to address these very genuine concerns and engage with employees and the unions when planning the introduction of automation.”

Sandvik’s key offerings when it comes to the ‘digitalisation’ of mining are its OptiMine® and AutoMine™ systems. OptiMine® is a modular information management solution that offers a real-time view of underground mining operations while AutoMine™ is a product family that covers all aspects of automation from tele-remote or autonomous operation of single pieces of equipment through to the autonomous operation of entire fleets of trucks and loaders underground or drill rigs on surface.

OptiMine® modules include 3D Mine Visualizer, which can provide a three-dimensional model of an entire mine; Drill Plan Visualizer, an easy-to-use tool for the visualisation of longhole drilling and rock support; Scheduler, an efficient graphical scheduling and resource allocation tool; Location Tracking, which provides accurate real-time location data for machines and equipment; and Monitoring, which updates equipment information automatically in real time.

The AutoMine™ modules range from the entry-level Tele-Remote package through to Fleet, which is a highly advanced automation system for a fleet of underground loaders and trucks sharing the same automated production area.

While Andrews is enthusiastic about Sandvik’s digitalisation offerings, he emphasises that the group recognises that not all customers want or need the technology. “Interestingly, we recently launched our LH115L 5-tonne, low-profile loader, which we’re manufacturing here in South Africa in a new manufacturing facility. This is an ‘analog-type’ LHD which meets a clear market demand for simple, straightforward machines without too many ‘bells and whistles’. We understand that there are two markets to address and we have the machines and systems for both,” he concludes.

Report by Arthur Tassell, photos courtesy of Sandvik.

Contact Modern Mining

Title: Editor
Name: Arthur Tassell
Email: mining@crown.co.za
Phone: +27 11 622-4770
Fax: +27 11 615-6108

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Name: Bennie Venter
Email: benniev@crown.co.za
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