February 2009

Doing more with less

Mining industry automation panel

By P. Diekmeyer

With human and financial capital in short supply these days, companies are increasingly expected to generate better results using fewer resources. For many, increased use of automation seems like a natural fit. To learn more about this trend and to get a feel for where things are and where they are going, CIM Magazine spoke with some of the industry’s top thinkers.

Automation, brought on by increasingly sophisticated technologies and shifting industry economics, is steadily gaining prominence at many operations. These productivity-enhancing initiatives range from new advances in information technology to remotely operated mining equipment.

Increased efficiency and flexibility

“When looking at automation opportunities within the mining industry, it is crucial to distinguish between the short and the long term,” said Greg Baiden, whose credentials certainly put him in a position to know. Baiden is Canadian Research Chair in robotics and mine automation at Laurentian University and is CTO of Penguin Automated Systems Inc. Prior to holding those posts, he worked in Inco’s Mines Research Division. In short, he has watched developments in the sector closely for many years.

“Right now with motor vehicle production in a freefall, financing tight and the overall economy slowing, mining companies are hesitant regarding new capital investments,” Baiden continued. “But over the medium and longer terms, we are going to see an explosion in the use of devices and machinery that can improve quality and replace human labour.”

Charles Jackson, CEO of Quadrem International Ltd., agrees. “Because many minerals and resources are commodities that have determinant prices that are established daily by global exchanges, the more efficiently you extract and move them to market, the more profitable your company will be,” said Jackson. “Furthermore, over the longer term, demand is projected to grow so quickly that innovation on an advanced level will be needed to help meet it.”

Jackson has a point. As a ravenous world marketplace consumes the output of more accessible ore bodies, miners will need to look for resources in increasingly inaccessible places. The trouble, explained Baiden, is that you can’t easily send people to a lot of those places.

“One example is the bottom of the Creighton nickel mine in Sudbury,” said Baiden. “The mine extends almost 8,500 feet [2,591 metres] underground. Down there, the temperature is extremely hot, maybe 140 degrees Fahrenheit [60 degrees Celsius] and the humidity level is close to 100 per cent. When conditions get that rough, the temptations to find automated solutions, in which personnel can operate equipment from remote locations, are quite high.”

Of course, such challenges pale when compared with those on the horizon. Among the more promising ore bodies that companies will eventually want to develop, many are located in even deeper mines and others lie under the ocean floor, a huge, undeveloped area thought to contain massive potential. “Don’t forget that 71 per cent of our planet is basically unexplored,” said Baiden. “There is one company [Nautilus] that is thinking about mining copper and gold a few miles under the ocean. But to do that, you have to automate.”

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