Dec '12/Jan '13

Innovation

The tech (r)evolution

By Eavan Moore

In the mill control room of the Copper Mountain mine | Courtesy of Copper Mountain Mining Corporation

­­­­This year, Rio Tinto put the first 10 of an anticipated 150 Komatsu autonomous-ready haul trucks into service at its iron ore operations in Western Australia. And at the latest Minexpo in Las Vegas, Caterpillar unveiled its own autonomous haul truck, another step toward a reality in which remote operations centres seamlessly oversee unmanned operations, from rock to rail. This ambitious vision aims to rebuild the modern mine from scratch, wring greater value from ore bodies, and recast the role of a miner.

For mines already in operation, advances in automation technology may not be remaking operations but they are refining them, whether by removing people from high-risk, repetitive tasks or by introducing more control to material movement and other business-critical aspects of production.

Safety and predictability

Aaron Carter, principal consultant at Improvement Resources Pty Ltd., predicts that the near-term adoption of discrete automation will have a double focus: to remove people from risky and repetitive tasks like material sampling and conveyor roller replacements, and to control variability of process outputs where greater control and certainty of the outcome is business critical. “That’s where we’ll see automation continue to be developed and implemented in the mine,” he says.

Consultants like Carter and Jonathan Peck, owner of Peck Tech Consulting, work with mining clients to identify which technologies help address their operational needs. Most clients, says Peck, are not looking at full-scale autonomy; instead, they need to make interactions between people and existing equipment more efficient. “Rather than remove the operator from the task, how do we provide operator-assist capabilities, so that we can provide better tools to more accurately identify the material being excavated as well as ensuring the right material goes to the correct destination?” asks Peck. “That, to me, is the trend right now for the majority of operations, more so than trying to achieve a fully autonomous mine.”

Resistance is futile

Before inundating their site with new technology, miners often need to unlock the potential of the technology they already possess. Dispatch systems’ ability to automate information and aid decision-making increases every year, but, argues Mark Baker, owner of CheckMark Consulting: “Most of the mine management systems in the world are expensive bean counters, with very few operations using the dispatching ­systems’ algorithms to improve their efficiencies. They’re fighting the old train of thought where people think that they can do a better job than a computer.”

That reluctance to cede control to computers has informed equipment design, says Eric Hsieh, technology product manager at Joy Global. The adaptive controls on Joy Global’s new 4800XPC shovel, for instance, use the responsiveness of an AC drive to react quickly in potentially harmful situations. When sensing an abrupt deceleration, the controls, in effect “begin to pull inertia out of the system, regardless of what the control system or the operator is calling for,” says shovel project manager Pat Singleton. But they act invisibly; in fact, operators tell Joy Global the shovel feels more responsive to their commands.

Generational turnover and the increasing acceptance of everyday automation in other sectors, like the automotive industry, have incited cultural change in the last few years and will continue to do so. “When you look into the automotive industry and people getting more comfortable with the concept of operator-assist functionalities, this is bringing it more to day-to-day understanding and acceptance,” says Daniel Robertson, business development manager at Siemens Industry.

And though automation usually connotes the elimination of human jobs, there will be new skills needed to deal with a modern mine. Peck suggests that more mines will hire technology managers, for example, in order to more methodically select and integrate the right technology into operations.

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