Three examples will show the radical changes taking place in mining technology.
Peabody Energy in Australia has trialed a semi-autonomous bulldozer at its Wilpinjong Mine which offers increased safety via the removal of operator exposure to whole body vibration and mounting and dismounting incidents. This system also boosts productivity by increasing the daily hours of operation from the current 18.5 hours to 23.5 hours in remote operation, pushing more cubic meters per hour and reducing fuel use per cubic meter pushed.
At Queensland’s Blackwater coal mine, BHP is working with software provider Dingo to develop a mobile device application that is helping improve the speed, efficiency and quality of in-field equipment inspections. This collaboration has benefitted both parties, with break-in maintenance costs reduced by over A$5.5 million and the successful commercialisation of Dingo’s app, which is now being used by a range of mining companies globally.
In a third example, Hedweld’s Trilift Cat 797 Transmission Hoist was designed for safe and efficient removal and installation of the transmission block on the largest dump trucks used in Australia. Without the hoist, the dump body which weighs upward of 60 tonnes must be removed — requiring two cranes and a large number of people (operators and spotters), exposing workers to crushing hazards and falls. Technology has reduced the time taken for this procedure from up to three days to four hours. The hoist also means a safer working environment for all maintenance staff, fewer personnel required to perform maintenance tasks, reduced truck downtime from 40 hours to eight hours and labour time from 60 hours to 16 hours and a saving on maintenance costs by close to $170,000 each use.
These examples show that mining has come a long way since picks, shovels and pans were used to extract mineral wealth from Australia’s goldfields in the gold boom of the 1850s and 1860s. Modern mining is focused on innovation and making the most of new technology including automation, robotics, data science, drones and virtual reality. The benefits of innovation can range from broad strategic improvements to enhancing individual tasks. Innovation drives reduced operating costs, reflecting efficiency gains from using new technologies.
The array of benefits ranges from extending the productive life of mines –- such as by enabling the extraction of deposits that are deeper or more remote; higher yields, such as increased metal recovery from ores, and safety improvements flowing from simplified processes and earlier detection of hazards. There is also greater workforce satisfaction and productivity in translating innovative ideas suggested by employees into operational improvements. Knowledge from research institutions can be applied to implement new or improved processes and products. Enabling access to new markets overseas — such as trade between Australia and India — can help support brand development and generate new opportunities.
The mining industry has also transitioned from a largely labour-intensive industry to a highly capital-intensive sector. In recent years, there have been significant developments in innovative transformations being implemented across the mining and METS sector, especially in Australia. No part of the production process remains unimproved. For example, cave process monitoring allows miners to see what’s going on within the complex cave propagation and draw process. ‘Cave tracker’ technologies developed by Elexon Mining, Mining3, Newcrest and Rio Tinto deliver productivity improvements and make cave mining safer by detecting the formation of air gaps before they pose a hazard. Innovations in hybrid electric drive technology are increasing underground loader productivity due to improved work cycle performance, reduced operating costs, increased durability and reduced emissions from smaller engine size.
Rock strength presents a challenge to effective mining. The creation of compact mining equipment capable of excavating rock with strengths in excess of 250MPa allows continuous mining processes, which may yield a 20 per cent reduction in operational costs by increasing advance rates and reducing equipment requirements and energy use.
Maptek’s mobile 3D scanning hardware enables the continuous acquisition of data using a laser scanner. The vehicle mounted device links the laser scanner that generates a stockpile profile with an inertial navigation system, enabling continuous acquisition of data and coordinates, and reducing the time spent surveying a typical stockpile from four hours down to 45 minutes.
The Australian mining sector is a world leader in developing and adopting transformative technologies — from the commercialisation of the ‘froth flotation’ process for minerals recovery in the 1860s in Broken Hill to the introduction of remote-controlled iron ore trucks in the Pilbara in the 2000s. Australia’s innovation and economic performance of the past decade has been dominated by the mining sector, a prolific inventor and developer of specialised technologies.
Australian mining technology is exported globally, and will be important in terms of Australia’s future trade with India. The recent New Frontiers research report outlines good prospects for resources trade and solid engagement between Australia and India on mining-related investment, mostly based on METS. Opportunities for the Australian minerals and METS sector will include the supply of a wide range of technologies and services by our METS firms as India’s mining sector grows and modernises.
Finally, innovation will continue to change the nature of work in mining and therefore the skills requirements. In some parts of the industry, increasing automation, driverless trucks, autonomous trains, instrumentation and logistics are moving workers from mine sites to the safer environment of remote operational centres – also requiring workers to enhance their skills. The industry’s future prosperity will depend on a professional and semi-professional class of highly skilled and technology-literate technical experts.
These technology changes present opportunities for the existing workforce to upskill and take on more challenging roles and for highly skilled specialists from non-traditional occupations to use their skills in a dynamic and highly integrated workplace. Along with innovative technology and new approaches to work, higher education will play a vital role in ensuring the future minerals workforce is equipped with the necessary skills.
The author is chief executive of the Minerals Council of Australia