According to the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), there were 287 occupational fatalities in the mining industry globally in 2019. Increasing investments in automation and digitalization will be one factor that helps improve worker safety in the coming years, but such investments can also yield benefits in efficiency and productivity. Here, John Young, APAC sales director at industrial equipment supplier EU Automation, surveys the future of mining and the role of automation and digitalization in reshaping the industry.
The canary in a coal mine may sound like metaphor that has survived from a distant past. In fact, the practice of miners bringing canaries into coal mines to detect toxic gases was only discontinued in the 1980s. Perhaps that is evidence of the inherent conservatism of an industry where many may live by the motto, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Profits from mining have remained resilient, so why take the risk on expensive technology that is difficult to implement and antagonizes unions fearful of potential job losses?
Greater automation and digitalization in the mining industry is guaranteed to improve worker safety, primarily by removing human workers from dangerous activities. However, that is not the only consideration. Those mining companies that can successfully implement automated solutions to some of mining’s current challenges – from decreasing ore grades to rising energy costs – can make substantial gains in productivity and efficiency. So, what does the future of automation have in store for the mining industry?
Integrating islands of automation
Imagine a standard mining site where there are different systems and equipment on site. These are controlled by different operators, each with their own system interface and only able to access information in a given area. This lack of unity and integration is sometimes referred to as island of automation and it is a problem in many industries.
Digitalization and automation help solve this problem by integrating people, systems and equipment. Providing a comprehensive and unified view of the production from raw material, through processing, stock and delivery is a prerequisite for optimizing the value chain. Although local control rooms still exist, the trend is toward increasing centralization.
Pilbara is sometimes known as the engine room of Australia due to its vast mineral deposits. To someone unfamiliar with the region, it might be a surprise to learn that it is at the cutting edge of automation. It is here that Rio Tinto has introduced the world’s first automated heavy-haul, long-distance rail network.
AutoHaul first began operating in July 2018. The trains, which are equipped with software and sensors that allows for remote monitoring, transport ore from 16 mines to four different port terminals. These are complimented by an increasing number of automated trucks. Rather than requiring workers onsite, the trucks and trains are monitored remotely from an operations center in Perth.
It is more cost-effective to implement automation in larger mines like those in the Pilbara region. The high capital investment required needs to be justified and that becomes harder for smaller-scale facilities. Similarly, iron ore mining is easier to automate than some other minerals, like coal for example. However, the increasing automation of vehicles is a trend that will only increase in the coming years.
Mining robotics for worker safety
For those engineers involved in designing automation solutions for the mining industry, worker safety is the end goal. By replacing human workers with robots in the more extreme and harsh conditions encountered in underground mining, the risk of fatalities can be lowered.
For example, ABB has developed an autonomous remote charger robot. Using machine vision, the robot can detect drill holes within a given area and calculate how many it can reach and charge. The robot commences the charging operation by retrieving a detonator cassette, which is joined to the primer and attached to the end of the charging hose. The charging head is then moved to the first drill hole and pushed inside the hole. Explosives are pushed through the hose and the whole process is then repeated.
In another instance of pioneering technology, at the DARPA Subterranean Challenge in the US, researchers have sought to address the difficulties of having drones communicate in subterranean environments. One solution is to have the drone drop Wi-Fi nodes behind it as it travels down the mine, building a mesh network in its wake. Although this kind of future-tech will first be deployed in a military setting, it will surely only be a matter of time before automation digs deeper into the mining sector.
Predictive maintenance technologies have helped cut costs and reduce downtime in many industries and are now beginning to gain a foothold in mining applications. Let’s say some machinery needs to be repaired soon. The operator will be alerted by a predictive maintenance alarm, rather than having to schedule maintenance or repair work as would have been the case previously.
The operator accesses a maintenance system to view upcoming work orders. They can contact the field engineer, who can access the same information on their smartphone or other mobile devices. Together they can decide on the optimal solution and order parts from a reliable parts supplier like EU Automation, avoiding the costs of unnecessary equipment downtime.
Canaries in coal mines feel like they belong to a distant past, although they were still common a generation ago. Perhaps in the future, the idea of large numbers of human workers operating in dangerous conditions or having to work in remote locations might seem equally archaic. Although the industry faces skill shortages, Australia is better positioned than many other mining countries to embrace Industry 4.0. With its generous mineral deposits and highly educated workforce, it is well positioned to lead the way in demonstrating how automation can improve worker safety, enhance productivity and create a new generation of high skilled jobs.
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