Automated ground support a bolt from the blue

Rangecon’s Groutmec cable bolting machine in action.

A bespoke cable bolting solution is set to revolutionise ground support for underground mines, with the stamp of approval from none other than Northern Star Resources. 

Rangecon has carved a path for itself in underground project construction since it began in 2014 under the watchful eye of mining engineering John Devereux and his business partner Nic Hicks. 

Both men, directors of Rangecon, recognised a hole in the underground mining market for an affordable solution to automate the cable bolting process.

Through a partnership with global mining machinery and technology company Normet, Rangecon developed the Groutmec automated cable bolting machine. 

Hicks says it took just 18 months to turn the machine from conception to commercialisation. 

“We came to Normet with a requirement and they had the skills, the engineering and the IP to deliver that,” Hicks tells Australian Mining. 

“There’s been lots of tweaks along the way, but we have worked closely with them to develop a concept and eventually a commercially viable machine.”

The Groutmec takes Normet’s Charmec machine – originally designed for explosive charging – and reconfigures it to enable automated cable bolting. 

This includes the cable bolt installation, tensioning and the grout installation to finish. 

“What is normally done in a basket with three workers, we can now complete with two workers thanks to more automation from Normet, as well as a bunch of bespoke parts to facilitate that process,” Hicks says. 

The benefits of such innovation are numerous, as described by those at Northern Star Resources who were happy to take on the next step in ground support technology. 

The gold miner implemented Groutmec at its Kundana operations in Western Australia, as well as the Mount Charlotte mine at its Kalgoorlie operations. 

Northern Star managing director Stuart Tonkin highlights what he’s found to be the biggest advantage of the machine.

“This advanced technology has lifted safety, quality and productivity for this important ground support method,” Tonkin says. 

“It eliminates arduous manual handling exposure, while ensuring the consistent quality of grout mix and volumes for reliable strength and design.

“The process has materially reduced time to install, which improves the unit cost and reduces time at the location.”

Safety will always rate highly as a priority for mining executives and the Groutmec vastly reduces the risk of injury by simply removing the number of workers on hand. 

Hicks says traditional cable bolting methods can be a common cause of injury where ground support is required, inspiring Rangecon’s latest creation. 

Outside of safety, the Groutmec also achieves about double the linear metres of cable bolt achieved by traditional methods.

“We currently have one in production in the Western Australian Goldfields, which consistently achieves 10,000 to 12,000 linear metres of cable bolt per month,” Hicks says. 

“From the research we’ve done we haven’t found a comparable machine that would be able to compete with ours.”

As Australian mining battles skills shortages due to COVID-19 restrictions, any machine which reduces the labour required is likely to tick boxes for resources companies. 

Hicks says Rangecon is in the process of delivering another Groutmec to North America where similar constraints are being faced. 

“Timing is everything. This product has come at the right time as we have a crisis of labour shortage in this space as it reduces labour by one third,” Hicks says.

“You only really need one really experienced operator plus the person up the back who mixes the grout, makes sure there’s enough grout for operation and keeps the rig clean.”

And while the Groutmec reduces cable bolting crews by one third, the benefits to the remaining two workers are clear. 

As miners get older, Hicks says they increasingly appreciate any automated machinery that comes their way. 

“Operators have definitely embraced it. As a company, we provide all kinds of help that constitute ground support. So, from shotcreting to general underground construction work, we certainly get a lot of interest from senior personnel wanting to operate the Groutmec,” Hicks says.

“From a fatigue perspective, it’s pretty light on and it’s something different for them. A lot of these workers are chasing a new challenge and we’ve had no issue with presenting it as an opportunity to progress a career in underground mining.”

Tonkin agrees, saying his operators at Northern Star continue to show positivity towards the Groutmec, as it takes the load off them and into the ground.

“Specialised skills need focussed specialised operators and Rangecon are ahead of the street in advancing cable bolt installation technology,” Tonkin concludes. 

“You can’t unsee success, and the acceptance from operators that have performed this task manually has been key to proving its benefit.”  

This article appears in the February issue of Australian Mining.

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