Automation is considered the future of mining, but as two of Dyno Nobel’s leaders explain, it can also be used to collect data that help to plan for sustainable outcomes.
Dyno Nobel showcased its differential energy technology at the 2019 International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC), which BHP is rolling out at the Jimblebar iron ore mine in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.
Differential technology allows the company to change the way it completes tasks, including the introduction of automated vehicles for jobs such as loading bore holes with explosives and detonators.
Dyno Nobel’s head of mining and automation Paul Terry says using automated vehicles for these jobs not only improves productivity, but also allows operators to collect data to design future blasts.
Automation can replace numerous manual labour tasks, including measuring bore holes, programming electronic detonators and depositing explosives into the bore holes with differential GPS.
Terry believes data collected from each of these practices is valuable for future operations.
“Currently, Dyno Nobel is working on automation for a number of processes for better inclusion of data in the system for lasting outcomes,” Terry explains.
“The benefit of this data is we get a lot more of an accurate picture of what actually happens on the job.
“In the past, we may have been recording this from the instrument, to person to data but now we can go from the instrument straight into data.
“This means we’re putting a bunch of data in the cloud and we’re able to share it with a whole range of people in the drilling operation and get an overall feedback cycle.”
One of the more frequent concerns surrounding automation and data-based research is will they remove the human element from mining?
Terry explains that while automation does in part replace human tasks, the technology is also a tool that makes the job easier and tasks less repetitive for human workers.
“The immediate perception of automation is that it’s taking people from the job,” Terry says.
“People aren’t going to disappear from the picture, it’s more about a change in the roles than the roles disappearing.
“These machines have to operate around people, whether they’re tendering the machines or if there’s further manual tasks that need to be done.”
Terry believes the introduction of automated machinery to complete the more repetitive tasks will change mining roles for the better.
He says roles in mining will arguable become more interesting than the repetitive manual labour tasks that are being replaced.
“This is a key benefit of automation because the people who work in mines are smart and experienced people who have been doing their jobs for a long time,” Terry says.
“To give them a more interesting role because you’ve got a machine to do the repetitive work, is undoubtedly a benefit.”
The other benefit of course is safety, removing workers from operating around hazardous environments and machinery.
“Automation is not so much about the reduction of people, it’s about separating the interaction between people and the machines,” Terry says.
“Machines still rely on people to make sure the holes are filled correctly to stop fly rock or rocks escaping in mid-air on a blast, so while they might be insulated from the manual tasks, they’re still a key control to one of the key safety issues to the tasks.”
In addition to removing more workers from potentially dangerous environments, the other significant safety benefit of differential energy for mining companies is they can use lighter top chargers, which reduce the risk of fly rock when blasting.
Unlike typical explosives, differential energy techniques don’t require a number of different materials to be blended together, it requires just one product which can be stored on site.
Aside from safety, it also lessens the environmental impact of blasting, Dyno Nobel chief technology development officer Rob Rounsley explains.
“Because of the water resistance of the product, you don’t dissolve nitrates in your ground water, so you reduce nitrogen oxide (NOX) and particularly, nitrogen dioxide (NO2 emissions.”
As well as reducing NOX and NO2 emissions, Rounsley says using differential energy also helps to lower carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
“Now, it’s relatively small in the terms of overall CO2 emissions, but we can reduce those emissions from blasting activities, usually by between 10 and 30 per cent, which is a pretty significant number,” he says.
As well as being a major supply for BHP, Dyno Nobel has formed an alliance agreement with the mining major to develop new technologies together.
Rounsley says alliance agreements are a convenient way for technology and mining companies to combine their knowledge when developing new systems.
“We bring all of our expertise in the field of explosives, engineering and all of the services that go with those fields, and BHP brings in the mining side,” Rounsley says.
“We put those two things together in a collaboration to deliver greater value to both parties.”
Dyno Nobel’s key principle for designing and establishing new technology like differential energy is remaining a step ahead of the game but always taking a step back to make sure its customers aren’t being left behind.
As Rounsley explains, in an ever-growing field like automation, it is easy for companies to fall into the trap of designing new developments with their own issues at front of mind, rather than their customers.
“One of the real key principles you need to have when you are developing new things, it’s to design with your customers’ concerns in mind, rather than your own challenges,” Rounsley says.
“For example, for the digital solutions we deliver, at a company level we would start with ‘how do we create software that will design really good quality blasts?’ but a customer doesn’t really care about that.
“What the customers care about is ‘how do I create fragmentation or how do I create a vibration or mining outcome,’ so that’s what our philosophy needs to be.”