The original equipment manufacturer is on track for the future of underground mining with an arsenal of products that offers mining companies opportunities for electrification and automation. Ben Creagh writes.
Electrification and automation are shaping as the next frontiers of an underground mining industry determined to make safety, environmental and productivity improvements.
For Epiroc, the integration of both into future models of its underground fleet has become the company’s ultimate goal.
The Swedish original equipment manufacturer (OEM) is making significant progress on the electrification of its machines in particular, with global companies now investing in the latest models.
Epiroc celebrated orders of its second generation battery electric mining equipment from Finland, Australia and Canada last September, less than a year after releasing the new machines.
In Finland for example, Agnico Eagle Mines ordered the Boltec E Battery rig for its Kittilä gold operation. The Boltec joined a Boomer E2 Battery rig that had already been at the site for months.
Agnico has been an important partner for Epiroc during development of its battery electric machines. The Canadian company has also tested the Minetruck 42-tonne hauler and Scooptram 14-tonne loader at Kittilä for the Sustainable Intelligent Mining Systems (SIMS) project.
Epiroc is serving as a coordinator of SIMS, which is part of Horizon 2020, the most extensive research and innovation program ever conducted by the European Union.
Agnico highlighted the successful testing of the truck and loader a few months after the machines arrived at the site in August.
Epiroc business line manager – underground rock excavation, Shaiful Ali, believes the SIMS project has reinforced the potential of the OEM’s battery electric machinery at mines around the world.
He says Epiroc’s first battery electric machine destined for Australia will leave the company’s factory in the second quarter of this year, before delivery in the following quarter.
“We are seeing good progress in regards to Epiroc providing a more environmentally-friendly underground solution,” Ali tells Australian Mining.
“The tests show the machines are performing as we have said after we made quite a few upgrades with the battery packs since inception.”
Epiroc’s upgrades have not only improved performance but also helped to reduce industry concerns about the capital costs involved with introducing battery machines over diesel alternatives.
A key development that lowers the CAPEX is Epiroc’s Batteries as a Service solution, which gives the OEM ownership of the batteries being used on its underground machinery.
Previously, battery electric machines would cost mine operators around double that of a diesel model. But with Batteries as a service, initial capital outlay would be significantly reduced, according to Ali.
He says the innovative service also provides mining companies with the comfort that Epiroc will look after the battery from “cradle to grave” and be with them for its lifetime.
“When we first did a cost analysis the difference was quite significant,” Ali says. “The cost to operate a battery machine is not as much as a diesel, but the capital constraint from day one was something that a lot of people were nervous about.
“Now the price of buying the battery, storing the battery, technology advances with battery upgrades, battery removal and disposal – those are items that are taken away by Batteries as a Service.”
With electrification comes a stronger opportunity to introduce automation at mine sites.
A 2019 Ernst & Young (EY) report expects electrification will accelerate automation and the Internet of Things in the mining industry.
“…more reliable electric motors require less maintenance and intervention,” according to the EY report. “With electrification, automation through drones, autonomous vehicles and remote-controlled operational systems will be rolled out more widely across mining operations.”
Epiroc has become an industry leader in automated surface drill rigs and plans to replicate this success with its underground machinery in the coming years.
The OEM combines its underground automation offering with information management through an initiative coined, 6th Sense, which now features a range of products.
They include Scooptram Automation Regular and Total, technologies for a single loader up to an entire fleet.
Epiroc has deployed Scooptram Automation at a high-profile underground mine in Australia and has moved the project into the commissioning phase.
The OEM’s team that executed a surface automation project with BHP in the Pilbara, Western Australia has focussed on the underground opportunity since 2018.
Epiroc Rocktec division regional applications centre manager Rohan Anderson has been involved on the surface and underground automation projects in Australia.
He says with the progress Epiroc has made with its surface drills the next priority for the OEM will be to improve the effectiveness of its autonomous systems for underground mining.
“There are plans to get people out of that environment by replacing them with computer algorithms and sensors and have the people operating the machines from the surface,” Anderson says.
“We’ve had four software developers working there and an engineer looking at data, developing dashboards that monitor performance.
“By analysing the data, it is helping us find where the gaps in performance are and also looking for opportunities for improvement.”
Epiroc is complementing its ambitions for electrification and automation underground with information management solutions.
The company has a series of industry collaborations that are supporting its efforts to develop the systems, including a partnership with Saab and Combitech to develop safe mining digitalisation concepts.
Together, the trio has created a traffic management system that effectively allows Epiroc’s machines to talk with each other, reducing the risk of accidents and lowering traffic congestion underground.
The addition of Mobilaris Mining Intelligence to the Epiroc suite of products has also proven to be a point of difference for the OEM.
Mobilaris has launched its Onboard solution in past year to solve some of the navigational challenges in underground mining.
The solution runs on a modern tablet computer mounted inside a machine’s cabin and enables any underground miner to know what is going on in the mine.
Mobilaris Onboard collects all of the real-time information about personnel, equipment and vehicles from the centralised Mobilaris Mining Intelligence software.
The information, including mine maps, is shown in 3D and is stored locally so operators can use it even when they are outside of network coverage.
As each of these elements for underground mining evolves, they are combining to create Epiroc’s vision for a safer and more sustainable underground environment.
“The hope is to integrate everything, having an automated battery machine is probably the ideal angle we want to achieve. We know we have the battery machine and automation system – it is just a matter of how we integrate them with each other,” Ali concludes.
This article also appears in the March edition of Australian Mining.