Hitachi’s automation plan with Whitehaven Coal and beyond

The Japanese equipment manufacturer has set the foundation to play a role in Australia’s move towards an autonomous mining future. 

Hitachi Construction Machinery’s ambitious growth plans for the Australian mining industry are taking shape.

The original equipment manufacturer (OEM) has targeted expansion in Australia for a number of years, particularly from a technology and innovation perspective with autonomous systems and machinery.

In 2014, it took a step in this direction by announcing a trial of its Autonomous Haulage System (AHS) at the Stanwell Corporation-run Meandu coal mine in Queensland.

Hitachi has successfully tested three driverless Hitachi EH5000AC-3 trucks at the Meandu mine in the past year, signalling its progress in the area and readiness to start new autonomous projects.

The OEM has found its next opportunity at Whitehaven Coal’s Maules Creek mine in New South Wales.

Hitachi’s relationship with Whitehaven at Maules Creek was formed in 2014 as supplier of the first fleet of haul trucks and excavators at the thermal coal operation, which was still in development at that stage.

The companies are now collaborating to design and introduce an AHS for the EH5000AC-3 haulers at the site. Hitachi will work with Whitehaven to scope the delivery and commissioning of the phased AHS deployment.

Hitachi Construction Machinery (Australia) GM – mining Eric Green says the collaboration with Whitehaven at Maules Creek, formed during the mining downturn, has been significant for the equipment company’s growth in Australia.

“We were fortunate enough to secure that business with the initial fleets at Maules Creek. That has been positive for us as it came at quite an opportune time because it was during the downturn in the marketplace,” Green tells Australian Mining.

“There has been the plan to introduce automation at Maules Creek, which was always possible with the EH5000AC-3 model of Hitachi trucks.”

The $767 million Maules Creek mine, near Boggabri in the Gunnedah Basin, started mining coal in December 2014 and has been operating commercially since July 2015.

Maules Creek produced 10.95Mt of run-of-mine (ROM) coal and 9.64Mt of saleable coal in the 2018 financial year. Whitehaven plans to ramp up annual production at Maules Creek to 13Mt, with automation to be part of sustaining an efficient operation at that rate.

Autonomous haulage systems have, of course, proven to significantly reduce human exposure to safety hazards and other critical risk scenarios, in addition to contributing to better mine efficiency.

Hitachi has focused on the development of advanced technologies for its AHS to deliver these benefits.

The Hitachi EX1200-7 mining excavator.

 

Its fleet management system (FMS), provided by Wenco International Mining Systems, is integral to a design that optimises mining operations.

Hitachi acquired Wenco in 2009, and the pair have since worked together to leverage Dynamic Dispatch fleet dispatch automation software for the deployment of autonomous haul trucks.

Wenco’s FMS is complemented by several proven technologies, including Hitachi’s Smart Mining Truck with robotic stabilisation controls, AC motor and drive control unit technologies; a blockage management system from its railway business; and a sensing technology and navigation system cultivated in the automobile industry.

Hitachi’s progress as AHS providers in the east coast coal market reflects the ambitions it has set for in the Australian marketplace.

The company discussed its focus on innovation and growth in the Australian mining industry two years ago despite the persistence of challenging market conditions.

It revealed last November that $875 million had been invested by the company on social innovation in Australia during the preceding 18 months, the majority targeting the mining industry.

Hitachi believes Australian mining will be almost entirely autonomous by 2030, with integrated operations centres, autonomous vehicles, AHS, drone image analysis, and other analytics-focused technologies dominating the landscape.

Green says discussions about automation in the east coast coal sector have definitely increased over the past 18 months.

“Going forward that is a big part of the discussion in the sale of new fleets; it is being considered in the marketplace as part of mine planning,” Green says.

“We are becoming more mature with autonomous machinery in the marketplace. It is part of the conversation on capital equipment and the options are now there.

“Having the option to consider that is a big part of mine planning, but it may not suit every site and application.”

Hitachi also regards Internet of Things (IoT) solutions, which allow for the implementation of strategies offsite, as highly important.

“Embracing smart technology including digitisation and IoT in the mining industry is imperative for Australia to maintain its leadership position,” Hitachi managing director Atsushi Konishi said at a company event.

“There are several large mining companies looking at Australia to implement new digital technologies in order to then replicate them in other regions of the world.”

Hitachi’s activity in the automation space is so far focused on the east coast coal sector. The company is also targeting growth in Western Australia’s iron ore industry, a sector that is rapidly introducing the technology.

OEMs like Caterpillar and Komatsu already have a strong presence with their AHS solutions in the Pilbara. Hitachi still sees opportunities in the Western Australia iron ore application particular with the mine owners running Hitachi truck fleets.

“We are obviously working to expand the truck fleets in the west. Roy Hill and Rio Tinto is our footprint at the moment but we are actively looking to expand that without a doubt,” Green says.

“There’s some huge fleets there tied up with the likes of Rio Tinto, BHP and Fortescue so it is a matter of getting the opportunity to expand with those miners.”

Hitachi is well established in Western Australia to support growth and service the state’s mining operations.

The company’s expansion in the state included the 2016 opening of a $60 million, 104,000 square metre facility at the Forrestdale Business Park in Perth as its Western Australia/Northern Territory headquarters.

Hitachi’s Perth facility joins an east coast mining hub in Brisbane, which opened in 2012.

These moves, executed during the downturn in mining conditions, have seemingly paid off as the operating environment has improved.

Green says 2018 has been positive for the company with numerous enquiries coming from the mining industry on both sides of the country, however, he remains cautious.

“As an industry we just have to work to make sure things don’t heat up too much. When I hear that the boom situation is coming back I shudder a bit because I feel that is the wrong message to send out,” Green says.

“There are just positive signs and we are working in that way.”

Hitachi is also continuing to introduce new products for other mining disciplines to support industry growth in other sectors.

The company launched the EX1200-7 excavator at an event in Perth during July. According to Green, the improvements on the EX1200-7 focus on the engine and it being compliant to Tier 4 specifications.

In Western Australia, the excavator will be well suited to smaller operations, particularly in gold and nickel.

“The other sector that is now quite prominent is the lithium industry. So definitely for the west we see that equipment as being a vital part of our future opportunities,” Green concludes.

This article also appears in the September edition of Australian Mining. 

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