Australian Mining speaks with Komatsu Australia chief executive Sean Taylor about what an agreement to deploy automation-ready haul trucks at BHP’s South Flank project means for the company and Western Australia.
Komatsu Australia has achieved diversification in the Pilbara that many original equipment manufacturers (OEM) only dream about by winning an order for 41 haul trucks at BHP’s South Flank project.
The company’s presence in Western Australia is set to rise significantly with the agreement to deploy the automation-ready 930E-5 ultra-class trucks at the iron ore development from next month.
Aside from BHP’s use of Komatsu wheel loaders, it marks the first major agreement between the two companies in the region, notably for autonomous machinery.
Komatsu has, of course, already built a strong reputation in the Pilbara through a long-standing equipment partnership with Rio Tinto.
The OEM has played an important role in helping Rio Tinto establish its Mine of the Future program over the past decade by first trialling and deploying autonomous trucks at the West Angelas site.
Komatsu’s relationship with Rio Tinto has only strengthened in the years since as the major miner introduced dozens of of autonomous trucks across its Pilbara portfolio.
Rio Tinto also launched the world’s first retrofitted Komatsu autonomous trucks at the Hope Downs 4 operation two years ago.
Despite Komatsu’s breakthroughs with Rio Tinto, BHP has historically looked in Caterpillar’s direction for its Pilbara autonomous trucks.
Until now, as BHP instead went with Komatsu to supply a new truck fleet for the $US3.6 billion ($5 billion), 80 million tonne a year South Flank project.
“It diversifies our customer base in Western Australia and that is great for us,” Komatsu Australia chief executive and managing director Sean Taylor tells Australian Mining.
“There are obviously some business implications in terms of diversification, which is good for the business and its sustainability – that’s the main impact.
“It creates some additional momentum in terms of the size of additional resources and people that we can support.”
The South Flank fleet will add to the 250 autonomous haulage system (AHS) machines Komatsu has already deployed and the 180 it has operating globally across three continents.
Komatsu will also boost its 800-strong workforce in Western Australia to support the machines.
Taylor expects Komatsu’s workforce to increase by up to 100 people across Western Australia with the South Flank agreement.
He says the OEM will also need to expand its Newman facilities, in particular, due to their close proximity to the developing site.
“That will be good for the Pilbara community because it means as a manufacturer in town we are going to have to increase our facilities and people there,” Taylor says.
“We will probably include additional training facilities in Perth as well to support the technology and also the aftermarket side of the business.”
The OEM has established a presence in autonomous machinery technology with the FrontRunner AHS brand. It also has the first autonomous truck qualified to operate on private long-term evolution (LTE) mobile broadband technology in commercial operations.
Komatsu’s ongoing development of autonomous and other equipment technologies means its growth in Western Australia won’t just be about adding staff, Taylor continues.
He says the company’s existing employees will also require upskilling to complement how the technology evolves.
“It is upskilling people that look after the trucks and will operate these tucks,” Taylor says.
“There’s no way of hiding that new technology does displace some parts of the workforce, but then it’s about how we engage with those people and our customers over that to re-skill people in that space.”
Taylor recognises that the mining industry and its workforces have, and continue to, grapple with the impact of automation on employees.
A common perception is that automation removes jobs in the industry, a point of view that causes people to overlook the safety and cost benefits that it offers.
Taylor, however, believes this outlook is gradually shifting the other way, both within Komatsu and from the broader industry’s point of view.
“There’s an understanding that automation is definitely viable now in mining and definitely in the Pilbara,” Taylor says.
“It is not as frightening as people thought. In fact, if I think about the main impact of automation, it is really around safety – it is very much people orientated from that point of view.
“It is a technology that is now proven and most mining operations, even globally, on greenfields sites are considering truck automation in one form or another.”
The OEM reinforced a commitment to blending its people with autonomous technology by launching a Centre of Excellence for Autonomous Haulage Systems in the United States earlier this year.
It is an example of how the company plans to invest time and resources into ensuring forward thinking qualifications are available for its workforce of the future.
With the South Flank deployment set to start, Taylor is optimistic about future opportunities involving Komatsu’s autonomous equipment and its broader mining equipment portfolio.
Since the market downturn in 2012, he says there has been an increased focus on “sweating assets” and improving maintenance processes in partnership with mining companies.
Taylor believes that while this priority will continue, it has been joined by new opportunities for Komatsu and other OEMs to pursue.
“We are coming up to a replacement phase in the market,” Taylor says. “We are getting to a point, as we have seen at a number of greenfield sites but also brownfield sites, where we are seeing replacement mining fleets coming in to the Australian market.
“The market has ramped up in the past two years and we probably expect that to continue over the next two to three years.”