Materials handling equipment goes on a smart automation journey

MRA has helped keep the heart of Australia’s coal industry beating with smart systems to automate, protect and optimise the performance of large-scale stockyard equipment and ship loaders.

MRA has helped keep the heart of Australia’s coal industry beating with smart systems to automate, protect and optimise the performance of large-scale stockyard equipment and ship loaders.

Australian-based electrical and automation engineering company, MRA, has played a key role in automating Australia’s vibrant coal sector and is now bringing these innovations to iron ore and bauxite.

Headquartered near the Hunter Valley coal mining region in Newcastle, New South Wales, MRA is at the forefront of automation technologies for stockyard management and ship loading systems, and is starting to export these technologies to the world. 

MRA’s stockyard management system (SMS) processes 250 million tonnes of Australian coal a year, which represents 65 per cent of the country’s entire coal exports. This includes the coal that is processed at Port Waratah Coal Services – the largest coal export terminal in the world.

“MRA’s DNA is automation and control systems. Our smart systems utilise scanner data and analytics to help management make more accurate and timely decisions in the existing PLC (programmable logic control),” MRA engineering manager Peter McPherson says.

A $50 million stockyard reclaimer can become fully automated and actions finely tuned with MRA’s Smart Stockyard Management System (SMS).

This improves safety with 3D visualisation tools, which help to relocate operators from the risks of being exposed to large machinery in action.

Still, the biggest advantage is productivity gains. MRA’s SMS has increased throughput across six stacker reclaimers at Queensland’s Abbot Point coal terminal by more than 11 per cent, leading to the system receiving the Bulk Handling Innovation Technology Award in 2019. 

This represented an additional five million tonnes per year and a payback in under three months. 

The optimisation is made possible by MRA’s laser technology that’s backed by a highly accurate volumetric stockpile modelling system.

By creating a higher time-in-material with accurate start positions and lower slew cut turnaround times, air digging is eliminated.

The SMS also has enhanced visualisation, giving it the ability to identify material in the stockyard, provide live status of yard machines and positioning, while also protecting the machine from collisions. 

All of this is happening while an operator monitors the activity from a port’s central control room. 

The SMS achieves this by tracking all stacking and reclaim tasks, stockyard targets as well as in-loading and out-loading performance. 

Its strengths also come at an opportune time as the global resources sector is emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic ready to embrace automation and remove personnel from hazardous areas. 

MRA commercial director – smart automation products, Andrew Wilshire, has observed this trend in major mining regions across the world, including South America, South Africa and North America. 

“We have a world-leading technology for the automation of the stockyard,” Wilshire tells Australian Mining.

“We improve safety, we increase throughput efficiency and help management better control the quality and flow of material.

“Mining and port operators are looking for ways to protect their continuity of operations and MRA’s smart systems can really help.”

Another key focus for MRA is the ship loader where MRA provides a full protection system including anti-collision system (ACS), where it is the only Australia-owned solution amid a number of European alternatives.

McPherson says this means mining and port operators are not going to deal with time differences and delays in getting equipment support, which can also lead to extra costs.

“By protecting ship loader systems with our ACS, we have embarked on steps towards full automation,” McPherson continues. 

“We’re focussed on partnering with the right operations and terminals to assist us with achieving full automation. This hasn’t been achieved in the industry to date.”

The ACS is now operating at two Australian coal terminals and is about to be deployed in a North American port facility. 

The quality of MRA’s solution is based on laser scanning technologies, which are installed on the ship loader and collect millions of data points to create a highly accurate 3D map of the vessel.

Such representation and spatial awareness helps to prevent collisions, while creating a real-time protection zone around the ship loader’s boom and shuttle, spout/soon and operator cabin. 

The ACS provides separation distances to the PLC which can produce a slow-down or inhibit instructions. 

It is one of the tools in MRAs ship loader protection suite that assists the operator with eliminating blind spots from CCTV and thermal cameras. 

Other tools in its suite that support the operator are vessel list and draught evaluation and hatch detection.

Built to ensure continued operations, the ACS has, at the time of writing, registered more than 160 months without a collision incident at Port Waratah Coal Services’ Carrington terminal and Port Kembla Coal Terminal. 

McPherson says safety sits at the forefront of the ACS technology development as it provides the additional tools required for the relocation of the operator cabin from the boom of the ship loader.

“Our deep understanding of the mining industry and machine automation help to ensure personnel stay safe and productivity is optimised,” McPherson says.

“This is the fruits of our 23-year investment in smart technology for the materials handling sector.”  

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