Sandvik moves further into an autonomous mining environment

Sandvik launched AutoMine in 2004

Sandvik continues to evolve as an automation-ready company in preparation for the future of Australian mining.

The automation story took off at Sandvik in the late 1990s when a team of mining and automation engineers in Finland decided to solve some of the challenges faced by their customers in the industry.

Ensuring safety within mines is both demanding and time consuming, and it affects the productivity of the mine. Sandvik launched a project in the late 90s to address these issues through automation, and in 2004, the first AutoMine loading system was installed at Codelco’s El Teniente copper mine in Chile.

Today, automation is a hot topic for the world’s mining companies, and one that continues to grow in importance in Australia with companies seeking ways to have visibility to equipment performance, increase productivity with cost efficient methods, while also maintaining a high level of safety.

Since launching its first major project, the equipment manufacturer has successfully developed several solutions which apply autonomous technology.

Sandvik uses a unique test mine in Finland, located nearby one of the company’s key production sites, to trial autonomous prototypes for potential clients around the world.

Having this test site provides Sandvik with a faster route from idea to market, a key advantage in mining’s competitive environment.

While the test site does provide development benefits for the company, mining conditions in Finland differ significantly from what companies must contend with in Australia.

For this reason, Sandvik is hoping to collaborate with mine operators in Australia to test its autonomous solutions in local mines and establish a better understanding of how they perform in these conditions, according to Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology’s Automation Manager in Australia, Pieter Prinsloo.

“You are going to deal with different site conditions and mine specific challenges (in Australia), and you are going to have to have a range of capabilities when you work with different customers as well,” Prinsloo told Australian Mining.

“We like to collaborate with local customers, and test our equipment in the real environment as much as possible.”

Prinsloo said Sandvik successfully tested its next generation drills and loaders at the test site in Finland, which was developed out of an old war bunker into a functional test mine with an underground ore pass.

The next equipment Sandvik is focused on developing autonomous capabilities for, Prinsloo continues, is its underground ramp haulage trucks. Testing of the capability for haulage trucks will be particularly important in Australian conditions for the company.

“Something that is going to make remote haulage trucking or autonomous trucking work is the capability to steer them effectively over long ramps – anything between 3.5-6km, which is how long some ramps are in Australia,” Prinsloo explained.

“In the test mine we can only run the trucks over a couple of hundred metres. So, we are looking at partnering with a local mining house, or a local mining contractor, to trial our ramp automation for the trucks.”

Sandvik’s latest underground trucks – the TH663 and TH551 – are proving popular in Australia, having been designed by the company to deliver power, performance, ease of maintenance  and high productivity.

Both trucks also offer more than 60 safety features for protection of operators and maintenance staff, as well as front frame suspension to ensure cabin comfort.

Prinsloo said there was significant potential for these trucks, and upcoming models, at mines in Australia if autonomous technology was successfully added and then trialled in local conditions.

“While there’s not many of them, where mines have separate declines, or twin declines, if you can dedicate one of them to a fully autonomous ramp haulage truck fleet that would be an easy application to get into,” Prinsloo said.

“The challenge is that most mines only have a single ramp so it would be all about that interaction between autonomous and manual equipment – that’s how the majority of applications are going to run.”

Prinsloo said Sandvik already had a concept for autonomous ramp haulage trucks sharing a decline with manual equipment, but was yet to test it in a real mining environment. In the case of a dedicated ramp for autonomous trucks, the concept was proven recently in a mine in Finland with a TH551 truck operating autonomously over shift change.

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