Spotlight on underground mining at MassMin 2016

With the future of mining headed underground, OEMs, contractors, and scholars came together at this year’s Seventh International Conference & Exhibition on Mass Mining (MassMin) to address current and potential issues expected to arise. The conference provided a platform for engineers, operators, technicians, companies, and academics in the mining industry to discuss the latest technologies, as well as upcoming challenges and opportunities.

MassMin has run every four years since its beginning in 1982, with Sydney’s Australia Technology Park playing host between May 9 and 11. It’s the second time Australia has been selected as host, with Brisbane wielding the baton in 2000. Other years have seen it take place in Canada, South Africa, and Chile.

Nearly 600 delegates from 23 countries attended MassMin, including more than 40 exhibitors from companies such as Orica, Caterpillar, and RockTek. Universities including Monash and the University of New South Wales (UNSW) were also in attendance.

A wide range of mining technologies were on display, with Sandvik unveiling their new DD422i underground drill. They also showcased their teleremote operator units which could allow users in Australia to operate an LHD in Finland. The unit’s interface identified the exact position of the trucks tray to enhance accuracy of loads and increase efficiency.

Atlas Copco provided a Scooptram training simulator which I had the chance to experience, and after finally getting a handle on which lever moves the vehicle and which moves the tray (with several crashes against the cave wall that would have seen the end of an operator’s career) I was able to successfully scoop the ore; only to have the majority of it fall everywhere but within the truck’s tray, spilling over the cab and floor.

UNSW’s exhibition took mass mining technology to another level, featuring virtual reality headsets aimed to help students familiarise and navigate conditions in underground mines without having to physically travel to the site, as well as understanding bolting systems in multiple dimensions.

Professor Gideon Chitombo, chair of Minerals Industry Engagement at the University of Queensland, and one of MassMin’s co-chairs, highlighted the future direction of mass mining being underground due to lower grade deposits.

“If you look at the future of the resource industry mining anywhere, we are getting deeper, resources are in more challenging geological, geotechnical environments, and the grades are getting lower and lower,” he told Australian Mining.

He went on to identify block caving as one of the most economically viable methods for these deposits.

“Obviously there could be other methods but I think the most profitable is most likely to be block caving, which is geared toward massive and low grade deposits.

“So really we need to make sure that this method continues to be viable, economic, profitable, and also sustainable in terms of the impacts, like the social [and] environmental impacts so it is an important method for the resource industry to continue improving as conditions change.”

The event was also filled with a range of presentations over the three days by academics and industry professionals, addressing topics such as the geotechnical challenges with cave monitoring and ways to manage stress and seismicity in inclined sublevel caves. Keynote speakers included presentations by University of Adelaide’s professor of Engineering and Management Steve Begg on the value of good decision making in the industry, while Monica Quinteiro and Asa Sundqvist from Swedish mining company LKAB addressed the topic of female mine managers.

Professor Fidelis Suorineni, chair of Geotechnical Engineering at UNSW’s School of Mining Engineering and another one of the chair’s at the event, identified this year’s focus not only on technology but on collaboration between companies and universities as well, with future direction of mining resting on this continued collaboration.

“We’ve realised that in order to solve most of the complex mining problems, we have to put heads together rather than sit or in the traditional sense of doing research in silence; that doesn’t seem to work today. And I think that is also one of the drivers for a lot of emphasis on collaboration now both within companies and within academia,” he told Australian Mining.

“In the past various operating companies seemed to sort of safeguard their strategic development and vision, now everybody’s saying we have to open up and share the knowledge that we all have acquired over the years. So if that goes into technology development then it becomes cheaper for everybody.”

The event was an overall success with Chitombo, who was also chair of Brisbane event in 2000, saying it was well attended by delegates worldwide.

“It is actually attracting interest globally and also by a number of the major mining companies because they realise that the future of metal mining is going to be underground,” he said.

“Yes there will always be large open pits, there will always be, but I think you’ll find that there’ll be more and more of these underground options.”

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