Technology is shaping the future of mining, leaving companies like WesTrac with a responsibility to upskill its workforce to support how the industry is evolving.
WesTrac has emerged as a leading example of a mining services company that is transitioning its workers alongside the changes technology is causing.
The Western Australian-based Caterpillar dealer is making the most of the opportunities that technology presents, but at the same time ensuring its existing workforce also benefits.
For WesTrac, the impact of technology has not so much been about targeting new workers with these skills, but instead adding the capabilities to its existing workforce.
WesTrac responds to the new technologies that are released on CAT equipment by working with mining companies that use the OEM’s machines to introduce and manage the systems across their fleets.
This is rapidly changing what is required from WesTrac’s workforce, according to chief executive officer Jarvas Croome.
“We’re developing a lot of new skills in our workforce to be able to manage tech-enabled equipment,” Croome tells Australian Mining at the Diggers and Dealers Mining Forum.
“Autonomous equipment is obviously the pinnacle that everyone focusses on, and for every autonomous piece of equipment, there’s six or seven other pieces of gear that also needs to be technology enabled to work in an autonomous mining environment.”
Automation has often been perceived as a technology that removes jobs from the industry, but WesTrac is proving that it can instead broaden the skill base of existing workers.
It is, however, an element of the technological change that mining companies and workforces continue to grapple with.
BHP, for example, has outlined plans to ramp up its introduction of driverless trucks in Australia across its iron ore and coal operations.
The company will potentially introduce up to 500 autonomous trucks at its Australian open cut operations, a move that it has already started to prepare its workforce for, according to BHP Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA) asset president James Palmer.
“Over time as we progress – yes, let’s be transparent – this will likely mean our business has fewer operators physically on the equipment,” Palmer, in a speech to the Bowen Basin Mining Club, says.
“But it will mean more controllers, more builders and more technicians. It will mean less physical and less routine jobs. But it will mean more dynamic, fulfilling careers.”
But automation isn’t the only technology that is changing mining equipment and the workforce that operates the machinery.
Croome points out that further along the Caterpillar equipment range, technology is having a significant impact.
“Our new excavator range has a lot of on-board technology out of the factory. We need our technicians to be able to maintain that and help our customers use it easily,” Croome says.
“We are recruiting people with new skills in some places for that and we are upskilling our existing employees to be able to better maintain and support this gear.”
An increased focus on mining’s impact on the environment is also driving the development of technology for equipment.
WesTrac, which sponsored Diggers and Dealers for the 20th consecutive year in 2019, used the event to showcase the latest version of the R2900 underground loader, which features technology that improves its environmental credentials compared with the previous model.
The 17.2-tonne loader is powered by a fuel-efficient Cat C15 engine and allows operators to choose between emission configurations. The EU Stage V engine option considerably reduces diesel particulate matter (DPM) and meets current European emissions standards.
Well suited to the hard rock miners in the Goldfields region, Caterpillar markets the loader as a reliable machine that combines productivity, performance and low cost of ownership.
“Diggers was a chance to showcase the Cat R2900 Underground Loader and talk about the new emissions technology we are getting on the machines,” Croome says. “It’s exciting that the underground machines are moving in that direction.”
WesTrac has anticipated Caterpillar’s move into battery electric machinery for the underground environment, according to Croome, who expects this technology to become more attractive to Australian miners in the coming years.
The OEM last year revealed details of a proof-of-concept battery electric trial carried out at an underground site on the CAT R1300G LHD.
This year, Caterpillar announced that its first battery-electric LHD would be the CAT R1700 underground loader, a machine the company showcased at the Bauma trade fair in Munich, Germany.
Croome believes the OEM will continue to focus development in this direction as underground mining companies seek ways to remove ventilation requirements and improve safety.
“Caterpillar have recognised that in underground mining, we are going to see battery technology emerge. They have trial units with battery technology on them already,” he says.
“I think it is a ‘chicken egg’ scenario, waiting for the battery technology to catch up with the application, but we have started to see that journey progress already. It’s an exciting time for the whole underground market.”
Croome, however, recognises the current challenges that are in the way of widespread adoption of battery technology in the Australian underground environment.
He points to the initial capital costs and the weight of batteries as challenges, but he believes these hurdles will rapidly move in the favour of mining companies.
“The tech of batteries is changing so fast, so what you see today in its infancy is machines that work really well in particular applications of certain size,” Croome says.
“I think in the next two or three years we will see the batteries start to fit into bigger machines and you will also see them last a lot longer but still be able to recharge very quickly.”
But as Diggers and Dealers proved in 2019, with underground gold mining companies riding high on record Aussie dollar prices, an era of battery electric machinery has potential to arrive sooner rather than later.
“Overall, we are in a good part of the cycle, but there’s definitely more in front of us, more opportunities ahead and more we can do to take advantage of that,” Croome concludes.