From dawn to dusk — equipment that lasts

In environments where products can be affected by extreme weather conditions while they are in near-constant use, reliability is key in keeping the wheels rolling. Miri Schroeter writes.

Just as employees can be struck by the consequences of long, hot days doing physical labour, machinery can also feel the strain of a full working day. Rest and recovery for employees is not only desired but also necessary in ensuring the day can begin over in a mine for weeks and months to come. While machines don’t necessarily have the luxury of shutting off for an evening, they need the support of quality parts to keep running efficiently and consistently.

Auto Control Systems (ACS) general manager John Watts works with mines across Western Australia to ensure companies get the best out of their machinery. He says in order to do this, he too needs access to the best equipment or it could be detrimental to his customers and ultimately to ACS’ reputation.

“When a machine shuts down you get upset customers. Sometimes it’s not the cost of the machine. It can cost millions-of-dollars per day if that machine is not producing what it should be,” Watts says.

“Some of our machines load the explosives in the blast hole. The old saying in the mining industry is, if you don’t drill you don’t blast, you don’t dig you don’t mine you don’t make money. If you don’t blast for a day or two that means every machine in the mine site starts shutting down. If you’re not blasting you’ve got nothing to dig up, nothing to process, nothing to put on the train to send out to the boats.

“A mine site shutting down can cost a million to two million dollars a day. It’s the cost of the downtime for the whole mine site that is the issue.”

With this in mind, ACS chooses to partner with companies that supply reliable products that are easily accessible to the Perth-based company. ifm is able to offer this reliability in its range of condition monitoring systems, connection technology, sensors and industrial imaging products.

“I’ve had it before where machinery up north in the Pilbara hits the summer and we’ve had products getting too hot and they just shut down. We’ve had older machines that did that, where we’ve replaced it with ifm products and it just powers through. We didn’t get that problem again,” says Watts.

He explains that ACS uses ifm equipment in its projects as it is robust enough to withstand Pilbara temperatures, which can soar to 55° Celcius, and temperatures in other sites that ACS delivers projects in such as the mountains in Siberia, which can drop to -40° Celcius.

“It’s fit for purpose. They know we’ve got quality and it guarantees our machinery does work.”

He says sometimes companies don’t even know their machinery has ifm products in it as they’ve never had to replace it.

“The reason they don’t know the ifm gear is in there is because it hasn’t broken down. If you’ve got a bad system or component that’s always breaking down, they really get to know the component and get to not like it sometimes. But if it’s in the machine dormant underneath, and there’s no problem for 10 years, they are not going to know it,” Watts says.

Systems that work

ACS has been working with ifm for a decade and it’s a partnership that keeps on working – so much so that ACS stocks spare parts on behalf of ifm.

“We can get it out the door on the same day. That keeps the ifm customers happier now that they’ve got someone on the West Coast to help them out. Whether its parts, support or trade we can help,” Watts says.

One of the benefits of working with ifm is its range of systems for mobile machines, which ACS encourages many of its customers to use.

“Some of the equipment we used with the trucks before wasn’t mobile ready. For the mobile side, ifm’s products are one of the most robust systems around. It’s high temperature rated, high vibration proof and keeps on repeatedly working out there,” he says.

ifm’s smart observer allows ACS to connect its customers’ machinery without re-configuring the entire fleet with ifm equipment. Watts says customers will often already be using ifm products without knowing it anyway.

“If you try to sell the smart observer and their response is, ‘there is no equipment to connect to,’ well they actually have six or so machines that already have ifm on it.”

The smart observer is a condition monitoring system that can identify possible damage or production stoppages, help reduce energy consumption, and help with the maintenance and repair of machinery.

“Getting the data helps us with servicing and improvements. If we can see that we can make something more efficient by even three per cent, we will,” says Watts.

He explains that customers are able to budget better and keep an eye on machinery and workload to determine whether machines need servicing or whether they need another machine to keep up with demand. It also helps monitor employees and work out whether they are working efficiently.

“Sometimes it highlights that if the person isn’t running it efficiently or correctly they need training. The person might be too frightened to put their hand up,” says Watts.

Safety at forefront

In an industry that needs stringent safety measures in place 24/7, ACS aims to offer the best solutions, with the help of ifm products. “For example, in the drilling industry as a whole, there is a big push to improve safety. The drilling companies and their customers see a need for this,” says Watts.

ACS is running pilot programs with drilling companies to implement better safety standards. ifm products such as cameras and sensors are helping in this program.

“If someone goes in a danger zone, you can stop the machine or make it go slower using safety controllers. When you’ve got sensors and outputs you want to make sure that if the controller is running well, it is running 100 per cent fine,” Watts explains.

“We’ve got current engineers that are TÜV safety certified. They can go and analyse a machine or a problem and give their recommendation on what needs to be done.

“If you have an ifm safety controller installed with redundant controllers, there is less chance of an unsafe condition occurring,” he says.

Upgrading machines is important for data and safety, and Watts says in remote locations it is having autonomous systems can minimise the risk to people.

“In some cases there will be a few staff in the remote area that aren’t easy to access if something goes wrong. The more you can automate a machine, the less people will be on site,” says Watts.

He explains that by having equipment that lasts, is reliable and promotes safety, such as ifm’s range, customers are more likely to come back to ACS.

This article appears in the June 2019 issue of Australian Mining.

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