Automatic conversion: Why automation is now standard in Australian mining


As Epiroc looks to an autonomous future in mining, the company reflects on the Australian project that has set a strong foundation in this area. Australian Mining writes.

The benefits of automation continue to be realised at Australian mine sites. For original equipment manufacturer (OEM) Epiroc, no project has demonstrated the power of autonomous machinery more than the conversion of its drill rigs to this technology across BHP Iron Ore’s Pilbara mines in Western Australia.

For more information on Epiroc’s innovations in mining automation, download the company whitepaper by filling out the form at the bottom of this article.  

Epiroc, then known as Atlas Copco Construction & Mining, started converting 18 of BHP’s Pit Viper 271 rotary blasthole rigs to fully autonomous operation in mid-2016, adding them to a fleet of two autonomous drills already in operation.

This project followed a two-year trial at BHP’s Yandi iron ore mine, during which the drills operated autonomously for more than 15,000 hours, drilling more than one million metres.

Epiroc completed the conversion by mid-2017, giving BHP 20 PV-271 autonomous drills operating across five sites — Yandi, Mining Area C, Jimblebar, Mt Whaleback and Eastern Ridge.

The deployment has delivered all of the benefits expected: cost savings, a safety improvement and productivity gains. BHP has reported a 16 per cent increase in productivity at the sites using the automated drills.

The efficiencies of Epiroc’s autonomous drills have continued to flow, with benefits including a 9.8 per cent increase in metres drilled per shift and a 22 per cent improvement in drill bit life.

Beyond the obvious savings in labour costs, there has also been much greater utilisation of equipment as the drills operate during meal breaks, shift changes, meetings and other events that traditionally result in downtime.

According to Epiroc automation manager Adrian Boeing, the ability to generate ideas and implement improvements with these systems has also led to a “massive win” for the miner.

By taking a scientific approach to upcoming developments, supported by the collaboration between individuals and teams within the organisation, he has seen big productivity gains.

“Not only do the automation team have the ability to talk to one another and share their learnings, they can also talk to the rest of the organisation,” Boeing says.

“So, if something is wrong with the drill design or drill planning, they can pass this information directly along to the geology team. Whereas before if they noticed something on the ground they didn’t have the ability to collaborate.

“They can now discuss ideas, refine those ideas and then improve operations across different sites. And of course, they have the data stream to back them up and validate the decisions.”

Boeing’s statements echo Deloitte research that states mining companies that embrace the convergence of automatic technology and digitisation stand to see productivity benefits of 10–20 per cent.

A key feature of an autonomous system is the data it creates, an aspect that is becoming better understood by mining companies.

When these autonomous machines generate data, it’s consistent and high quality, and as a result, there are lots of value-added benefits.

Boeing says an example of value-added benefit from the technology is improving the relationships between drilling and blasting.

“You can optimise how many explosives you can put in a pattern depending on how hard or soft the particular ground is – that’s the sort of data you can leverage from an autonomous drill which isn’t too practical to get from a manual drill,” he explains.

BHP and other major miners, glean benefits from having a remote operations centre where a plethora of benefits are realised by staff who share information instantly and make decisions and improvements based on the data.

This is the real value of the digital mine set up, which not only includes the adoption of autonomous drills, vehicles and equipment, but is operated through a connected network that uses Internet of Things (IoT) sensors to capture this data in real time.

While automation is often viewed as a threat to mining jobs, the BHP case found that in fact it harnessed the skills of existing employees better. Where employees were once previously isolated at drill patterns, they are now in an operations centre sharing valuable information and insights.

The results of the BHP project have set a strong foundation for the future ambitions of Epiroc, which officially splits from Atlas Copco and will list on NASDAQ from June 2018.

As the new entity, Epiroc will aim to add more automation-focused projects to its Australian portfolio, using the experience with BHP as a benchmark.

Epiroc AB (Sweden) president and chief executive officer Per Lindberg says the Atlas Copco split will prove beneficial for mining companies and the industry in the long-term, with focus to be added on services and technology.

Not surprisingly, Lindberg sees automation as a particular focus in the Australia market.

“The big mining houses are here and all of them are looking for productivity improvements and solutions through automation,” Lindberg says.

“The industry is looking for new solutions and not the least when it comes to automation and the digital space. This is what we have to provide – we do it already but we also have to continue to develop more so in that area.”

Epiroc continues to upgrade its range of autonomous equipment with incremental improvements and new features, such as drill rig models like the top-hammer SmartROC T45 and larger Pit Viper 316 drill. The manufacturer’s base digital platform — the real control system (RCS) — is continually evolving along with these product lines.

“The growth in the new generation equipment primarily occurred with drilling contractors buying DML, SmartRig ROC F9 and SmartROC D65 rigs and with the introduction of the Pit Viper 270 to the major mining companies,” Epiroc Australian regional manager in the Pilbara Chris Clewes explains.

As the achievements of Epiroc, have shown, automation in mining is not just a passing fad, but a phenomenon that is already changing the industry.

From Boeing’s perspective, “the more equipment you have automated, the more synergies you have, which translates to increased productivity and better operations.”

With Epiroc and BHP showcasing the proven benefits of automation in the mining industry, it won’t be long before the rest of world catches up, adds Boeing.

“Automation is the way it’s done now. The world’s biggest mining company [BHP] is using this technology. It’s proven. It’s reliable. And it’s a bit of a wake-up call for the rest of the mining players to get moving,” he concludes.

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