Maintenance: At the cutting edge

Maintenance: At the cutting edge

Automation in underground mines improves productivity, reduces maintenance and operating costs, and enhances machine performance.

The development of innovative automated technology in underground drilling applications improves safety and reliability and cuts down on maintenance costs. Functions such as tele-remoting on drill rigs, for example, enables remote line-of-sight control and operation of equipment from the safety of a control room. This not only reduces the risk of injuries, but also results in the more efficient operation of the machines and, ultimately, eliminating long hours of downtime and maintenance on essential parts. Automation technology can be applied safely and cost-effectively to enhance a wide range of underground operations, including haulage, long-hole production drilling, materials handling, communication networks, and data capturing on production.

All four levels of automation have been adopted on four Simba M4C
Four Simba M4C machines are in operation on a diamond mine.
Image credit: Atlas Copco

“With benefits such as these it comes as no surprise that automation technology is considered by investors, management, and engineers alike as the only way for mining operations to ensure a sustainable future,” says Thomas Mthimunye, regional business development manager underground rock excavation (URE) at equipment manufacturer Atlas Copco. “We strongly encourage the mining industry to embrace automation, as this technology enables mines to take control of their operations in a completely new way.”

Atlas Copco’s Powered by Automation is a holistic concept that straddles the company’s full range of mining equipment, systems, operations, and services. “It encompasses both fully autonomous products, as well as different steps of automation based on the task at hand and on the current level of automation in a mining or tunneling operation,” explains Mthimunye. There are four levels to Powered by Automation: monitoring, function, calculated optimisation, and autonomy. All hardware and software is designed, maintained and supported by Atlas Copco.

All four levels of automation have been adopted on the Boltec MC Roof Bolter operating on a gold mine
All four levels of automation have been adopted on the Boltec MC Roof Bolter, which is operating on a gold mine.
Image credit: Atlas Copco

A number of gold, manganese, platinum, and diamond mines across South Africa have implemented automation technology. Three top diamond mines have automated their machines, with one of the mines planning full autonomy in 2020.

“Some of the mines have adopted all four levels of automation. Three Simba M6C Long Hole Drill Rigs, one Boomer M2C Face Drill Rig, and one Boltec MC Roof Bolter are operating on gold mines, and four Simba M4C and two Simba ME7C Long Hole Drill Rigs are in operation on a diamond mine,” says Mthimunye.

Examples of automation that can be applied on a Scooptram RRC include an Operator Unit (OU) that gives the operator full control over the scooptram loader; a Machine Unit (MU), which receives the control signals from the operator and activates correct machine function; a harness belt giving the operator an ergonomic working position throughout the shift; and a Bluetooth communication link to ensure a safe, reliable remote link. Mine truck automation comprises wall avoidance (available for both manual and tele-remote operation), and auto tram and auto dump for autonomous production cycle. One to six Simba rigs can be controlled from a fixed control room; remote control of machinery from 100m line-of-sight is possible from a mobile control room.

“We have a comprehensive range of automation technologies for underground equipment,” continues Mthimunye. “Rig remote access (RRA) enables stakeholders to monitor the machine and gather data in real time without having to go underground or wait for the shift, and our rig control system (RCS) is an auto rod-handling function that simplifies operation and reduces wear on the rig as well as on consumables.” Of the more than 3 000 RCS rigs introduced to the global market since 1998, about 1 400 are operating underground. RCS’s self-diagnostic features assist in faster troubleshooting and increased availability of the machines. “We also offer a load weighing system that provides accurate recorded information on tonnages excavated,” adds Mthimunye.

Thomas Mthimunye Regional Business Development Manager URE We strongly encourage the mining industry to embrace automation
Thomas Mthimunye, regional business development manager URE at Atlas Copco.
Image credit: Atlas Copco

Atlas Copco monitored underground mining activities over a 24-hour period to determine the potential and capacity of automation to assist mines in becoming more productive, safe, and profitable. Results showed a remarkable improvement potential of between 40% and 80% on autonomous machines working through shift changes and blasting.

Despite the proven success of automation technology, Mthimunye says there is still resistance to move away from manual operation, which he puts down to not being fully versed in all the benefits of this technology.

“Unfortunately, automation is usually linked to a decreased workforce, while, in fact, the very opposite is true. It creates opportunities. While the technology is easy to use, it still requires highly skilled operators and technicians to operate the machines. This means upskilling of personnel and subsequent higher remuneration. Furthermore, ease of automation operation attracts women and young upcoming engineers to the mining industry. The older generation’s fear of technology is another challenge. Here education is key: we need to show not only the simplicity of automation, but also the tremendous value-add of this technology.

“That automation contributes to the sustainable future of any mining operation is fact. There is thus absolutely no doubt that every operation that implements automation will realise all the unparalleled benefits offered by this technology: reduced operational and maintenance expenses; increased uptime and production; improved productivity; upskilled operators; maximised safety; and, ultimately, lowest overall cost of equipment ownership, rapid return on capital investments, and profitability,” concludes Mthimunye.


Click below to read the July 2017 issue of Mining Mirror.

MM July2017

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