The mining industry has been facing significant headwinds lately. Low commodity prices, increased environmental requirements, and greater haulage distances are all pressuring profitability. Replacement rates of large and long-life deposits are declining and the lead times to develop greenfield sites are, at the same time, increasing. Add skilled labour shortages into the mix and it’s no wonder the industry is feeling squeezed.

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Several technologies are available, or under development, to help mining companies face these challenges. Some have been around for years but they are only just becoming economical enough to rollout. Increased mechanisation, optimised equipment and material flow, and real-time performance monitoring are only a few of the initiatives. While each application alone has potential, together they could be the shift the industry needs to get the wind back in its sails.

What are some of these technologies and how can they be applied?

Data integration

Data integration from an increasing number of sources enables mining companies to plan mines and future operations with unparalleled accuracy. Applying models and running simulations using information such as weather, ground conditions and machine availability provide invaluable insight enabling them to know exactly what is in the ground and precisely where to operate. This information can be used to optimise drill and blast patterns, which generates the greatest possible value at the lowest possible cost and environmental impact. This technology is expected to trickle down through the entire industry.

Unmanned vehicles

Driverless mine vehicles operate autonomously. Some don’t include a cab, meaning it’s not even possible to ride on board. These GPS-powered vehicles can fully interact with each other to minimise delays and fuel costs. Today, one mining giant has these trucks hauling iron ore 24/7 at mines in Australia. At one site, the trucks work alongside an automated blast hole drill system, enabling multiple drill rigs from different manufacturers to be operated remotely. The company is also upgrading the trains that haul the ore, allowing the locomotives to drive themselves and be loaded and unloaded automatically, greatly improving safety.

Predictive maintenance

Predictive maintenance technologies help determine precisely when equipment will need maintenance. Vehicles equipped with sensors transmit their operational status and performance statistics to a central automation system. The system then analyses the data, in conjunction with equipment suppliers, to predict required maintenance and prevent unplanned equipment failures. Using this information promises to reduce maintenance spending and prevent costly, unexpected interruptions.

Inventory management of spare parts

Mining companies often keep spare parts on-hand to be available for repair and maintenance. However, many of these parts become obsolete before they are even used and are then discarded. By combining analytics with inventory management, companies could ensure inventory is stocked on a just-in-time basis, in just the right quantities. Stock would be ordered at the appropriate time and any unused inventory would be sold off before it becomes obsolete, thus reducing risk and inventory costs. To cap it off, digital control systems would automatically settle the transactions and produce management information reports, saving valuable time.

Cloud-based logistics

Finally, technologies such as cloud-based logistics and load-sharing platforms can enable mining companies to optimise their supply chains. Companies can use digital tools to execute and manage sales contracts, determine price in real-time, and manage inventories and product flows in ways that control for risks and optimise costs.

So, if these initiatives are all combined, what could a mine of the future look like?

A driverless truck pulls up to an excavator operated from a computer miles away, is loaded and departs with the exact weight to optimise fuel consumption. The truck receives instructions from the mine’s central automation system to haul the ore to the unattended loader, where it is placed on rail cars before being transported – again unmanned – hundreds of miles to the port.

Operating around-the-clock, the truck automatically signals its required maintenance to the company’s inventory system, specifying the spare parts and consumables it will need. The inventory system screens which parts are available, searches for options to restock, automatically orders the parts and settles the corresponding payment transactions.

As the truck is only one of an integrated fleet, it continuously interacts with other vehicles to perform the ground operations safely and efficiently. Blast sites and haulage routes have been executed perfectly, minimising both wastage and environmental impact.

To continue meeting growth in global demand for mineral commodities, companies should embrace automation technologies sooner rather than later. Doing so will let them ride tailwinds to greater efficiency, safer conditions and higher profits.