The future of underground mining is autonomous, Niel McCoy of Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology BLM Automation – southern Africa, tells Leon Louw.
Niel, you have been involved in the mining industry for a long time; can you give us a summary of your experience?
I have 24 years’ experience in mechanised mining. My career started in 1994 at Randfontein Estates. There I went through a learner official programme, completed a NHD in metalliferous mining, and obtained a mine manager’s certificate of competency.
Before joining Sandvik in 2006, I worked in contract mining and consulting for five years and as mine manager at a copper mine in Namibia before returning to Sandvik in 2010.
At Sandvik I held roles such as a key account manager and head of projects, before becoming a BLM for automation in October 2018. My passion is mechanised mining and the future that digitalisation brings to the mining industry.
What are the most important aspects of Sandvik’s digital offering framework?
Sandvik has three pillars to our digital offering. One of our pillars is digitally connected equipment. This means that data collection units are installed in as much equipment as possible. The information gleaned from these units is fed into a global database. This data is then used for analytics and to determine trends.
The second leg of our digital framework is process optimisation, which involves two distinct areas: short interval control and data analytics. Firstly, it gives our customers insightful information to better manage their fleets on a day-to-day basis. This information would include telemetry and productivity reporting of equipment; location tracking; task management; scheduling, drill plan visualisation; and 3D scanning.
Our data analytics is another tool that focuses on overall equipment efficiency; meaning, how effectively a piece of equipment is operating. The analytics tool uses all the information gathered from the OptiMine Short Interval Control Modules and other sources such as maintenance breakdown and HR systems, to name a few. The analytics considers all inputs and predicts the likelihood of production targets being met. It provides insight into equipment health, operator performance, and key factors influencing overall equipment efficiency.
The total system gives the mine manager a real-time view of the mine, which enables them to better manage the operations daily. We have the ability to interface every aspect of the mine to ultimately provide a better total package. Sandvik was one of the first original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to publish an interoperability policy, which means we can work with other companies or systems to create an integrated solution for mining companies.
What does ‘interoperability’ refer to?
It basically means working with any other system. We can integrate with any customer system they may have, for example breakdown reporting systems, enterprise management systems, HR systems, long-term planning software, and computerised maintenance management systems.
Automation in the underground environment is a much talked about subject in mining circles; what is Sandvik doing in that space?
We have implemented a whole range of automation solutions, from onboard automation on drill rigs and bolters, for example, to tele-remote and other physical remote operations of equipment from an operator station. The operator station can be located anywhere in the mine or on surface.
We are also looking at fully autonomous equipment, which can be for a single unit, multiple units, or an entire fleet, depending on the mine application and mine layouts. For example, at Resolute Mining’s Syama gold mine in Mali, our fleet will be the world’s first fully autonomous mine. There, everything runs autonomously.
Syama is a unique project; what will the mine be doing that is groundbreaking?
In a world first, Syama will be undertaking autonomous trucking and dumping to surface and returning underground with the trucks on a dedicated tramming decline. The entire fleet at Syama is manufactured by Sandvik.
The load haul dump (LHD) trucks are fully autonomous, as are the production drill rigs. The face drilling units are fitted with onboard automation solutions, which means that they are physically able to download a drill plan and then the machine drills on its own; however, it is not remotely operated at this stage.
Our data analytics is another tool that focuses on overall equipment efficiency; meaning, how effectively a piece of equipment is operating.
Is moving towards fully autonomous solutions a trend among mining companies?
For most greenfield projects in Africa, automation is a key component. They are not even considering any other mining methods in their pre-feasibility and feasibility studies. Many of these projects are underground developments. There is a strong focus on West Africa, and we already have automated equipment operating in the DRC, Mali, Burkina Faso, and also in countries like Zambia and Tanzania.
What is your view on older mining operations in South Africa where the conditions do not necessarily lend itself to automation and mechanisation?
More than 80% of South African mines are not suitable for automation due to, firstly, the mine layout, and secondly, because of a lack of infrastructure. In other words, there are no real networks underground. Furthermore, these mines are still using traditional, non-intelligent equipment with basic functionality and limited technology onboard.
To automate these mines will be very difficult. It will entail product development and massive investments to reconfigure and relook the current mining methods. However, one way to improve the productivity is through information management and data analytics.
We have a complete offering that focuses on these management systems. With our OpitMine package, we take the roof off the mine and give our customer a full view, in real time, so that they can see what is happening underground.
Will it be easy for these mines to suddenly change and operate an autonomous mine?
No mine can just suddenly automate operations. Automation requires cultural change and a completely different way of thinking. The change is a gradual process that begins with information management. From there, mine management needs to develop a different mindset and culture, and only then can you start looking at automating the operations.
If mining companies have not been through this journey, their project is likely to fail as a result of a lack of understanding of the actual requirements, a lack of supporting technology, or non-belief.
So, automation is a gradual process that takes up to four or five years?
Yes, but it all depends on the type of operation.
What about new projects in South Africa — are they considering automation?
Yes, the greenfields operations are all looking at automation. It features strongly in the feasibility study of the Platreef Platinum Project and the pre-feasibility study of the Waterberg Platinum Project. All new projects in southern Africa are also looking at automation solutions.
Where do you see underground mining five years from now? Will it change a lot?
Underground mining will have to change fundamentally to remain relevant. The challenge is that in the African context, especially in South Africa, the skills pool is dwindling. The only way a mining company will run an effective operation will be if it starts providing managers with tools to visualise what’s happening in mines, which will enable them to make better decisions.
In the short term, the focus will have to be on information management, and in the longer term, let’s say five years plus, full automation will kick in.
Even low-profile room-and-pillar mines have a future as automated operations, but it will be a process. The biggest challenge is geology. Mines do not have beautiful, flat ore bodies. Ore bodies naturally roll and dip and twist, and there are potholes and other structures. The question is how to set up network infrastructure to accommodate the requirements of automation. Ultimately, automation needs network coverage. A lot of mines are now working with network partners and suppliers to find a solution. When we do, it again opens up unlimited possibilities.
Traditionally, mines have been using low-profile technology equipment without any other intelligence systems on them. If they want to automate right now, solutions are available, but they really will have to change the mining height, which has a massive impact on dilution, so it does create complications. The long and short of it is network coverage and being able to provide an effective network underground. That’s the real limitation in southern Africa at the moment.
What in your view is the future of underground blasting?
In my opinion, underground blasting will remain relevant, but there are certainly opportunities for mechanical cutting in certain ore bodies, though. We have worked for years with a platinum producer on a low-profile cutting machine. It mines at 1.1m and cuts 4m at a time. Our cutting technology is fairly advanced.
We are also working on hard rock rapid access development machines, which will enable us to access ore bodies in hard rock environments much quicker and to put development infrastructure in place. That’s in the pipeline in the next few years.