The mining sector in the country is set to perform increasingly well in the coming years. This is owing to the industry’s focus on enhancing mineral production and the adoption of encouraging policy measures by the government. However, to fully tap its growth potential, productivity and mechanisation levels in the mining industry will need to be raised significantly.
At present, two types of mining techniques are deployed – surface/opencast mining and underground mining. While surface mining is more prevalent and most metallic ores and minerals (excluding petroleum and natural gas) are produced using this technique, underground mining is not practised as widely. For instance, the share of underground mining in the coal sector has declined from 16.3 per cent to 8.8 per cent in the past decade. These techniques make use of several types of mining equipment for exploration and production. For instance, some of the key equipment used for opencast mining is draglines, bucket wheel excavators, shovel-dumpers, highwall miners and surface miners. Further, equipment such as side discharge loaders, load haul dumps, conveyor systems, continuous miners and hydraulic drillers are deployed for underground mining.
While several kinds of such equipment and machines are deployed in the mining sector, the productivity of the equipment used is much lower as compared to other industries. According to a McKinsey report, the current productivity figures for underground and opencast mining are 27 per cent and 39 per cent respectively. This is in comparison with the much higher productivity levels of 88 per cent and 90 per cent recorded for the oil and gas and steel sectors respectively.
Equipment productivity can be assessed by the timely availability of the required equipment, its handling and utilisation, and its efficiency. In India, equipment productivity (measured in output per man-shift [OMS]) of opencast mining tends to be relatively higher than that of underground mining. On average, underground mines produce 0.8-1.24 million tonnes (mt) of OMS, while opencast mines produce over 12 mt. Therefore, not only does equipment productivity differ between the mining sector and other industries, there is a huge disparity within the mining industry itself.
Several key factors influence the levels of equipment utilisation in the mining industry:
- As most of the equipment in the mining sector is imported, the timely availability of spare parts is a major issue. Until the spare part becomes available, the equipment lies idle, which impacts its overall utilisation levels.
- Mining activity involves sequential operations of drilling, blasting, loading, hauling and dumping. Thus, the utilisation of equipment in one sequence depends on equipment utilisation in the preceding sequence. If even one of the components in the chain breaks down, it can lead to lower utilisation across the entire mining process.
- By its very nature, mining activity often involves unforeseen conditions that have a significant impact on equipment utilisation.
- Inadequately trained workers tasked with operating equipment also impact overall utilisation levels. Thus, inefficiencies stem from the workers’ lack of technical knowledge and training, and poor understanding of the required procedures.
- Power outages are also a significant contributor to the low utilisation of mining equipment, most of which (barring transport vehicles) require constant power supply to function.
- The use of transport vehicles for unproductive uses, and time-consuming maintenance and repair of equipment also impact equipment utilisation.
Therefore, measures need to be adopted for enhancing equipment utilisation in the sector. Solutions such as better planning for mine development, timely maintenance of equipment and vehicles, training of manpower, geotagging of vehicles to avoid slipped usage, and software-based detailed scheduling and redundancy planning should be deployed by players.
There has been a growing trend towards mechanisation in the mining industry. More earthmoving equipment is being deployed by players owing to benefits such as improved quality, timeliness, better project financials and improved safety. However, the level of mechanisation at Indian mines tends to vary with the type of minerals/ores to be mined and the mining company undertaking operations.
Broadly, three types of mechanisation levels can be observed in the mining sector – manual, semi-mechanised and fully mechanised. While most of the mining operations are undertaken manually, there is limited reliance on vehicles for transportation operations. In semi-mechanised mines, while most of the work is manually handled, some equipment is utilised to extract the mineral resources. Fully mechanised mines call for minimum labour interface. Most of the operations in such mines are automated and are controlled by skilled personnel.
In a bid to reduce import dependence, the government has been placing greater emphasis on increasing domestic mining output. For instance, it is planning to invest about Rs 35 billion (over a period of seven years) for conducting an aero-geophysical survey of 813,000 square km of land. The survey is expected to help assess the presence of deep-seated and concealed mineral deposits. In addition, with the increasing depths of deposits, rising concerns over deforestation, and issues related to land use, it is inevitable that more and more mining activities will have to be underground. However, as compared to opencast mining, underground mining requires the deployment of advanced machines and equipment. Thus, in the coming years, industry players will have to increasingly adopt mechanisation to ensure higher and environmentally sound mineral production.
Mechnaisation can also assist in increasing the safety of workers in hazardous mining conditions. It also extends considerable operational flexibility to operators. With mechanisation, operators can change the scale of their operations in response to the demand and pricing of minerals.
Automation and technology adoption
While the mining sector has felt the need to adopt IT solutions for enhancing production efficiencies, the uptake of automation and technology solutions has been comparatively slow. One of the key needs of the sector at present is the deployment of solutions for strategic resource development, resource and reserves estimation, ore body knowledge, mine planning, and methods of extraction. This has led to a demand for technologies which can assist in enterprise resource planning. For instance, industrial automation and control systems, simulator training systems, equipment control and guidance systems, advanced mine-surveying technologies, underground mining and surface drilling technologies, and machine guidance and control systems are being deployed in the sector, albeit slowly.
Several mining companies are also making use of advanced software packages for mine planning and design. For instance, 3D modelling of ore body using software products is being done. Advanced software packages such as Micromine, Gemcom Minex, Surpac, CAE Mining Datamin and Vulcan are gaining traction. For exploration, geophysics applications using 2D and 3D seismic surveys as well as high capacity hydrostatic drills are being used. However, these software packages are usually deployed in silos and there is a need to streamline and integrate them.
At the same time, traffic controllers and radio frequency identification-based traffic control systems are being deployed. These help mining companies to streamline vehicular movements, undertake real-time analysis of truck fleets and check utilisation levels. Companies are also geotagging equipment, vehicles, manpower (tracked on a 3D map) and boundaries of mining areas. Geotagging offers several benefits for companies, including receiving alerts for zone violations and perimeter breaches; tracking machine health, movement of machines and material from source to destination; monitoring mis-dumps and cycle times; etc.
Meanwhile, the mining sector has been characterised by very limited data extraction and usage. Less than 1 per cent of the data generated at various levels of the mining process is accessed and used. Therefore, the results that could be obtained from such data are not incorporated in the final decision-making process.
In addition, several new technology solutions hold the potential to change the level of mining automation and enhance efficiencies. For instance, the emerging internet of things (IoT) can enable mining companies to connect to, collect and exchange data from various software systems, devices, drives, belts, sensors, and heavy earthmoving and mining equipment. It can also enable firmware and network connectivity. At the same time, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or drones can also be adopted in mining. These can help companies in measuring extraction volumes in open pit mining and compare them to the actual mining plans, compute stockpile and dump volumes, map infrastructure, monitor dump yards and haul roads, undertake safety and stability inspections, and conduct on-demand security surveillance. Besides IoT and the use of UAVs for surveys, the mining sector can also experiment with artificial intelligence and parallel processing. Further, environment monitoring and video analytics for key drilling areas can also be adopted.
There is immense scope for the mining sector to enhance its levels of productivity and mechanisation. While industry players are increasing their use of equipment and technology solutions, adoption still remains slow. In addition, there is a pressing need to enhance the efficiency and productivity of the equipment deployed. This can be done by training manpower and hiring skilled personnel to run the equipment, undertaking research and development activities, and adopting the right kind of technologies. At the same time, bottlenecks in terms of adequate financing of equipment need to be resolved immediately to encourage greater mechanisation.