Technology Transition: Mining companies move towards adoption of new equipment

Mining companies move towards adoption of new equipment

With most of the mining operations in the country being opencast, the shallow deposits, to a large extent, have already been extracted. Despite technology adoption in opencast mining, India is still far behind its global counterparts in terms of automation and mechanisation in mining. To maintain production levels (or to achieve even higher levels), mining companies are required to carry out deeper excavations for their operations. Therefore, output from underground mining needs to be ramped up. Underground communication, real-time asset monitoring and real-time safety status updates, especially with respect to underground mining operations, is a large field waiting to be tapped. The mining industry can leverage information technology (IT) capabilities to enhance productivity and safety in mining activities.

Need for innovation

In essence, efficiency and productivity improvements that aid in containing costs have become imperative in the domestic mining industry. These have led to a debate around the technologies to be used in the sector. For instance, the debate over the use of large capacity equipment versus smaller capacity ones in coal mines has been at the forefront of mine planning discussions. While larger equipment provides scalability and safety, smaller capacity ones are more fuel efficient. The debate is settled through mine planning technology, which determines the appropriate choice of equipment, depending upon the geotechnical parameters of the mineral deposit.

Technology in mining is utilised at two levels: at the first level, it is used for knowledge-based analysis and characterisation of mineral deposits, thus aiding in mine planning and at the second level, it helps in achieving operational efficiency. As minerals available at shallow depths have mostly been excavated, mining conditions and, therefore, technology requirements are changing fast. Deeper deposits, difficult geotechnical parameters, falling grades of ores, limited land availability, stricter norms for environmental risk mitigation and logistics issues are nudging companies back to the drawing board to chalk out fresh business strategies.

This scenario is further impacted by fluctuations in demand and prices. As a globally integrated industry, with equipment sourcing and product sales dependent on international markets, the country’s mining industry is exposed to foreign exchange risks as well, which, given the current level of volatility, can severely impact the feasibility of mining operations. Technology-driven flexible mining, therefore, is a necessity and the Indian mining industry is certainly moving towards greater technology adoption, albeit slowly.

Low equipment utilisation

Equipment utilisation levels in the Indian mining industry stand at 70-80 per cent, at best. Factors such as non-availability of spare parts, sequential operations, unforeseen mining conditions, lack of skilled manpower and power outages have resulted in low utilisation levels.

Possible means to enhance equipment utilisation include proper maintenance of equipment, better planning, rigorous training of manpower, scenario-based standard operating procedures, deployment of appropriate technology systems, etc. A planned maintenance strategy needs to be implemented to ensure better performance and reliability of equipment. Optimising haul distances by bringing the waste dump closer to the excavating machinery; designing for dual-side shovel loading; using appropriate buckets; and optimising the dump height for the dragline based on boom height, reach and swing angle are other areas that can be modified to increase productivity and achieve cost savings.

Technology adoption in equipment

There have been technological advances to reduce wear and tear, provide high performance levels and decrease the downtime of equipment. Equipment is also being increasingly tailor-made to suit customer requirements. Equipment manufacturers are also fitting equipment with high-end user-friendly technology solutions, allowing operators to perform more efficiently. In-pit crushing and conveying systems need to be adopted to reduce long truck hauls, thereby resulting in significant savings in operating costs. Though the system is capital intensive, the payback time is short. Moreover, the system can be used as the pit becomes deeper and waste dumps become bigger. For certain mine pit and seam geometries, the application of direct dozer methods can bring about significant cost reductions. These methods are almost standard practice worldwide, and their increased application in the domestic mining industry will enable cost reduction. In the case of underground mining, sophisticated drilling technologies are gradually being adopted. There is a shift from jackhammer to long feed jumbos for carrying out face drilling and from pneumatic to high speed, long-hole, electro-hydraulic solo for conducting production drilling.

Excavators are becoming “smart” and helping increase overall productivity. The smart systems range from intelligent machine control, telematics, global positioning system (GPS) and global navigation satellite systems, to M2M machines. Caterpillar and Komatsu are at the forefront in adopting smart technologies in their excavators. Hyundai Construction Equipment India Private Limited showcased its technological prowess with the latest SMART series of excavators at a recent equipment and technology trade fair. One of the biggest attractions at the event was the 3D-printed excavator. Although mechanical and electrical systems were not 3D printed, the excavator was constructed from cab, boom and heat exchanger components, all created using different additive manufacturing technologies.

In a bid to monitor and supervise haulage operations, GPS-enabled devices are attached to the fleet. Geotagging is thus gaining ground as companies look to bring in efficiency gains and check pilferage points.

Technologies such as industrial automation and control systems, simulator training for equipment handlers, equipment control and machine guidance, and control systems which are compatible with enterprise resource planning software used by miners are seeing increasing adoption. These technologies help track auxiliary and support equipment on a real-time basis and help improve efficiency of operations. They also help reduce slippages.

Other trends

With recent technological advancements especially with the application of IT, it has become possible to identify the variables for improving existing production of mines with reduced operational costs, and ensure higher level of safety of miners. Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology is an effective tool for ensuring safety in mining operations as it offers a real-time tracking system during blasting and has the potential to improvise mining operations. Radar technology has been popular for several decades globally, and can be a good tool to avert the hazards due to ground movement in surface mining. Virtual reality has the potential to cater to the needs of quality training with real-time simulations of field conditions for miners.

A trend in mining technology adoption has also been of addressing the concern of climate change and, hence, reducing the carbon footprint. The use of more energy efficient equipment and reduction in consumption of diesel are attempts in the right direction. Meanwhile, the present situation warrants investments in data analytics, which is almost non-existent in the mining space at present. Only about 1 per cent of the data generated from mining operations is utilised for further analysis. In fact, the remaining 99 per cent is now being termed as the new “unmined” resource, which, when brought online, will significantly aid in effective decision-making.

The way forward: Smart technologies

Artificial intelligence (AI) is an emerging technology which has the power to transform the mining industry. Mining companies in the coming years must adapt and adopt AI in their digital maturity journey to be more productive and efficient. AI-powered robotic devices can perform core operation activities such as drilling, blasting, loading, hauling, etc. The existing technologies in fleet management systems are limited to the use of GPS and a few sensors such as LiDAR. AI-powered autonomous vehicles augment conventional features by combining the sensor inputs with deep learning AI systems to enable safe routing of vehicles in real time with increased accuracy and precision.

Internet of things (IoT) is among the emerging technologies set to change the way miners operate over the next decade. The technology involves connecting equipment, fleet and people with RFID and sensor technologies. Sensors embedded in equipment monitor the performance of machines and trigger alerts to predict failures before they occur. IoT also enables autonomous mining operations where the machine operates by itself without the need for a human operator.

India has been a major player in the global mining industry with its large resource base. The use of digital technologies in mining has slowly evolved with the deployment of technologies such as plant automation systems, GPS, mine planning systems, etc. and more recently to cloud computing. Significant benefits have already been realised but much more can be done with a holistic approach. As the Indian mining industry moves to the digital age, technology-enabled solutions will become a necessity for survival and growth. Some of the prevalent technology themes in the Indian mining sector in the near future will include automation, IoT, remote command centres, big data and cyber security.