Magazine

Sandvik is revolutionising

mining processes

A high level of automation, advanced cloud services and, in the near future, artificial intelligence will optimise mine operations and substantially increase productivity. Sandvik is lighting the way as a pioneer in its sector.

TEXT ARNON PHOTO SANDVIK

Around the world, the mining industry is automating and optimising its processes at a frantic rate. Production work that previously required human labour – drilling, loading and transporting rocks – will increasingly be handled by unmanned machinery. Operators will sit in control rooms underground or above ground, some of them even hundreds of kilometres from the mine, and they will remotely control the operation and processes of the equipment.

“This sector is lagging clearly behind other industries in terms of automation because the necessary expertise and technology were not previously available. Now, thanks to new innovations, mines are looking to significantly boost the efficiency of their operations, and the threshold for purchasing robotic equipment has been lowered,” says Riku Pulli, Sandvik’s Vice President, Business Unit Automation.

First and foremost, mines are seeking improved productivity through automation. The utilisation rate of underground mining equipment has traditionally been low; even minor equipment defects have resonated throughout processes and caused breaks. A high level of automation will enable rapid reaction, so the utilisation rate of equipment can be increased and production can continue uninterrupted. When fully automated equipment is used, no time will be wasted on handovers at the end of a shift. It is also not necessary to protect mobile robots from explosive gases, nor to suspend operations to allow for ventilation.

“We have examples where machines are now working 22 hours a day, rather than the 15 or 16 hours they worked before. This is a pretty amazing improvement,” Pulli says.

Costs have also decreased as the level of automation has risen. Robots do not crash into walls; they operate in exactly the right way, as controlled by the customer, and this extends their service lives. Furthermore, fewer operators are needed, as one person can manage the operation of several devices instead of just one.

“A further reason for automation is naturally safety. The working conditions of operators will improve significantly when they no longer need to be underground in shaking, jerky machines.”

“It is no longer science fiction in underground mining operations."

Making underground operations more transparent

Around 20 years ago, Sandvik became the first company in the world to begin developing automation for mining equipment. The first automatic machines descended into the ground in 2004, and now more than 350 machines have been supplied.

The Sandvik AutoMine system plays an important role in enabling heavy mining machinery to operate entirely unmanned and independently. Industrial internet solutions have enabled machines to be connected to cloud services and to each other in increasing numbers. New technologies enable mining processes to be optimised and better managed.

“They are helping to create complete transparency in mines. In other words, it is possible to see in real time where the machines are, what they are doing and what condition they are in. This has existed in other industries for some time, but it was not previously available underground because there were no data communication networks and GPS signals did not work. Functional solutions have now been developed for geolocation and data transfer,” Pulli explains.

Sandvik intends to put the big data generated by the industrial internet to use for preventive condition monitoring. In the future, machines will be able to alert owners to future defects, which will help to optimise processes in a preventive manner.

Pulli says that the company intends to introduce artificial intelligence in phases in forthcoming years.

“It is no longer science fiction in underground mining operations. Mining technology is a really interesting area of business at the moment – there is more happening in this sector than in any other heavy industry in terms of the application of advanced new technologies.”

In addition to making use of automation and intelligence, Sandvik is also developing its equipment in other areas. For example, last year it launched emissions-free mining machines, with the diesel motors replaced by electric power trains and batteries. New, more environmentally friendly forms of power will help mines to reduce exhaust fume ventilation, which consumes a large amount of energy and gives rise to major costs for mines.