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.”