Follow the leader

Mining Magazine’s March issue is the Smart Mining issue, one of three special issues this year focused on trends that will help shape the future of mining
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The Cat 793F (right) and Komatsu 930E (left) line up for testing at Caterpillar's Tucson Proving Grounds

Carly Leonida

Every article in the March issue centres on this theme, from new mining projects and improved data management to innovative technologies. Everything you need to know about smart mining is in this special issue, with additional content on our dedicated online Smart Mining Hub.

As an example of recent developments in this area, Caterpillar announced in January that it is extending the capability of its autonomous haulage solution to competitor models. In the press release, the company detailed a recent demonstration of its MineStar Command for hauling technology at its Tinaja Hills proving ground near Tucson in Arizona, US. This first incarnation involved adapting hardware and software to retrofit MineStar on a Komatsu 930E mining truck (Caterpillar’s biggest competitor in the haul-truck space).

The release was a little light on detail, so I asked Bill Dears, commercial manager for mining technology at Caterpillar Global Mining, to expand. What changes/standards/milestones are now in place to enable Command to be fitted on competitor models?

“Our autonomous hauling system has matured, and we've proven the safety and productivity benefits,” he said. “In the past 3.5 years, Cat autonomous trucks have hauled more than 360Mt safely, with zero lost-time injuries. Also, autonomous truck operations are 20% more productive than manned. The knowledge and experience we have gained enables us to broaden that application of the technology. We are seeing even greater opportunities beyond what we've already demonstrated.

“We equip other brands of equipment with our other MineStar technology offerings, such as Terrain for drilling. Equipping other brands of trucks with Command for hauling is a natural continuation of those precedents.”

A natural evolution it may be, but I can’t see this move going down too well at Komatsu. The company offers its own, very successful, Autonomous Haulage System, which is not yet (although that’s not to say they’re not working on it) vendor-agnostic.

Of course, Caterpillar has significant experience of both mechanical- and electric-drive systems through its own product line, and the company therefore views adaptation of the 930E as an extension of its work on the Cat 794 AC.

“We don't anticipate a significant difference between our work on the Cat 794 and the Komatsu 930,” Dears told me. “We expect the truck control systems and autonomy layers to be very similar. The interface between the two will be customised to make other OEMs' systems interact similarly to Cat models.”

Portions of the MineStar product suite have been available on other brands of equipment for almost two decades, starting with Terrain and then Fleet technologies. At MINExpo 2016, the company announced its latest object-detection and proximity-awareness systems for all brands of trucks.

“We've aligned our products to be brand-agnostic,” Dears added. “The Caterpillar Mining Digital and Technology division was formed to focus on site solutions versus product solutions.” Apparently, this approach “drives development of different products and services based on site needs”. Although frankly, if Caterpillar hasn’t been doing this in the past, then I’m a little baffled as to how its level of success was achieved.

What is notable, however, is the formation of a dedicated digital technology division – a move that acknowledges the importance of and, in my opinion, cements the place of smart technologies in the future of the mining industry; where the largest OEM goes, others will follow.

Caterpillar is still working on adapting MineStar for the 930E at its Tucson facility, and expects to place the technology at a customer site (or sites) early in 2018.

“We are currently discussing commercial terms for the Komatsu 930. We are also looking at other truck models and manufacturers based on customer needs and commitment,” Dears hints.

Get ready chaps, they’re coming for you.