Top trucks

Carly Leonida examines the latest developments in the haul-truck space off the back of MINExpo 2016 with four key manufacturers
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Liebherr’s new T 236 rides off into the sunset

Carly Leonida

Haul trucks were one of the brightest stars at MINExpo this year. From Komatsu’s cabless fully Autonomous Haulage Vehicle, through to Caterpillar’s new 794 AC and Liebherr’s 100t T 236, there were plenty of new models on the show floor as well as announcements on new technologies and updates on autonomy programmes from the major manufacturers.

And, most encouragingly, OEMs are starting to report a ‘bottoming out’ in the market and perhaps a few (very tentative) green shoots. Conditions are obviously still depressed, but a major difference between now and 2012 is the shift in miners’ mind-sets about production and costs. In 2012, it was production at almost any cost, but now miners are looking to optimise production and costs simultaneously, while also getting the most out of large capital investments from the last boom period. This may mean that maximising production is not always the most cost-effective way to extract resources.

At the same time, technologies such as cloud computing and data analytics are beginning to find their way into mining. The result is a ‘sweet spot’. Mining companies need to look at their operational efficiency due to financials, and a range of new technology is now available to help them. Miners aren’t generally known for being the first to adopt technology, but in this case, they are having to become better at it. And so far, so good.

Challenging times

The biggest changes in truck design over the past 10 years have been influenced by customers’ needs as economic conditions change, as well as environmental regulations and concerns.

“Tier 4 regulations affect engine emissions, but we are challenged with providing fuel efficiency and reliability at the same time,” Don Lindell, senior product manager for trucks at Komatsu America, tells MM. “This involves changes in cylinder technology, as well as after treatment systems. The ability to leverage electric-drive-system technology and truck configuration to improve efficiency, productivity and reliability is at the core of our innovation. The introduction of various electric-drive control configurations, trolley and autonomy are other areas of current and future research.”

Technology and its role in helping mines to sweat their assets was a major topic of the event and, accordingly, there were a plethora of operator assist systems on show. Many vendors reported a shift away from capital sales towards technologies and services that help clients keep their fleets running efficiently and economically. Examples include mining optimisation programmes, parts packages and rebuild programmes as equipment purchased during the surge years enters the rebuild stage of life.

Lindell says: “Customers are asking for payload optimisation to reduce the standard deviation of loading in order to move the average payload up. They’re also asking for brake wear and fuel saving solutions.” In short, turning data into decisions is considered key to helping customers make smart choices today and in the future.

Caterpillar reports similar demands. “There’s no one technology,” states Michael Murphy, chief engineer for mining and technology enabled solutions at Caterpillar. “We’ve got one customer we’re working with on their automation strategy. We’re working on the pit to port portion, and also on analytics and MineStar [Caterpillar’s machine control suite of products]. They want a little bit of everything.

“Some customers are looking at automation, some are using analytics, some are focusing on safety systems.”

Many vendors and service providers that MM spoke to at MINExpo mentioned that more clients are coming to them with technology roadmaps, identifying the key areas they want to improve and then asking where to start.

“It really depends on what business conditions they have,” says Murphy. “The industry, ourselves included, is getting smart about that. Historically, we just sold technologies, now we ask them: what business problems do you need to solve? We have a full suite of technologies, but that’s no good if your problem is quite specific. Once we understand the problem we can hone in and solve it.”

It is worth remembering that while automation can generate huge savings in the long run (Fortescue Metals Group recently reported a 20% improvement in productivity at its Solomon hub in Australia using an autonomous Caterpillar fleet), manned technologies such as fleet management systems can still generate 10-15% productivity improvements very easily and customers are therefore continuing to buy these as well.

“It’s a pretty exciting time, I think. Because there’s less capital around, people are really focusing on how they can improve their operations and are looking at technology as a way to do that,” Murphy adds.

Brian Mace, manager for mining applications and product marketing in the Americas with Hitachi Construction & Mining, agrees: “Customers are definitely looking to stretch their assets. They want to make their machines more productive and they’re trying to find ways to be more efficient and cost effective. Not only from a technology side but also from a services side, they’re looking to us to help them get more out of the products.”

Indeed, Mace cites some of the new features on Hitachi’s next generation trucks – including slip slide control, pitch control and skid control – as being stepping stones on the road to full autonomy.

For Hitachi, the commercial release of an autonomous truck will be around 2018-19. “We have a proof of concept site in Australia with three EH5000 trucks,” explains Mace. “They’ve completed design on the first generation where the trucks are running on their own in a separate part of the mine, and now they’re starting to integrate that in with manned equipment. Once that’s fully tested then we’ll be ready to start selling the system.

“Customers are asking about autonomy,” adds Mace. “I look after the Americas; I’m not sure if the market has grasped the concept yet as well as they have in Australia, although they’re certainly interested. I think everyone’s waiting to see who will be the first adopter.”

Looking forward

The question is: will greater technology use on trucks mean less equipment sold in the future?

Not necessarily, according to Murphy. “By using technology in conjunction with a machine you become more efficient and get more from your assets and orebody. That will eventually mean that you need fewer machines per tonne moved, but at the same time the world needs more commodities due to population growth. It’s a trend that will balance itself,” he tells MM.

“We can make a tractor, add a bigger engine with more horsepower and an extra 20t of weight and get 10% more productivity, or we can add more technology [to a standard machine] and get 20-25% more efficiency by looking at the whole process. We’re looking at it in a more holistic light.

“It will eventually impact machine sales, but long term it’s good for the industry, it makes us more profitable. It’s a natural evolution and we’ve seen it in other industries.”

Lindell adds: “A larger fleet of smaller trucks might be much more productive and adaptive than a small number of big trucks. This can be especially helpful when you want to specialise the output of your mine and do more blending to improve the quality of your product.”

Komatsu continues to increase R&D spending on hardware and software. In addition to five new machines at its MINExpo booth, the company also showcased version three of its FrontRunner autonomous haulage system and is investing in remote monitoring and diagnostics with KomTrax II introduced on the 930E-5 and Payload Meter IV.

It expects these tools will continue growing in capability with more feedback from the factory, and at MINExpo 2020, the company hopes to report on the progress of Autonomous Haulage Vehicle fleets, FrontRunner 5 and the potential integration of Joy Global technologies.

“We’ll finally be at Tier 4 final [by MINExpo 2020],” says Mace. “So everyone can talk about what they’ve done. One thing we’re looking at for the next generation of equipment is getting extra information off of the machines, so the technology theme will be even more prevalent. We’re always looking at improving reliability and durability, but technology will help improve the efficiency of machines, especially around operator awareness.”

Murphy says: “In 2020, I think the industry’s going to be talking a lot more about integrated fleet mining: how do you optimise? Not just at a mine level, but right across the enterprise.

“How can you build mines more like a factory, how can you get consistency across a business? At the moment miners are looking for incremental changes that will make money for them quickly rather than the huge investments that have a long-term payback period.”

Murphy believes that automation will still be a strong topic at the next MINExpo, but that the emphasis will be more on adoption.

New models

Caterpillar’s newest mining truck, the 794 AC, took pride of place at its MINExpo 2016 booth. The 291t (320-ton) capacity truck uses a combination of proven designs – a chassis that has accumulated 18 million operating hours and a powertrain design that has racked up three million hours.

Following extensive field testing, controlled rollout of the new truck began in 2015. To date, the 794 AC is operating in four countries in applications ranging from deep-pit copper in the western US to coal and copper in South America.

Caterpillar says that mechanical availability of the 794 AC has averaged 90% or better from introduction, and has continued to improve with every new site. The drive system is designed to power the larger Cat 795F AC, which has demonstrated drivetrain component life of more than 30,000 hours.

The new truck also features four-corner wet disc brakes as well as dynamic braking for stable handling and fast stopping.

Caterpillar says operators have given the 794 AC positive feedback, specifically citing fast speed on grade and the confidence the braking and retarding system gives them. Maintenance employees have also received the new model well – technicians at mines running the truck have praised the simplicity of the design and accessibility for servicing tasks.

The 794 AC has been designed to accommodate additional weight allowances such as extra body liners while still maintaining a 291t payload. It uses the Cat C175-16 engine and a proven Cat AC power train. System power is adaptable to accommodate changes in production targets and to work in mixed fleets where truck speed differences can reduce productivity.

Three power options – 2,050, 2,312 and 2,610kW (2,750, 3,100 and 3,500hp) – are available using the same engine, as are high-altitude configurations.

The Cat High Efficiency (HE) Body is sized and configured to meet the needs of each mine dictated by fragmentation, abrasion, cohesion and the loading tool. The 794 AC body is integral to the truck and is sized to meet the payload requirements without compromising vehicle balance, braking or control.

Komatsu meanwhile previewed the 930E-5 electric-drive haul truck at MINExpo 2016. Scheduled for availability in the second half of 2017, the 930E-5 joins the company’s popular 930 product line which boasts more than 1,900 installed units worldwide.
With a 2,013kW (2,700hp), SSDA16V160-4, Tier 4 Final engine, the 930E-5 offers up to 5% less fuel consumed and a 291t payload.

The 930E-5 is a good match in large-scale mining applications with shovel bucket capacities of 37-42m3, such as Komatsu’s PC7000 and PC8000, loading out in 5-6 passes depending on bucket size and material density.

The truck is available with a variety of options including Komatsu’s KomTrax Plus service and support programme and the Payload Meter IV payload monitoring system.

Shortly before the show, Komatsu made its new electric drive ultra-class haul truck, the 980E-4, available to the US market. The machine (which was too large to be shown at MINExpo) was first released in Australia in August and made its North American entrance in mid-September.

Tom Stedman, product manager at Komatsu America, commented at the time: “For several years, many of our customers have been asking for a 400-ton [363 tonne] electric-drive rear dump truck with the reliability of our flagship model, the 930E. With the release of the 980E-4, we now have a product to meet this market demand.”

The 980E-4 can be matched with shovels such as Komatsu’s PC8000 and the P&H 4100XPC–4800XPC, loading out in 3-5 passes. It features an expanded dump body to optimise payload capacity and an 18-cylinder Komatsu SSDA18V170 diesel engine.

The Invertex II AC electric drive system, manufactured by GE Transportation Systems, enables efficient operations in both deep-pit and soft underfoot operations. The GDY108C traction motor was designed specifically for the 980E-4, with enhancements in both the mechanical and electrical portions of the motor, and the air-cooled, insulated gate bipolar transistor (IGBT) inverter technology provides high performance and greater reliability than past inverter technology.

Competitor Liebherr gave the new T 236 100t mining truck its world debut at MINExpo.

The T 236 features Liebherr’s new vertically integrated Litronic Plus Generation 2 AC drive system. This introduces advanced Active Front End technology. Making efficient use of electrical energy during retarding events, the company says the drive system is able to deliver “controlled engine speed with almost no fuel consumption”.

Vertical integration of Liebherr designed and manufactured components ensure the T 236 powertrain achieves optimal system efficiency and performance throughout the full range of applications. The T 236’s variable hydraulic system lowers machine parasitic applications to provide maximum power, while lowering fuel consumption when power is not required.

It is equipped with a double pole battery, starter motor and hoist system isolators as standard. In addition, the truck has a drive system inhibit feature which is electrically interlocked to grounding devices for each plug and drive power module. Operating on a voltage level of 690VAC and 900VDC enables site technicians to carry out system maintenance.

The in-line electrical power train layout minimises cable length, while the maintenance free IP 68-rated plug and-drive power modules ensure reliable operation in all-weather situations.

Liebherr says the T 236 is less sensitive to grade and payload variations, providing mining customers with high productivity. It is the first diesel-electric truck in class to incorporate an oil-immersed braking system with four corner retarding capabilities, and is a good match for Liebherr’s R 9100, R 9150, R 9200, or R 9250 mining excavators.

The first prototypes are currently undergoing field testing with an official product launch to follow. Although the truck is not yet commercially available, pre-series T 236 units will be made available for selected markets.

Technology on show

Hitachi chose to showcase its technology-based solutions at MINExpo. The EH4000AC-3 haul truck on display featured a Hitachi designed and built and AC-Drive system for the first time.

Hitachi has been producing AC drive technology for more than 30 years and the company decided that the time was right to channel this expertise into its AC-drive trucks. The Advanced AC-Drive system includes Hitachi’s own IGBT inverter, alternator and wheel motors.

The system’s slip/slide control feature acts as both an active traction control and an anti-lock brake system designed for slippery conditions. It reduces tyre slippage on acceleration and tyre lock-up during braking.

The pitch control feature of the Advanced AC-Drive System reduces bouncing and rebounding on the truck as it hits bumps or uneven ground on the haul road. As the truck comes to a stop, the rebounding or rocking effect due to the change in inertia is also reduced. Hitachi says this increases load efficiency and reduces spillage while increasing reliability and durability of the truck.

The Advanced AC-Drive System also provides a side skid control feature that helps the operator in slippery road conditions when making turns. By utilising changes in the wheel motor torque from left-to-right during cornering, it assists the operator in turning the truck and keeping it on the proper track in over and under steer conditions.

Hitachi has also been working on trolley-assist and collision avoidance technologies. Trolley technology uses DC-powered overhead lines to power trucks up hills. When the truck operator connects to the line, the hauler switches to trolley power, resulting in an increase in speed up the grade versus engine power alone. This increases productivity, lowers costs and reduces noise and diesel exhaust emissions. The system is currently installed in 109 units worldwide.

Hitachi previously provided full-perimeter display systems for dump trucks and hydraulic excavators used in mining. However, the new Aerial Angle system enhances visibility for operators and alerts them to objects in close proximity to the truck on job sites.

It consists of two main components: a peripheral vision system with object detection technology and a forward collision warning system. The object detect assist technology features two operating modes: Stationary Mode, which incorporates camera image processing technology used in the Around View Monitor with Moving Object Detection System developed jointly by Nissan Motor Co and Clarion Co, and Forward Mode, which incorporates millimetre wave radar technology developed by Hitachi.

The peripheral vision system offers an overview of the machine’s surroundings by composing images from four exterior cameras in real time while the truck is in stationary mode. The monitor displays objects in close proximity to the truck and highlights the image on the screen for the operator. The system also provides and audible alert to the operator.

When the truck is travelling, the forward mode leverages millimetre wave radar to detect objects and warns the operator of a possible collision based on location of the object and speed of the truck. Operators are alerted to objects through audible sounds as well as flashing lights.

In Stationary Mode, a warning is provided to the truck operator when the vehicle is stopped or is starting to move. If any moving objects are detected nearby, a warning is displayed in the driver's seat monitor with an accompanying sound.

In addition to its use in the Aerial Angle system, the object detect assist technology is also being integrated into Hitachi’s driverless autonomous dump trucks that are currently in development.

Caterpillar also has a new collision avoidance system called Proximity Awareness for surface vehicles. Part of the MineStar Detect capability set, the new system uses the peer-to-peer communications leveraged by the automotive industry. The system is designed to provide fast and reliable communications between vehicles and presents collision avoidance information to operators without the need for a radio network.

The onboard hardware can be fitted to light vehicles and to any brand of surface mining equipment. Fewer components are required compared to the previous Cat Proximity Awareness system, which used a Wi-Fi network. The result is reduced space required onboard vehicles, fast installation and lower cost.

The onboard display can store up to 24 hours of incident data. This data is sent to the office for storage and analysis by using strategically located communications hot spots on site. Incident capture, playback and reporting are independent of MineStar Fleet.

Autonomy’s next step

Hitachi also showcased its Autonomous Haulage System (AHS) which leverages technologies developed for its parent company Hitachi Ltd’s automotive and railroad solutions, as well as Wenco’s fleet management and dispatch system.

The system features: automated navigation and route optimisation; the ability to negotiate traffic conditions; optimised accelerating, braking and steering control, site awareness and forward collision warning; and the Wenco fleet management system for overall supervisor control.

Craig Lamarque, division manager, Hitachi Construction Machinery – Americas, says: “Our autonomous haulage system results in a truck that can determine the most efficient paths without constant communication with traffic control. We’ve also included components that make it possible to convert any Hitachi AC-3 truck bought today to AHS in the future.”

The star of the show, however, was Komatsu’s innovative unmanned Autonomous Haulage Vehicle.

Unlike 930E and 830E autonomous models, this vehicle does not feature an operator cab. The company states that by distributing equal load to the four wheels, both when the vehicle is loaded and unloaded, and by adopting a four-wheel drive system, retarder and steering, the vehicle will achieve “high-performance shuttling in both forward and reverse travel directions, thereby totally eliminating the need for K-turns at loading and unloading sites”.

The autonomous hauler offers a 230t payload and a nominal gross vehicle weight of 416t. The 2,014kW (2,700hp) power output allows a maximum travel speed of 64km/h.

In particular, Komatsu expects that the new vehicle to improve productivity at mines where existing unmanned haulage vehicles face challenging conditions, such as slippery ground due to frequent rain/snow fall as well as confined spaces for loading.

Komatsu says that it plans a market introduction in the near future.

Like Komatsu and Hitachi, Caterpillar continues to advance its autonomous truck programme alongside operator assist technologies. “We’ve continued to invest in technologies to help operators work safely and more productively,” explains Murphy. “We’re working with EMESRT [the Earth Moving Equipment Safety Round Table] on safety protocols and we continue to invest in things like proximity detection. It’s one of our largest investments in the mining space.”

However, he is quick to highlight that, in the long term, full autonomy can offer staggering gains in productivity.

“What a lot of people don’t realise is that you can get a 20% productivity improvement for a short period of time with a manned fleet, but then maybe the mine manager changes or something else changes and before you know it that number has fallen,” he says. “But with automation, once that process is in place and embedded, that number will stick. Those trucks are smart and they learn every day.

“Over a period in time, you’re making incremental improvements. Looking at one of our installations [with FMG], we put an autonomous fleet in three years ago. A year ago, the autonomous trucks were 13% more productive than a manned fleet, and now they’re 20% more productive. That isn’t going to stop, and that’s the nice thing about technology you can continue to improve. I definitely think it’s going to have a big impact on the mining space.”

In addition to its first autonomous fleet at BHP Billiton’s Navajo mine in New Mexico, US, and FMG’s fleet in Australia, Caterpillar is commissioning a third site in Latin America. “That’s going really well,” Murphy tells MM. “FMG is now running 48 trucks – the contract was originally for 45 – and we’ll extend past that too. I think they only have six manned haul trucks left on the site. Eventually we would like to fully automate.”

Caterpillar has converted most of FMG’s trucks from manned to autonomous operation. “We started small and worked up six at a time,” explains Murphy. “The productivity improvements really came when we hit what we’d call a ‘critical mass’. When you have to make a decision for all your productivity to come from autonomous trucks, then that really forces the organisation to take the next step when it comes to process consistency.

“By making that commitment and taking the mine to the next level, FMG really transformed their operation. I think others will want to go on that journey.

“Even now at Fortescue, we’re starting to run manned trucks in with autonomous ones. Bringing manned and autonomous technologies together as well is one of the stepping stones that will take us to the next level.”