INDUSTRY COMMENT

Keeping technology at the heart of the matter

David Brennan and Charles Bond review the state of play in mining technology

David Brennan and Charles Bond
Keeping technology at the heart of the matter

A range of innovative, forward thinking technologies introduced by companies that are not usually associated with the mining sector is continuing to create significant interest.

One example is Telstra Telecom, which is investing in machine-to-machine connectivity in order to improve technical input. A concerted focus on developing technology to improve output levels, as well as increasing the level of automation in mining has naturally led to this type of cross-sector investment from within the technology and telecommunications sectors.

While the specific input Telstra will provide is still to come to light, it is joining an industry that relies on a core premise to developing technology: that this should be done in direct line with a specific set of needs and circumstances.

According to John Warwick of Phoenix Mining Consultants, this  is highly appropriate, given the different minerals, geology and global locations involved. A customised approach supports the principal need for technological solutions to increase the level of automation throughout the entire mining industry, increasing accuracy and reducing human input in the process.

Advances in technology, for example, mean that previously laborious processes can now be automated and importantly, better standardised in terms of consistent production levels. The production of low-margin bulk minerals has been developed with more advanced equipment that is not only remote-controlled, but incorporates the ability for output levels to be far less variable.

The fact that the concept of remote controlled mining was introduced thirty years ago demonstrates how forward thinking the industry is in terms of reducing the human element involved. It also highlights the level of sophistication this has now reached, with advanced capabilities now constantly feeding into its evolution.

Pushing innovation

Of course, the term ‘technology’ casts its net fairly widely in the mining sector, from the use of hi-speed resin bonding customised roof bolts in the Australian coal mining industry to sensor-based technology that reduces the need for human input. For example, sorting machinery uses this tool to separate valuable mineral ores from waste rock, significantly reducing the time taken to do this manually.

While incorporating individual solutions like this is now commonplace, the mining sector's leading players have the internal capacity, funding and resources required to develop their own technology, helping to push the innovation envelope further in the process.

Corresponding with this is the use of driverless, remote-controlled mining which has been used in the industry for a number of years. Given the significant cross-sector push to further develop and verify driverless technology, it is essential that mining firms stay at the forefront of this by instigating alliances with the pure technology and automotive sectors or, indeed developing and implementing it themselves.

Given that, on average, a high proportion of mining costs are labour related, the savings of using driverless vehicles are substantial as well as being a key component of maintaining high standards of safety.

Standardising safety and output levels in this way is also a key advantage of using continuous or mechanised mining technology to physically excavate. Although this has been in place throughout key territories for a number of years, some countries have only recently adopted various aspects of it to suit their specific needs.

For example, a coal mining company in Russia has introduced the first automated continuous miner after extensively renewing the standard practices used around the world. Warwick was able to assist in a feasibility study that led to this milestone.

Industry 4.0

Industry 4.0, or the so-called ‘fourth industrial revolution’, is now also upon us with big data, mine to market connectivity and automation helping to define this, as some of the examples cited above highlight.

The current level of innovation and strategic partnerships that exist within the mining technology space demonstrates the agility of businesses within the sector and bodes well for the future of the industry.

The continuing surge in the development and application of technologies in the mining sector will no doubt influence how the industry will look in the medium to long-term, which is therefore a credit to foresight and lateral thinking, whether this results from cross-sector alliances or/ and responding directly to practical needs.

David Brennan and Charles Bond are partners at Gowling WLG

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