Nowhere has the concept of autonomous haulage been embraced as readily as in Australia. In part, this is because the red deserts of the continent have a lot in common with the surface of Mars and represent one of the most extreme and inhospitable working environments on earth. Geological accident has also left abundant deposits rich in iron oxides across the Pilbara, and the recovery, removal and processing of vast quantities of material from surface mines lends itself particularly well to automation.
However, it has proven to be a long, laborious and costly track for Rio Tinto since it first unveiled plans to invest in the world's first automated long-distance heavy-haul system. At a value of US$518m and extending across a 1,700km network, AutoHaul is one of the cornerstones of its Mine of the Future programme. As the miner already had its own rail lines and ports connected to mines, the attraction of such a project was self-evident. Moreover, the scarcity and cost of train drivers – and the need for hard-to-manage shift changes on long journeys – offered an excellent cost-reduction incentive.
Ansaldo STS, now part of Hitachi, won the contract back in 2012. However, the project has been bedevilled by complications and delays almost since its inception. "There was an underestimation of the mechanical work we had to actually do versus the reality," said Andrew Harding, chief executive of Rio's iron-ore unit, adding that the required software upgrades were another problematic area.
The delays meant that Rio Tinto missed out on the surprise bonanza resulting from the surge in iron-ore prices last year. It had forecast shipments of 350Mt, but eventually fell more than 20Mt short. And there is still no firm end date in sight for AutoHaul, although the end of 2018 has been cited.
A December quarter statement from Rio Tinto issued in January 2017 declared tersely: “The AutoHaul project will continue to progress during 2017 with extensive running of trains in automated mode, but with a driver remaining on board until all safety and reliability systems are thoroughly demonstrated.”
No holy grail
Rio Tinto is not alone in finding the holy grail of automated trains elusive. Roy Hill’s first automated locomotive, the GE ES44ACI, was acclaimed by chairman Gina Rinehart as “one of the best looking machines I have ever seen in the Pilbara” when it arrived as part of an initial order of 14 in 2015.
At the new, state-of-the-art Roy Hill operation in the Pilbara, it was initially envisaged that a fleet of these locomotives would pave the way towards a driverless operation transporting 55Mt/y to the purpose-built port stockyard in Boodarie Industrial Estate, south of Port Hedland.
Each 4,400HP 12-cylinder diesel locomotive can pull the equivalent of 160 Boeing 747 jetliners, while using 5% less fuel than its precursor model and giving off 40% lower emissions. With approximately 250 sensors on board, the locomotives have been designed for control from a remote operations centre in Perth, 1,000km away.
Yet despite over 18 months of trials, Roy Hill has still not made it clear whether the returns on the technology are worth the investment risk.
Meanwhile, the Fortescue Metals Group (FMG), which also benefits from owning its own rail and port facilities, has decided there is an easier way forward. The company has opted for ‘cruise control’ over driverless trains and will trial a computer system that will even out the braking and acceleration of its trains, which it hopes will greatly improve the efficiency of trips between mines and port. "We think the return on investment on this is much better,” states FMG's chief executive Nev Power.
Back in 2014, BHP Billiton had suggested it might start using automated trains. However, last year, the company showed a lot less enthusiasm, stating it had "no immediate plans to adopt driverless trains".
If automated train projects are struggling to stay on track, the outlook for automated trucks is more upbeat.
FMG says its Caterpillar autonomous haul trucks have brought it a 20% productivity improvement, while Rio Tinto's iron-ore chief executive, Chris Salisbury, has reported that the company’s autonomous haulage fleet brought it a 15% productivity boost.
Rio Tinto has a 370-strong haulage fleet in the Pilbara and includes about 75 Komatsu trucks that are now automated. By comparison, FMG now has 54 driverless Caterpillar vehicles.
Rob Atkinson, who leads productivity efforts at Rio Tinto, says the fleet and other automation projects are already paying off. The company’s driverless trucks have proven to be roughly 15% cheaper to run than vehicles with humans behind the wheel – a significant saving since haulage is a mine’s largest operational cost. He also states that the trucks have "significantly enhanced" haul cycle times, extended tyre life, reduced fuel usage and lowered maintenance costs. And, of course, there is an associated reduction in carbon emissions.
But it was not a quick gain. It took over four years to achieve the first 100Mt of material moved by automated means, although next year Rio Tinto will probably achieve close to double that figure through its automated fleet.
BHP Billiton has also encountered teething problems with automation trials, albeit on a smaller scale than its rivals in Western Australia. For several years, it has been working on trials with Caterpillar, but in 2014 there were reports of a serious incident involving a collision between a manned water cart and an autonomous truck at the Jimblebar iron-ore mine. No serious injuries were sustained, but reportedly the autonomous vehicle suffered significant damage.
Recently, the miner has highlighted the productivity improvements achieved with its current fleet as part of its drive to achieve US$2.2 billion (A$2.87 billion) in productivity gains across the 2016 and 2017 financial years. Maintenance and service times have been slashed on its fleet of Cat 793 trucks and the engineering team has succeeded in increasing the life of some components by more than 20%.
Industry experts are also keen to draw attention to the productivity gains realised by manned vehicles as a result of the implementation of the latest generation of fleet-management systems, even more so when these can be integrated with other mine-management software. The advent of big data and the Internet of Things (IoT) mean that further innovations – and savings – are likely to be seen in this area.
However, OEMs remain optimistic about the future. At last October’s MINExpo, Komatsu proudly unveiled its first unmanned, cabless vehicle. The company expects to consolidate its market share in the mining industry following its acquisition of Joy Global, which will complement Komatsu’s surface mining focus with its own position as the largest independent manufacturer of machines used underground.
With its latest unmanned offering, Komatsu is aiming for high-performance shuttling of the vehicle in both forward and reverse travel directions and eliminating the need for K-turns at loading and unloading sites. Notably, Komatsu expects that its new vehicle will considerably improve the productivity at mines where existing unmanned haulage vehicles face challenging conditions, such as slippery ground due to frequent rain or snow as well as confined spaces for loading.
Caterpillar, the market leader, reports a steady rise in interest with new trials under way in South and North America and highlights the value of being able to retrofit automated solutions to its existing vehicles. This also supports a modular, incremental approach to automation, which is easier both in terms of capital outlay and in making the cultural and operational changes needed to support the transition.
In a significant new development to maintain its dominant position, Caterpillar has recently made the important announcement of a project to adapt hardware and software for retrofitting other brands, including the Komatsu 930E mining truck, with Cat autonomous technology. The company stated that the interoperability initiative is driven by mining companies’ goal to maximise the value of their existing fleets.
“Retrofitting technology is a proven means for mining companies to get the most from their assets,” says Sean McGinnis, product manager. “And many mining companies operate mixed fleets of trucks. Developing autonomous systems for other brands of trucks will enable us to offer a total solution to these customers.”
It is a market that Hitachi has been eyeing with interest since it succeeded in securing orders for a small fleet of EH5000-AC3 dump trucks at the Rio Tinto West Angelas mine a couple of years ago. The company is working on its own Autonomous Haulage System (AHS), which it expects to unveil later this year.
“The Hitachi Autonomous Project is progressing well and meeting all of the major milestones set to date. Several strategic customers have divulged plans for autonomous fleet requirements within the next five years and Hitachi is aligning our development process to meet those targets,” Greg Smith, spokesman for Hitachi, tells Mining Magazine.
He believes that Hitachi’s dump trucks benefit from existing synergies within the group, such as the AC drive system and fleet-management systems from Wenco International Mining Systems, which joined Hitachi in 2009.
As miners continue to try to leverage the maximum value from current assets, existing technology within the AC-3 range can be adapted. One of the key features will be an electric steering module inserted between the steering wheel and valve, so that the equipment can be controlled remotely without significant change to the existing steering system.
The AHS equipment will also include sensors and vital communication controls that can be retrofitted to existing AC-3 dump trucks. Hitachi’s long-term aim is to offer a package that ensures multiple pieces of equipment can interact with each other from the beginning of a hauling cycle, through to the loading and dumping sites.
Meanwhile, Atlas Copco is taking automation underground. After three years of development, its new MT65 LHD has been trialling in Western Australia at St Barbara Mines’ Gwalia operation. The Gwalia trial was over 2,000 hours, with key performance indicators of tonne-kilometre, payload and speed on grade assessed.
“We saw a 10% increase in tkm compared with the existing fleet,” Atlas Copco business line manager for underground equipment Wayne Syme says. “The average payload was 65.7t and the truck achieved the same cycle time as existing machines on site with the benefit of increased payload.”
Other paths to value
OEM vendors have been eager to explain to Mining Magazine that there are also other ways to deliver value to customers. Effective after-sales service and support, for example, can play a vital role in reducing downtime. With that end in mind, Rio Tinto and other Komatsu customers will benefit from a breakthrough partnership agreement just signed between Komatsu and GE. Covering a duration of ten years, the two companies will jointly provide what they claim to be the highest-quality, time-effective remanufacturing services for electrical components of mining vehicles and equipment.
“Our expanded partnership with GE will ensure quality and efficiency improvements,” says Sean Taylor, managing director and CEO of Komatsu Australia. “This creates added value for our customers, by helping them extend component life and reduce unplanned downtime.”
Whereas Komatsu previously subcontracted remanufacture and service of the GE propulsion systems in its trucks to third parties, Australian mining customers will now have the benefit of the two OEMs working as one to also provide unmatched overhaul services and analysis.
“I think the mining downturn really started to make our two companies become more creative, to start to question, ‘What more could we be doing to help our customers win?'," Taylor explains. The answer was an innovative approach to partnering, by “leveraging shared resources, listening to our customers and finding the growth opportunities in a negative industry cycle”.
It is an approach that GE is also trying with Rio Tinto. The two companies have partnered for maintenance services to support Rio Tinto’s troublesome locomotive network in the Pilbara, which is also Australia’s largest privately owned/operated rail system.
The five-year agreement will see GE provide services that allow faster access to material and parts, minimising downtime and enhancing fleet productivity. The CEO of GE Transportation in Australia and New Zealand, Dwight Van Roy, says it is a “unique industry collaboration”, with both companies sharing best-practice methods.
This softly-softly approach to generating operating efficiencies might yet prove to be more in keeping with current market sentiment and the myriad demands on corporate purse-strings. BHP, the world’s largest mining company, for example, has already declared its intention to increase annual exploration spending by almost 30% this year in order to identify new copper and oil deposits. Unless there is a cash windfall, ambitious spending plans to add new assets seem unlikely. Rather, the emphasis is likely to be on optimising the return on those currently in place.
2017 has started with a mood of subdued optimism for the recovery of the mining industry, but it is too soon to know if the gains in some sectors represent a sustainable recovery. Critically, a majority of respondents to BNamericas' Mining Survey 2017 believe that copper and iron-ore prices will stay close to current levels this year. But will this translate into increased spending on advanced technology for the two sectors that have spearheaded the digital transformation of mining to date? We will have to wait and see.