The leadership of president and chief executive of Epiroc, Helena Hedblom, can be credited with helping to drive momentum in this direction, certainly among European OEMs.
Hedblom's blend of technical expertise and business acumen has helped the company drive through several advancements in automated mining technologies since she took the helm in 2020.
Major achievements include groundbreaking projects such as the Scooptram Automation Total, and the Pit Viper Automation upgrade. There have also been major launches, such as the automated face drilling rig the Boomer M20, and Epiroc's automated haul truck, the Minetruck MT65.
This has all come amid a period of unprecedented acquisitiveness for the company, which has seen it snap up 25 companies over the last five years, including firms working in planning, scheduling and development, to those working on ore-body intelligence and design.
Despite the many challenges in this period, which have encompassed everything from pandemics to wars, supply shortages and the march towards net-zero, Hedblom has always seemed laser-focused on the future.
Mining Magazine talked over the company's outlook for the coming years in an online fireside chat between our editor, Craig Guthrie, and Helena.
MM: In your last report, one thing that stood out was the confidence in mining demand - despite the doom and gloom every day about inflation, recession and the precarious promises of a commodities supercycle. What's behind your belief in mining's future?
HH: We remain confident in Epiroc's place in the mining industry. While we cannot comment extensively on the macro outlook, we monitor trends and underlying activity levels.
These levels are influenced by a combination of expansion projects and replacements. Moreover, considering the historical levels of commodity prices, especially our exposure to copper, our basket remains at a high level. Additionally, we firmly believe in the long-term growth opportunities presented by the supply-demand gap in several minerals, driven by the global green transformation. As the world progresses towards sustainability, there will be a need for new assets to come on board, creating a great opportunity for us to contribute to transforming the mining and infrastructure industry, making it more productive and sustainable.
MM: Epiroc's partnership with moon minerals exploration startup Ispace raised some eyebrows. What are your thoughts on this deal and the movement towards exploration in "the final frontier"?
HH: As a company, we have always been proactive in seeking out what lies ahead and pushing technological boundaries. Our partnership with Ispace represents an opportunity for us to leverage the creativity and innovative mindset within our organisation.
While more information will be forthcoming as the partnership progresses, I want to emphasise that we have been early adopters of many industry shifts. This early involvement has allowed us to gain valuable knowledge and expertise, providing us with a competitive advantage. By investing in meeting new trends and customer requirements, we believe this partnership and others like it are great opportunities to transform the mining and infrastructure industry, driving productivity and sustainability.
MM: Epiroc has been a frontrunner in the battery electric vehicle (BEV) market in mining. How is the BEV market progressing, and do you have plans to expand more in the realm of diesel-electric equipment?
HH: The BEV market is progressing well. Initially, we observed customers purchasing one or two machines to familiarise themselves with the technology. However, we are now seeing customers adopting full electric solutions, including greenfield projects. Even customers who started small are placing repeat orders, indicating their satisfaction with the technology.
However, the pace of adoption is closely tied to the necessary competence buildup, both on the customer side in terms of change management and within our organisation. Delivering a machine is just the beginning; ensuring it functions 24/7 in demanding conditions requires building competence among service technicians and operators.
We have committed to having our complete offering ready by 2030 and our underground offering by 2025. We are also focusing on retrofit capabilities and developing various models in our product lineup to cater to the next decade, which will witness a mix of new battery machines and conversions of existing fleets. Building the necessary electrical infrastructure is also crucial to support uninterrupted operations, ensuring the value and effectiveness of our solutions.
MM: The industry as a whole is always talking about diversity, the skill force gap, and how these are linked with digitalisation. Do you think we're seeing enough movement on those fronts?
HH: There has been progress, but I believe there is still more work to be done. Many companies, including Epiroc, have set ambitious diversity goals and are actively working towards achieving them. The advancements in digitalisation and automation in the mining industry have contributed to addressing the skill force issue. By introducing technologies that remove operators from hazardous environments and enable remote control from a safer location, such as a control room, we are making mining operations more attractive and accessible to a diverse workforce.
These digital solutions not only enhance safety but also improve working conditions by reducing heat, noise, and improving air quality underground. The overall transformation of the mining industry through digitalisation and automation has the potential to make it a more inclusive and appealing sector for a broader range of talents, including women.
MM: In terms of innovation, like you said, you're really an early adopter of technologies. Is the system of innovation in mining working well, considering that innovation can originate from both universities and companies? How do you support and foster innovation within the industry?
HH: I believe the system of innovation in mining is working well. We strongly believe in the power of partnerships and consider it as the new form of leadership. To drive innovation, it's essential to bring together diverse competencies and collaborate with various stakeholders. We have established partnerships with suppliers to develop different technologies, leveraging advancements from other industries and adapting them for mining. Additionally, we work closely with our customers on large-scale initiatives to co-create and develop tailored solutions. One example is our collaboration with Roy Hill, where we embark on a multi-year journey together, committing to push boundaries and solve challenges along the way.
By fostering partnerships with industry players, customers, and even startups or entrepreneurial companies, we can create something truly novel and achieve it with speed. Speed is a critical factor in the race to bring cutting-edge technologies to our customers. Furthermore, our mergers and acquisitions strategy aligns with our organic development efforts. Over the past five years, we have actively pursued acquisitions to complement our organic growth and expand our global reach. This approach allows us to leverage regional strengths and combine them with our internal development to deliver comprehensive solutions globally.
MM: In terms of the speed of your company's acquisitions and the areas you are targeting, such as Australian companies and ore body intelligence, how far along the value chain do you intend to go with these bolt-on companies? Particularly from a digital standpoint, how do you see software permeating the mining industry?
HH: From a value chain perspective, we believe the true productivity game-changer lies in seamlessly connecting the entire mining process, starting from exploration and extending down to the processing plant.
As a company, we recognise that we cannot possess all the physical products required for each step of the process, given our focused niches. However, from a technology standpoint, we can play a larger role. For example, our automation efforts, such as mixed fleet automation, involve taking control of all mobile equipment and utilities on the mine site to drive productivity.
When it comes to digital products, like ore body intelligence and software solutions, our focus is on connecting data from exploration through to the processing plant. We see tremendous opportunities in becoming an even stronger technology partner, as we have always been a productivity partner. The software solutions we acquire enable us to enhance our capabilities and provide comprehensive value throughout the mining value chain.
Regarding agnostic automation, our collaboration with ASI is aimed at managing mixed fleets effectively. While we have expertise in automating drill rigs for surface operations, extending automation to other equipment and advanced traffic management systems presents exciting possibilities. Automating haulage systems and utility vehicles on-site can reduce risks and improve productivity. Our recent acquisition of RCT in Australia further strengthens our capabilities in underground mining with a similar OEM-agnostic approach.
We strongly believe in offering OEM-agnostic solutions because customers should have the freedom to select the best machines based on robustness, ease of service, or other specific requirements. This approach aligns with our commitment to being technology leaders in the industry.
How are the trials of your Avatel mechanised development charging unit progressing?
HH: As for the Avatel project, it is currently in the testing phase at a customer site. The project aims to push boundaries and explore the potential of automation. Initially, the focus is on replacing manual work with machine-operated charging. However, the ultimate goal is to achieve total remote operation and full automation. Partnerships play a crucial role in such projects, as bringing engineers together from different companies fosters collaboration and enables the creation of innovative solutions.
In summary, our acquisitions and technology initiatives target various areas along the value chain, with a strong focus on digital solutions and software integration. We aim to connect data, automate processes, and offer agnostic solutions that enhance productivity, safety, and efficiency in mining operations. Partnership and collaboration are essential for driving innovation and realising the full potential of technology in the industry.