Innovation and technology have become vital in driving sustained productivity, cost savings and improvements in safety across the mining sector, according to Fortescue Metals Group CEO Elizabeth Gaines. 

FMG has been at the leading edge of many innovations since it first began operation with strip miners at its Chichester Hub operations, consistently investigating new ideas and solutions to deliver the most from its ore bodies. 

“We were the first company in the world to deploy CAT’s autonomous haulage system (AHS) on a commercial scale,” Ms Gaines told National Mining Chronicle. 

“The introduction of AHS at Solomon has resulted in substantial productivity increases, as well as safety improvements. We have commenced our project to roll out AHS to our fleet at the Chichester Hub and, once completed, Fortescue will become the first iron ore operation in the world with a fully automated haul fleet.” 

The new relocatable conveyor at Cloudbreak is another example of Fortescue’s innovative culture. 

“This involves adapting technology frequently used in underground mining operations to provide greater flexibility and increased accessibility to remote mine pits, contributing to further productivity and efficiency improvements across the business,” Ms Gaines said. 

But while companies like FMG have been pioneers, setting new standards through innovation, it’s not always a case of out with the old and in with the new for the company and the industry at large. 

Dynamite, for example, was first used 150 years ago to blast rocks; millions of pounds are still produced each year. 

Construction equipment supplier Volvo said a number of innovations were changing today’s mining landscape. 

A significant player in this mix, drones are becoming more prevalent, replacing the use of helicopters in surveying minesites. The technology can currently assist in covering up to 1000 acres and is 10 times cheaper than hiring a helicopter, according to Volvo. 

Virtual reality was another key technology identified as altering the outlook of mining operations, increasing productivity levels by up to 30 per cent, while mega machines and equipment increased load capacities up to 105 tonnes. 

Speaking to National Mining Chronicle, Volvo Construction Equipment Head of Sales in Australia and Vice President for Sales Support and Dealer Development in the Asia- Pacific region AM Muralidharan said embracing change was anything but a new concept for Volvo. 

“From our perspective, we think demands for efficiency, safety and reduced environmental impact will drive a strong trend towards electrification and autonomous vehicles in the mining industry,” he said. 

“We have manual methods to assess mining structures and to calculate total cost of ownership and, in the future, this can easily be managed with drones. They are an extremely cost-efficient tool for monitoring, data collection and support in optimising mining operations.” 

Two years ago Volvo introduced electric site solutions for the quarry and aggregate industry which reduced carbon emissions by up to 95 per cent and total cost of ownership by up to 25 per cent, according to Mr Muralidharan. 

“In addition, we introduced prototype autonomous wheel loaders and articulated haulers to increase safety,” he said. 

“None of these concepts are ready for industrialisation yet, but they indicate where we are heading, and we believe the mining industry will bene t from this development.” 

The company is behind the invention of the articulated hauler. Since bringing this product to the market more than 50 years ago, it has had an enormous impact on the mining industry. 

“Last year, we expanded this range with the launch of the Volvo A60 – the world’s largest articulated hauler – which has already proved to significantly boost productivity in itself, but also improves mining efficiency by reducing the number vehicles on the sites,” Mr Muralidharan said. 

“Volvo Group sister company, Volvo Trucks, introduced the world’s first self-driving truck in underground mines two years ago. This specially equipped Volvo FMX truck was part of a project to improve transport ow and safety in mines. Initiatives like this confirm the trend against autonomous vehicles for improved safety and productivity.” 

With many innovations and technologies jostling for primacy, mining exploration, production and maintenance are expected to lift significantly through 2018 and beyond, according to BIS Oxford Economics’ Mining in Australia 2018 to 2032 report. 

IFS Australia and New Zealand Managing Director Rob Stummer said with maintenance costs forecast to increase to nearly 60 per cent over the next five years, now was the time to invest in systems to keep expenditure under control. 

“New technologies – including cloud computing, mobile devices, the Internet of Things (IoT), predictive maintenance, planning and scheduling optimisation, big data, artificial intelligence and augmented reality all have a role to play in controlling maintenance costs,” he said. 

Mr Stummer said modern technologies like augmented reality also had the potential to improve maintenance productivity in the mining industry in the same way driverless trucks had improved the productivity of haulage operations in recent years. 

“IFS recently announced the launch of a new proof of concept which integrates the Australian-developed fountx augmented reality solution with enterprise data from IFS Applications to boost productivity of industrial engineers,” he said. 

“Unlike wearable consumer technology, fountx is purpose- built for complex industrial environments, preserving the spatial awareness users need to work safely. It comes in two parts: an operator station comprising a lightweight near-eye headset and wearable computer, and a touch screen expert station used offsite. These allow technicians to perform complex maintenance with an expert looking over their shoulder virtually. 

“Over the next few years, augmented reality technology like fountx will revolutionise how maintenance is performed in the mining industry. In combination with technologies like predictive maintenance, artificial intelligence and planning and scheduling optimisation, the biggest benefits will be achieved in remote environments where maintenance costs are the highest.” 

Images: Top: A volvo truck.

Middle: AHS trucks at FMG’s Solomon Hub. Image: Fortescue Metals Group.

Bottom: Rob Stummer.