A country full of world-class equipment makers
Sweden has long been better known for its mining equipment than its mining industry and its leading, world-scale manufacturers are poised to make a major impact on the future of global mineral extraction. They envision increased automation, less manpower and, at some point not far off, perhaps even unmanned mines.
Representatives of a number of those manufacturers, including Atlas Copco, Volvo, Scania, SKF AB and ABB AB, shared their visions of the future with visiting Chinese, South African, Australian and Canadian delegates at the end of a week-long tour of Swedish mines and mine-related projects in early June.
Several factors are forcing mining companies to invest in automated production and processing, according to Peter Bray, a product manager in Atlas Copco’s underground rock excavation division.
Bray pointed out that existing mines are becoming deeper and deeper, shallow, easy to mine ore bodies are becoming increasingly rare, labour costs have risen and skilled labour is becoming scarce in highly urbanized countries around the world.
Software-based communication systems and wireless local area networks will form “the central nervous system” of unmanned mining operations, Bray said, and will allow the transfer of data and commands from control rooms located on the surface.
Repetitive tasks from fixed locations, or work that occurs on fixed paths can be fully automated and have been at some Swedish mines.
For example, LKAB has operated long-hole drilling machines from central control rooms at its Kiruna and Malmberget mines since the mid-1990s.
In 2012, Atlas Copco partnered with Codelco–the National Copper Corporation of Chile–on a proof of concept trial at Codelco’s giant Andina mine, 50km north east of Santiago. They demonstrated that operators with no mining experience, sitting in a control room in the town of Los Andes, 80km from the mine, could control the loading and tipping of scoop trams.
Bray concluded his presentation with a question: “Is the unmanned mine achievable?” Not yet, he told an attentive audience of visiting delegates, but he made it clear that that day is coming.