Inco is a major force in the world nickel business. Last year the company delivered 258,088 tonnes of nickel in all forms, representing 24% of global demand. The nickel giant was once considered to be a corporate dinosaur, slow to adopt new technology and hard-line in its employee relations. All that has changed, as Inco enters the new millennium riding a wave of optimism.
The workforce at the flagship Ontario Division in the Sudbury, Ont., area has been distilled to about 5,000 from the 22,000 in 1970. The history of layoffs and retirement packages has left a bimodal distribution of ages, with the bulk of employees either near 30-years of service (eligible for full pension), or with less than a decade since graduation.
Members of the younger group, heavy on engineers, are rapidly advancing into supervisory roles, and are driving the country’s largest nickel producer into a refreshing new corporate culture-one that emphasizes brilliant, ground-breaking research and multidisciplinary teamwork.
In an effort to become the lowest-cost, most profitable nickel producer in the world, Inco has recently defined its three strategic goals as:
reducing the costs of its current operations;
developing low-cost orebodies; and
developing value-added products.
With these goals in mind, CMJ went to the Ontario Division to find out more about advances in telemining, recent exploration successes, and the development of new specialty nickel products.
Communications: the Foundation to Successful Telemining
In response to stiff competition from nickel sulphide mines and more recently from nickel laterite mines, Inco Limited began in the mid-1980s to take a serious look at the advantages of equipment automation and remote control. “If we could ‘move a person’ by flipping a switch [changing from one video screen to another], that would get us some amazing advantages,” says Greg Baiden, manager of the Inco’s Mines Research. “We would get more hours of work in a day, and create a much safer and more pleasant work environment [in an operations centre].
“The foundation of what we do is based on an underground communication system-really a high capacity radio cellular computer network-that can mix radio, video, voice and data systems,” says Baiden.
“The moment you go more than six metres below surface, the rocks shield radio waves from getting in or out. “We’ve never before had the ability to communicate underground that we have now. We’ve patented a high capacity mining network-the distributed antenna translator (DAT). It plugs into a cable-TV-type computer network and gives us a 1,200-m sphere in which we can run cell phones, computer internet, cameras and steering controls,” says Baiden. There is one DAT box on each mine level, with four 600-m-long coaxial cables running out from it.
It took five years, from 1987 to 1993, for the systems to be developed. Early on it was decided that complete automation of underground mining is a rather idealistic goal for the distant future, but there would be many benefits to be gained along the way. The team is now working toward an interim goal-long distance remote control with some automation-dubbed “Telemining”.
EQUIPMENT DESIGN WITH PARTNERS
Telemining research is an expensive process, with huge potential benefits. Baiden looks at each approved project as an investment that will result in savings within a prescribed time-frame.
Load-haul-dump machines (LHDs) have been working by local remote control since the early 1980s. In 1993, Inco began testing teleremote operation of LHDs and production drills. At the same time, the group began to develop automated guidance (“tracking”) systems. The drills were operational by 1995, and the automated guidance systems working by 1994.
Much of the research involves partners. Automated Mining Systems is a joint venture between Inco and Ainsworth Electric Inc., and is involved in underground telecommunication systems and vehicle computer systems. The largest portion of the research, representing 30% of the current effort, is the Mines Automation Project (MAP) including partners Sandvik Tamrock, a drill and LHD manufacturer; Dyno Nobel, an explosives maker; and Canmet, an agency of the federal government. This five-year $27-million project is in its fourth year, and the successes are mounting.
Before remote control, there were 16 operators running five down-hole drills with about 10 maintenance people. Now the same amount of work can be done by six operators running three Tamrock Solo 1060 drills with about six maintenance people.
There has been similar success with the LHD equipment. A remote operator controls the loading and dumping of LHDs, while the haulage from the loading face to the dump site is done automatically. Telemining has increased LHD availability from a previous maximum of 15 hours per day to 20 hours a day. The units already remotely controlled include a Toro 450, an Elphinstone 1700 and a Wagner ST8B.
At its 175 Test mine, Inco is working with JKS Boyles to build a new diamond drill with computer controls. It can already drill 10 m automatically, but this will be increased substantially. There are added benefits. The life of drill bits (the largest cost in drilling) has increased 300% on average, and the life of drill rods has doubled.
An automated haul truck will be added later this year.
Also at the Test mine, the research group remotely operates a laser-equipped survey truck fitted with a HORTA unit for determining the geographic position underground. HORTA-Honeywell Ore Retrieval and Tunneling Aid-is a box containing a gyro and an accelerometer, originally developed for the U.S. military, that solves the problem of positioning and location underground.
The truck with a HORTA mounted, can survey much faster and more accurately than manual surveys. It takes the truck 120 minutes to survey a 1.6-km-long drift, recording 1,500 points every 60 cm. This compares with a manual survey of the same distance that takes 180 hours, and records only five points every 6 m. Added benefits from such a detailed survey would be to allow engineers to design more effective ventilation systems, or to regularly check ground stability.
HORTA units could be fitted onto all mobile equipment, so their position could be known to an acceptable engineering accuracy. Drills with HORTA could be moved and set up remotely. The main impediment to this now is the ground support bolts and screens that cause collaring problems for the drills. These problems would be reduced if the bolts and screens were replaced by a spray-on ground support material like shotcrete. (Boltless shotcrete has been used at the Stobie mine as primary ground support for some years.)
In fact, Master Builders, Inc. in Cleveland, Ohio, is currently working on an automated spray-on lining machine. It would have a laser scanner to determine the shape of the rock face before spraying, so the lining could be sprayed to exactly the right thickness.
Baiden says that Inco’s own research group and/or its partners have developed and tested most of the major mining equipment for teleremote operation. “The only unit we still have a fair bit of work on is the explosives machine.” Dyno Nobel has already determined that this will involve the bulk loading of emulsions and will use microprocessor-based detonators.
REACHING FOR A NEW STANDARD
The Mines Research group is now at the rudimentary stage in processing engineering, monitoring and control, according to Baiden, but Inco is still much more advanced than other mining companies. He says that the LKAB mine in Sweden is the closest rival.
He predicts that, by 2008, Inco can reach a new productivity plateau, doubling the current mining productivity from 3,350 tonnes to 6,350 tonnes per person per year. Another aim is to triple the mine cycle rate (the time to drill, blast and muck a round) from one cycle to three complete cycles per 24 hours. “We believe technology can make a $2.10 nickel orebody approach the value of a $3.50 nickel orebody,” he claims.
These kinds of gains place Inco in a powerful position. It could choose to mine at current rates and much lower manpower and costs, or it could use all its equipment and personnel to speed up the rate of mining and increase its return on investment. With 25 years of reserves already in place in the Sudbury region and an aggressive exploration program underway, the Canadian nickel giant certainly has options.