FMG adding more robots

FORTESCUE Metals Group is going to widen its use of autonomous trucks and is on the cusp of adding autonomous drills but has no interest in autonomous trains.
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FMG's robot haulers in action at Solomon. The wheel loader in the picture is manned.

Noel Dyson

The company has 54 Caterpillar autonomous trucks operating at its Solomon operations and, after receiving a 20% productivity boost from using, is keen to expand its autonomous fleet.

Adding to the gains, a lot of the early problems with the trucks, such as them stopping for even puffs of dust on the road, have been ironed out.

The Caterpillar Minestar autonomous system can be retrofitted to existing standard trucks. FMG has the conversion process down to six days.

It has even taken to cutting back the head boards on some of its trucks, removing about 4t of protective steel.

That means an extra 4t of iron ore in the trucks during the winter months or the ability to take some of the load off the tyres in the hotter months while still carrying a full payload. Tyre overheating is a particular problem in Western Australia’s Pilbara.

The tyres can get so hot that the steel bands delaminate from the rubber.

The problem can be particularly prevalent with the front tyres. To get around this FMG shifts the centre of gravity of the load towards the rear of the tray.

Speaking at a media tour of its operations FMG CEO Nev Power said the saving came not so much from the operators they removed – consider there are three and a bit per truck to allow for shifts and leave periods who have to be paid, flown to site and accommodated – but rather through productivity gains.

The initial feasibility study for Solomon called for 75 trucks – FMG is doing it with 54. Given each truck costs about $5 million, that is a $100 million capital saving alone.

“From an operating expenditure point of view the numbers are looking better than we expected them to,” Power said.

While the variable costs, such as fuel and parts are pretty much the same, Power said the company was noticing a lot less damage was being done to the trucks.

He said the autonomous trucks left FMG with a surplus fleet, meaning it did not have to replace any trucks for another two to three years.
 That allowed the money saved to be put towards debt repayment.

Power said the company had not worked out what savings it was getting from not having to put operators in 54 trucks – or the 75 trucks it would have had to go with had it not take the autonomous route.

Another advantage for FMG is that the Caterpillar autonomous system allows its robot trucks to operate safely around manned vehicles. There is no need to quarantine autonomous operations.

Power said company would be adding its first autonomous blasthole drill in December but would not reveal which company would be supplying the autonomous technology.

The autonomous drilling is expected to bring productivity benefits through greater accuracy and speed in the drilling process. 

The rigs will also be able to tell what sort of material they are drilling through based on metrics such as force required and penetration rates.

This can be important because of the different materials FMG is dealing with. Some of its banded iron formation iron ore is particularly hard while some of its overburden does not require as much blasting force.

On the train front though, FMG does not believe it needs to go autonomous.

It is instead looking at whether to spend $15 million to $20 million on a “cruise control” driver assist technology that will help drivers optimise brake and throttle use.

It is expected this technology will help save fuel and brake wear.

Rio Tinto has taken on autonomous trains – and is facing some difficulties with them. However, Rio has longer hauls than FMG and needing to change crews mid haul to manage fatigue.

FMG insists it does not have those issues and therefore cannot justify the capital expense to take the fully autonomous rail step.

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