The deal still has to be ratified by shareholders, however, given Atlas Copco’s largest shareholder Investor – the investment vehicle of the Wallenberg family – has backed the split, the vote is widely seen as a formality.
What this will mean for miners is they will be getting a supplier focused on mining and infrastructure, rather than one split across industrial as well as mining disciplines.
It will be able to make investment and acquisition decisions far more quickly.
The Epiroc board also includes mining professionals.
While there have been changes at board level, the experienced people that made up the Atlas Copco mining division and its research and development efforts remain.
The narrower focus on mining comes at a time when the mining industry is experiencing an upturn.
Epiroc Australia general manager Terry Browne told Australia’s Mining Monthly there was every intention to grow Epiroc and that there were some “substantial growth ideas” being worked on.
While Browne was not able to go into detail about those at the moment, what is clear is that Epiroc has been working on growing its business through investments and purchases.
It took a large stake in Swedish company Mobilaris, which is a player in the digitalisation space and has also bought Australian companies Rockdrill Services Australia and Hy-Performance Fluid Power.
“The decisions on investments have become a lot easier and a lot faster,” Browne said.
Epiroc is also investing its infrastructure, with it preparing to move to a bigger facility next door to its existing facility in Reid Road, Perth Airport in the third quarter of this year. It will also retain the existing facilities which will house its rock tools manufacturing business.
One of the main gains from moving to bigger premises for equipment sales and service is it gives Epiroc the opportunity to expand its equipment refurbishment offerings.
Browne said it would also allow Epiroc to speed up assembly of equipment for customers and give it the ability to expand its manufacture of drill consumables.
Being in Perth Airport also has logistical advantages because it is close to good freight corridors to the main mining centres.
Digitalisation and automation are the two key drivers for the business going forward in Browne’s view.
Automation, he said, was something Epiroc was already pretty well across, while digitalisation was a challenge the whole mining industry was grappling with.
Not the least of the challenges is to define exactly what digitalisation will mean going forward.
Yes, there is a lot of data available but how will that be used and how will the information be applied?
“With the flow of better quality data we can develop good information that can be both helpful to the suppliers and to the industry,” Browne said.
“At the moment the main driver of digitalisation has been maintenance.”
That has taken the form of predictive maintenance with operators able to get a better idea of exactly when a machine has to be taken offline.
“But there are a lot of other things the data can be applied to,” Browne said.
“Safety is one. We can have equipment that is operating remotely and we are getting back good information on how that machine is performing.
“There are geological opportunities where data can be drawn from drilling data and sent to a central point to make better decisions.
“But we have to learn to crawl before we walk.”
Besides looking to the future of mining technology, Epiroc is also looking to the future of the mining workforce.
Last year it started an apprentice training program.
“It’s not to the scale of what Caterpillar has but it gives us a base,” Browne said.
“We’ve brought in apprentices from diverse areas and backgrounds.”
At the moment there are 10 apprentices going through the program.
“We want to learn from that experience,” Browne said.
“We’re doing it in a stepped phase and making sure we are giving them good training and progressing from there.
“We recognise we have to be part of the wider mining community.”
The encouraging thing from Browne’s point of view was the fact there were more than 150 applicants for the program.
“It shows there were people out there who at least wanted to give mining a go,” he said.
While helping grow the mining industry was part of the motivation behind the apprentice program, Browne has a more practical thought in mind too.
He is all too aware of the signs of an impending mining skills shortage.
“With the uptake in mining we see a potential skills shortage,” Browne said.
“The authorities have changed the rules in regard to 457 visas so it will be a little more difficult to bring people in from other parts of the world to meet the ramp up.”
And Browne is certainly starting to see a pick up in the mining sector, even though the new equipment replacement orders have not started to flow in as yet.
“With the growth on the surface side with lithium the demand for new equipment is growing,” he said.
“We see that as the start of the cycle for the replacement of old equipment.”
The bulk of that lithium-driven demand growth is coming from Western Australia, where Epiroc is also seeing strong activity in the iron ore and gold sectors.
Browne said Epiroc was also starting to make strong inroads into South Australia, winning some big orders at Olympic Dam.
“We’re to build a facility at Roxby Downs and we will also bolster our service centre in Adelaide,” he said.
“We’re also seeing some growth in Queensland. It’s not as strong as we’ve had in WA with the lithium but there has definitely been some positive movement.”
Some of that growth is coming from the Queensland coalfields, however, Browne said Epiroc had also started to make some inroads into the metal mines around Mt Isa.