A change gonna come

THE next year is going to bring some exciting times for one of the world’s largest mining equipment makers as it prepares for a major split.
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Atlas Copco Mining and Rock Excavation Technique president Helena Hedblom.

Noel Dyson

It will be particularly so for Atlas Copco Mining and Rock Excavation Technique president Helena Hedblom.

She took over the business, which is one of Atlas Copco’s five key divisions, on January 1.

Barely two weeks after Hedblom took the role Atlas Copco announced it planned to split out its mining and construction divisions into something called “Newco” in 2018.

Hedblom is considered by Atlas Copco observers to be one of those in the frame for the top job at NewCo. 

Prior to taking on the Mining and Rock Excavation Technique role Hedblom ran the Rock Drilling Tools division and was general manager for consumables company Atlas Copco Secoroc.

Along with the split up of Atlas Copco another challenge Hedblom will face is growing the mining business in a changed mining environment.

In some ways the former will help with the latter.

On paper spinning off the mining and construction arms of Atlas Copco makes a lot of sense for both businesses. For Atlas Copco it will be better identified as an industrial business while whatever “NewCo” the internal name for the spun off mining and construction arms will become a far more agile operation.

Hedblom is certainly excited about the opportunities it will present.

“It is a growth project,” she said.

“The ambition is to create a strong, agile company focused on mining and civil engineering.

“It will be the same people, the same organisation and the same structure.

“We will be a faster organisation and be able to respond to customers’ needs in an even faster way. It’s all about speed.

“To be the leading innovative player speed is key.”

That split, should shareholders approve it, is not until 2018 and a lot of the intervening year will involve dealing with the legal and administrative requirements such a split generates.

While the Atlas Copco name will go with the industrial businesses covering the Compressor Technique, Vacuum Technique and Industrial Technique divisions, the Atlas Copco brands for mining equipment will remain with NewCo under a licencing arrangement.

While effort is being put into finding a name for NewCo it is the business as usual of trying to grow a mining business in a changed mining world.

“We need an open mindset and need to challenge ourselves every day,” Hedblom said.

“We say there is always a better way. We can always improve.

“How we produce things. How we sell things. How we develop things. We are never standing still.” 

The demand has increased for greater efficiency and information from mining equipment.

“There are clear trends in the market when it comes to automation and safety,” Hedblom said.

“Everything in the future will be about productivity for our customers. My view is I would like us to be an even better provider than we are. I want us to be a good productivity provider to our customers and strengthen that position.

“There are still a lot of opportunities within the core of what we’re doing.”

Predictive maintenance and big data are other key opportunities.

Hedblom said Atlas Copco launched its Certiq system last year to help with that.

She said that system would give the status of machines in real time.

Of course in the underground mining space real time communication to machines depends on what communications infrastructure is put on place.

For the company’s surface rock drills getting data from the machines is simpler because the communications problems are much smaller.

“The technology is already here,” Hedblom said.

“It’s more about adapting the way you are working and becoming proactive rather than reactive.”

Batteries are also likely to play a bigger part in mining – particularly underground – in the future.

Atlas Copco is not the only player in this area. At the recent Minexpo in Las Vegas several manufacturers were showing off their battery powered underground mining machines.

So far a lot of the effort has been around turning out battery powered loaders and drills. For the drills the battery power is used to tram them to where they need to be. From there the machines link in to mine power and water just as their diesel powered siblings would.

In terms of underground equipment trucks are a challenge because of the length of the declines they have to tackle, along with the weights they carry. 

The aim behind using the battery technology is to remove the amount of diesel particulate being generated underground. This has safety benefits and helps reduce the amount of ventilation that has to be applied to the workings.

While there had been some initial attempts to develop hydrogen cells to replace diesel engines, battery-driven electric motors have taken over.

“There has been such fast development of battery technology in so many areas,” Hedblom said.

“We need to stay on top of the technology development so we can offer the best solutions for our customers.”

Automation is another area underground miners are looking at.

“We are going more and more to an autonomous and remote control way of working,” Hedblom said.

“If you can minimise how many people you need in the ‘risky’ areas the better.”

Hedblom said there was both a safety and a productivity aspect to this.

“You start to monitor, then control, then optimise and then automate,” she said.

The ability to retrofit is another thing miners are looking for. They do not want to spend extra for a brand new machine to bring autonomous operations to their mines.