With costs rising industry wide, the slightest gains in efficiency will affect the profitability, viability and future of underground coal mining.
Excavation and transportation to a processing centre are major cost drivers, but they are also areas where there is room for gains in efficiency and therefore cost savings.
After reaching this realisation, many in the industry are asking: how can this be done faster? In what quantity? How many resources will it take? How can it be done safely?
These are not new questions. People in other industries have pondered these same questions for years, and many have found answers through gradual improvements and sometimes trial and error. However, in mining-related industries which deal more intimately with worker safety and natural resources, experimenting with new methods and processes is not as easy.
To address some of these issues, researchers at the University of Wollongong (UOW) in New South Wales have taken software that’s typically used to simulate manufacturing processes, and used it to analyse underground mining processes, such as roadway development. Companies in industries from consumer goods to automotive have used Digital Manufacturing solutions for years to create efficiencies and identify potential problems in their assembly lines before any production begins.
With advancements in the technology, which can now produce lifelike simulations of nearly any environment, UOW has applied it to coal mining with the goal of improving production rates.
Soumya Raghavendra Rao, a Master of Engineering research student, under the supervision of Professor Christopher Cook, Dean of Engineering, and Associate Professor Ernest Baafi, Mining Engineering, utilised DELMIA, a digital manufacturing solution from the French company Dassault Systemes, to simulate underground coal mining processes.
To conduct her research, Rao looked specifically at a mine located in the Newcastle coalfield of NSW that produces more than 3 million tonnes of coal per year from continuous mining and longwall operations.
With support and participation from various mining personnel, a realistic and accurate model of the mine’s roadway was built in DELMIA simulation.
Using this software, various individual processes were mapped and simulated, and through the virtual mine, many of the real-world bottlenecks could be studied and addressed.
These included the regular installation of roof and rib support; the cyclic, stop-start nature of shuttle cars and other coal haulers – once haulage distances increased beyond 70 metres; panel service advances and conveyor advances, especially in a two-entry gate; manual installation and advancement of ventilation ducts at mines that have not adopted integrated monorail services management systems; and the supply of roof and rib support consumables to the face.
Once the first set of simulations were complete, data for failure, cycle times, wait times, and maintenance delays were logged and sorted with respect to the sequence of occurrence.