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Automation key to future

HOW Australia’s underground coal mining industry responds to changing markets, new technology and community demands were major themes to emerge at this week’s LONGWALL 2005 conference, held at the Hunter Valley in New South Wales. Today <i>International Longwall News</i> focuses on developments in longwall automation.

Staff Reporter
Automation key to future

Some 190 delegates (65% operators) attended the two-day IIR conference, the largest to date, while a further 11 attended a workshop on the CSIRO-lead automation project.

In opening the conference, Jim Middleton, vice president – mine operations, BHP Billiton Illawarra Coal, said the coal industry was facing major changes which held both risk and opportunity. Community pressure and the growth in coal demand were two of these.

Middleton said a major focus for BHP Billiton Illawarra, which has opened its third new longwall in two years, was the greater use of automation.

With company mines hitting 500m depths and faces averaging 300m wide, automation was seen as a way to help drive the business forward he said.

“We have gone from where automation was holding us back to where it’s moving us forward at a rapid rate,” Middleton said.

He said improved horizon control, an outcome from greater levels of automation, lowered subsidence and reduced reject coal at Illawarra mines.

Peter Henderson, mine electrical engineer at Australia’s top mine, outlined the major steps being achieved in the introduction of leading-edge automation technology at Xstrata Coal’s Beltana mine.

Beltana is hosting the Landmark automation project, a major research effort being conducted by CSIRO and others to develop new technology to increase levels of longwall automation.

The key technology developed and proven by the landmark longwall automation project to date is the shearer position measurement system (SPMS), an inertial navigation system that can report the three-dimensional position of an operating shearer.

Henderson said the SPMS was being used at Beltana to view the 3D position of the shearer and to help with auto-steering.

“The SPMS is a must-have sensor for any longwall, and it will be available soon,” Henderson said.

At present, over an eight hour shift, the mine is averaging 17 shears and producing 17,000 tonnes.

Henderson said the automation project’s monitoring capability had allowed identification of actual cutting rates, rather than the traditional reliance on subjective deputies’ reports.

Belt moves had been thus identified as contributing to 30 minutes of lost cutting rate time. With this delay eliminated, Henderson believes 20,000 tonne shifts are achievable.

Greg Rowan, research leader at CSIRO, outlined the latest progress with the automation project and said SPMS systems were being installed at Queensland mines Broadmeadow and Grasstree.

Regarding the impact of automation on the workforce, Rowan said roles were evolving from labourer to that of a true technician who understood how to deal with exception conditions.

Henderson said that contrary to expectations, automation at Beltana had resulted in more people being employed.

“We have employed more people because we are going faster. It goes against the idea that automation makes jobs redundant,” he said.

The automation workshop, held the day after the conference, was led by Greg Rowan, who said the response was a validation and confirmation of the direction CSIRO is taking in its R&D efforts with automation.

The key was the collection of real-world data and demonstrating the benefits of the system in quantifiable numbers, he said.

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