Automation success responsibility of mines: Rutherford

THE successful widespread use of automation at the longwall face is largely dependent on mine management’s commitment to training its operators and a dedication to increasing automation uptime – even when problems occur, says consultant Andy Rutherford.

Angie Tomlinson

Rutherford was speaking this week at Longwall 2006 in the Hunter Valley, where he stated what was required by the Australian industry to make automation successful, and thereby improve safety, consistency and production.

He said, “The drive for automation must come from the mine,” such as that of United, and more recently Austar. He held up Beltana as the prime example of how automation could be used to achieve success, but how it takes time.

“It has taken 10 years of concerted effort by some dedicated people at the mine to reach this level and will continue to require substantial effort into the future to maintain or improve the level of automation,” he said.

A key element to success is increasing automation uptime – even in the face of difficult geological conditions.

“It has been difficult to keep automation systems running except in good conditions, but perhaps in many ways not having the automation systems running may have contributed to deteriorating face conditions,” Rutherford said.

“Management are ultimately responsible for face operations. If automation is to work they must be committed to making it work otherwise we take the responsibility away from the operators on the face and a ‘leave it and cut coal, we will fix it later attitude’ develops.

“If we look at the reasons we installed automation in the first place – safety, consistency, production – why would we walk away from these principles as soon as problems occur?”

The other facet to successful automation is the training of operators and ensuring they have a full understanding of the longwall.

“Regardless of how good the automation is, if the operator does not understand the principles of face management, how can he use the systems to keep the face in the desired mining envelope?” Rutherford asked.

“If we asked each of the 1000 longwall operators and the 1000 part-time longwall operators working in the mines today to explain how the automation systems worked, what would be their response?

“How many would be able to describe the mining system being used and how the automation system is used to manage the face or face ends especially?

“Would they know how steep grades or changing grades on the face affect face management? Know how anti-collision worked? Would they know how to identify faults on automation systems? Would they realise that switching the system off can affect the horizon automation system in subsequent shears?

“Certainly many would, but others would not. Understanding how the longwall needs to operate and managing the equipment and systems to control the face equipment is better than corrective action after horizon is lost or equipment damage occurs.”

Rutherford said mine management needed to ensure crews understood how to physically manage the longwall face and how the equipment and automation works within the mining cycle/sequence. He said they also needed to ensure that operators were given the information necessary to ensure the face is managed correctly.

“This means we need to commit to training operators to higher levels of understanding on how to manage the longwall face, to fully understand creep, alignment issues, support density and the effect poor horizon can have on equipment and production.

“Training of operators will need to be increased to a new level to improve diagnostic skills that will allow automation to operate at closer to 100 percent of the time.”

He said despite the obvious benefits of training, it remained a contentious area at mines.

“Taking people off the job for training has in the past been seen as counter-productive. We must view training as an investment in the future production of the mine and ask ourselves the following questions.

“Can we afford not to train operators to manage the $A80 million investment in the longwall? A simple mistake can stop production for days, losing millions of revenue dollars.

“How are we educating and training operators? Is training them once for longwall operation sufficient? Can we expect new operators to be trained by existing operators or should we do a higher level of training?

“Do we effectively audit the automation systems and their operational success? Do we audit the use?

“Do we do regular competency checks on operator skills for longwall management and automation knowledge?”

Along with a well-trained crew, there also should be an “automation champion” at the mine, Rutherford said.

“There must be a champion who understands what is happening at all times. Ideally this should be a 24/7 job or people trained to diagnose issues short term. If the automation system does not work, what should be done? Should production continue until someone can fix the problem or should the face stop until it is repaired?” Rutherford said.

He said the onus is also on management to ensure automation and the fruits of that labour are achieved. “We believe we have more important jobs to do, whereas what is more important than keeping the primary production unit operating?”

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