WHILE simplest is best was often the mantra for underground contractors, that is starting to change as some players strive to become more competitive. Supply Side by Australia’s Mining Monthly editor Noel Dyson
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Staff Reporter

Underground contractors, who usually have the responsibility of maintaining their own fleet, would often choose to use the most basic equipment going because it was easy to maintain.

There were no computerised systems to go haywire.

However, while the need for robust, easy to maintain machines remains – and probably will for a long, long time – contractors are starting to buy more sophisticated equipment.

They are taking on the sort of gear that owner miners would opt for and even starting to look at things such as teleremote and even automation.

And in a strange twist, having these higher technology systems can actually make maintenance easier.

A lot of the high-end mining equipment comes with pretty comprehensive diagnostic tools that can make fault finding much simpler.

Improving communications systems underground are also helping push contractors this way.

It was not so long ago that leaky feeder was the top of the tree in terms of communications. These days, a lot more operations are putting in optical fibre and wireless routers, which allows real time connectivity to a host of data from various pieces of equipment.

Trucks, for example, can send, in real time, information on how their systems are performing and how much load they are carrying. Drills can pull down patterns directly from the blast engineer’s computer and even report how closely they are following them.

Atlas Copco product manager – underground rock excavation Shaiful Ali said he was seeing some contractors going for the simpler systems on things such as large underground trucks but had noticed an increase in demand for production drills such as Atlas Copco’s Simbas with the full Rig Control System installed.

“The new system [RCS] provides a more accurate drilling performance based on you knowing where you are drilling,” Ali said.

“It also provides more reporting functions.

“This means the contractors’ reports to their clients can be based more on electronic data than hand-written notes.”

On the maintenance front, Ali said the RCS could make it simpler to find out what the problems are thanks to its trouble shooting capabilities.

“The new system allows you to know what the problems are,” he said.

“Instead of us sending our technicians to site to ascertain the problems, they can tell us what the problems are and we can work through that over the phone.

“Reducing the mean time to repair is a benefit to them. They can factor that into their tendering.

“The contractors can learn what to look at and when to look at it.”

Ali said there was still plenty of room for the basic tried-and-true machines, however, there had definitely been a growth in demand for the higher technology options.

While there seems to be a trend for mining contractors to go towards the latest technologies, not all are keen to be at the cutting edge.

Pybar Mining Services operations manager Western Australia/South Australia – business development manager David Noort said the company was starting to look at the technologies out there but was not in a rush to be an early adopter unless the benefits to clients were clearly there.

“We’re doing further investment in the technologies that can pass the benefits straight to clients,” he said.

“We’re moving into remote control. Things such as using teleremote from the surface.

“We’re starting to look at auto tramming.”

This does not mean Pybar is racing head first into the brave new world though.

“Our focus is on being first to be second,” he said. “We’re looking at the technologies out there. We’re doing further investment in the technologies that we can pass the benefits straight on to the clients.

“There are certain things we do want to make further use of.

“There are a lot of smarts that have gone onto the machines but not a lot of that is being used to make better decisions.

“Engine management technologies, for example. It’s the systems that sit over that, extract it and move it into the realm of effective reports.

“Sandvik have, for instance, have a lot of tools that can consult into four tiers. Tier one is basic operation all the way up to full automation.”

Sandvik general manager area east Harry Hardy said a community of contractors was emerging that was “focused on leveraging technology to deliver value”

He said he was certainly seeing companies that wanted leverage technology more often.

“They [contractors] are looking for ways to deliver value to their customers to remain competitive,” Hardy said.

“Are they doing it because that is what their customers want? It is a bit of a chicken and egg.

“The technology they are looking at is not super duper, really expensive stuff. They are not going for fully automated mines.”

They are, however, tapping into the capabilities of some of the machines better. For example, long hole drills can drill a full fan autonomously.

That sort of technology has been around for some time. However, during the boom years, production was the priority and the simpler bare bones systems were deemed more appropriate.

With the heat come out of the market and the focus switching to higher productivity, contractors are taking a fresh look at what is available.

“We’ve had some features on some of our machines that, for a number of years, have gone unused,” Hardy said.

“People were too busy knocking out metres, doing whatever they could.

“That is changing. You have people like [Barminco CEO] Peter Stokes, talking about using Lean and Six Sigma.”

This move towards greater technology and towards improving systems and operating practices is spreading beyond the contractors too.

“I’m noticing a move across the industry to embrace technology, improve productivity and be smarter about what they are doing,” Hardy said.

“Some of the more significant operators are waking up to this.

“They’ve started using our training guys. We’ve been trying to tell them for the past three years but they just wouldn’t listen.

“Now they are concentrating on getting value and managing costs.

“Before that it was tonnes, tonnes, tonnes.”

Another benefit to contractors and miners alike is the ability to get and keep better staff.

“They are not having the turnover they were having,” Hardy said.

“People were getting recruited in airports. Why train somebody when they may not come back from their break?”

Another driver towards contractors adopting higher levels of technology is safety.

“We’re starting to give miners and contractors the opportunity to not have people in areas where their safety may not be at a premium,” Hardy said.

“We can teleremote machines in and control them more reliably from a long way away.”