Cutting labour costs and boosting efficiency in the new low-commodity price era is driving automation in quarries and mines.
This trend will see fewer workers, with automation leading to cuts in jobs such as those involved in drilling, blasting, and train and truck driving – areas that typically represent more than 70% of mining employment – the International Institute for Sustainable Development predicts in a report.
The industry’s drive to protect profit margins will lead to a surge in development of new machines that will peak over the next 10 to 15 years, the report says.
One of the earliest targets for automation at mines were the huge vehicles that transport tons of ore, usually on the same route over and over. In the eight years since they were first adopted, Komatsu and Caterpillar each have about 100 autonomous trucks operating. Rio Tinto Group, which deploys Komatsu’s unmanned vehicles at its iron-ore mines in Western Australia, said the technology has led to a 15% reduction in the cost to load and haul material, according to a report by Bloomberg.
“In the future, manufacturers will also become like the software industry,” Kazunori Kuromoto, a senior managing executive officer of Komatsu, said at the company’s Tokyo headquarters. “Digital transformation, ubiquitous networks and big data all reflect the world trend today.”
“While change is slow in mining and construction — a single bulldozer like the one that Peoria, Illinois-based Caterpillar demonstrated in Chicago a few months ago can cost $3 million — new projects developed during the low-commodity price era are featuring many of the same technologies to cut labor costs and boost efficiency. It’s a potential growth area for Caterpillar and Komatsu, which have seen multiyear declines in unit sales,” the Bloomberg reports says.
“With the help of remote controls, one operator can control up to five of Caterpillar’s remote-controlled bulldozers, watching their progress using high-definition camera’s mounted on each vehicle. And because mines are usually located in remote areas far from population centers, the technology makes it possible to attract a wider range of operator talent, said Craig Watkins, a commercial manager at the company, which has sold the diggers to six customers so far.”
“The technology is not constrained by distance,” said Alan Pumklin, a Caterpillar sales support consultant.
It’s also helping to intensify competition between the world’s two biggest makers of non-farm heavy equipment, Caterpillar and Komatsu.
The companies are also competing in Japan. Komatsu now offers a service that automates much of the pre-foundation work on new construction, from land surveying to excavation, by connecting devices including drones and shovels and 3-D laser scanners to the Internet.
There are about 2,000 construction sites that have used the service, which could help ease labor shortages as Japan’s population ages and the workforce shrinks, Kuromoto said. Caterpillar is stepping up efforts to expand a similar service in the country.
“The technology solutions we offer all go to address the challenges facing our industry,” Phillip Pollock, sales and marketing general manager for the Asia Pacific region at Caterpillar, said in an interview in Tokyo.