Autonomous loaders help mine prepare for expansion while continuing production
An underground zinc and lead mine in Canada recently faced a dilemma: How to maintain an aggressive production pace in a developed seam while simultaneously advancing the next phase of the project.
To help solve this challenge, the mine turned to Caterpillar and Cat® dealer Hewitt Equipment Ltd. The dealership completed a Continuous Improvement initiative that leverages technology to help the mine prepare for expansion while continuing a rapid production pace.
Avoiding a production stop
A longtime user of Cat equipment and a Hewitt customer, the mine is accustomed to looking to Hewitt for more than equipment support. One of the main benefits of the relationship is Hewitt’s commitment to helping them improve in areas such as parts availability, labor, machine availability and technology.
“The mine was having delays in development of the ramp for the new phase of the mine because workers and machines were busy on the production side,” explains Hewitt Sales Manager Marc LePage. “They knew they were falling behind and realized that eventually work would come to a halt when the current phase ended and the new one wasn’t ready for production. At that point they would be forced to lay off workers — a situation they very much wanted to avoid.” The mine is located in a remote area about eight hours north of Montreal and residents of the area depend on the mine for their livelihood.
Faced with the challenge of more quickly developing the ramp, the mine turned to Hewitt for help. The dealership proposed a unique solution: Cat Command for underground, part of the MineStar™ technology suite. Typically, autonomous loaders are used for production, helping mines more efficiently and safely move ore. But Hewitt saw an opportunity to leverage the benefits of autonomy to speed mine development.
“This ramp is so important — and the ramifications of not completing it so significant — that we proposed this solution not only to keep the development moving but also to speed up the process,” LePage explains.
The mine’s ramp development requires drilling and blasting, which means progress stops for several hours after every blast while workers wait for the dust to settle before going in to set the bolters, clear debris and reinforce walls. “That two-hour-delay is two hours of lost productivity,” says LePage. “But we said, ‘What if we sent in an autonomous scoop and reduced that two hours of downtime?’ ”
The results would be significant: By using this two hours, the mine would gain about an extra meter of depth per shift. At two shifts per day, that equals a significant amount of additional depth over the course of a year.
The mine agreed to try to the solution and installed a Cat Command for underground retrofit on one of their existing R2900G loaders. While some autonomous systems have been in operation in Canada, this was the first-ever installation of Command for underground in the country.
“The ability to retrofit was a big differentiator,” says LePage. “The mine was able to buy the retrofit kit and for just a small extra cost, install the system on an existing machine.”
LePage calls the installation relatively easy — but acknowledges the impact of the excellent support received from Caterpillar and another Cat dealer, Cashman Equipment of Nevada, USA. Hewitt also sent personnel to train at Caterpillar’s Tinaja Hills Demonstration & Learning Center in Tucson, Arizona, USA.
“We had a lot of help from Cashman,” says LePage. “They shared best practices and even offered their own resources to come help with the installation on site.”
On Cashman’s recommendation, Hewitt assigned a dedicated project manager who was immersed in the project, making sure parts were available and ensuring there was sufficient training and simulation of the technology.
The first step was a site assessment performed by project manager Simon Ayotte, along with a Caterpillar team that included application specialists Daniel Crump and Jason Gough and technology consultant Manni Leo. The team interviewed everyone at the mine who would be involved — from IT experts to operations personnel to service technicians. “We spent a month seeing how prepared they were to handle this autonomous machine,” says LePage. “We evaluated how many radios we would need, how many feet of cable, how many antennas would be required to make the zone.”
Once all the parts had arrived, the technology was installed on the machine before it was taken to the site while the necessary infrastructure was installed in the mine. A month of testing and several weeks of training followed.
“The mine’s operators are used to tele-remote,” says LePage. “They have used a system for line-of-sight operating of the scoops from a safe zone. So it only took them a few hours to learn the Command non-line-of-sight system. It was seamless for the operators. They caught on quickly.”
Hewitt engineered a three-way switch that allows three interfaces for the R2900: one with an operator in the cab, one with the line-of-sight solution and one with Command.
The first person to use the remote operator station was the site’s top operator, who had suffered a back injury and was going to be kept out of the cab for an extended period. “He loves his job,” says LePage. “So he was happy to have this option. Otherwise he would have been doing nothing.”
The mine has about another year left of development before the next phase will move to production. LePage said the site may then use Command to start on the next ramp, or move the autonomous loader into production.
“They are still getting acquainted with the system,” he says. “Once they get up to 100 percent, making Command a standard process, we envision it being applied elsewhere in the mine.”
LePage says the mine is extremely satisfied with the system as well as the Caterpillar and Hewitt support that went along with it. “We did a Gantt chart and rolled out the steps and the change management that we would provide,” he says.
The project was well-executed thanks to upfront planning and support from Caterpillar and Cashman, says LePage. “The best advice we got was to make sure the mine was ready — that the decision to use autonomy was not being forced upon the mine by a corporate initiative. We needed to make sure every single person — from IT to maintenance to operations — was on board, because without buy-in, it cannot succeed,” he says. “We needed to make sure that when things got difficult, they were not going to abandon the system. Everyone needs to be committed to finding a solution.”
Visit Cat Mining to learn more.