"Battery-charging technologies should be used in a similar way to cellphones, regardless of the brand"
Atlas Copco is a very strong name in mining. What is the challenge to rebrand as Epiroc as part of the group's restructuring?
Atlas Copco is retaining the industrial business, and Epiroc is focusing on mining. The needs of these segments are different. To position the new brand is obviously a challenge, but we are not starting from scratch. We have a history spanning more than 140 years, with a well-established culture, values and processes. With that in mind, the split of Epiroc looks at having a closer relationship with the clients, providing an integrated solution. We are very strong in drilling, ground support, loading and hauling.
How does innovation help you adapt to the new market demands?
Innovation has always been a big focus for us. In this respect, we see four main areas of interest to develop the mines of the future. These are: electrification and the use of battery-powered equipment; automation; interoperability; and technologies for hard-rock excavation.
To put this in context, the easy-to-mine deposits have already been exploited, so what you have is deeper deposits with narrower veins and more difficult access. On the other hand, legislations in the different countries are setting more constraining standards in terms of health, safety and the environment. All this creates the need for different technologies and at Epiroc we are working on machines that will be free of emissions. This includes replacing diesel engines with battery-powered ones. At this moment, the initial cost of a battery-powered machine is higher, but if you look at the total cost of operation, you can obtain significant savings in areas such as mine ventilation, by having smaller tunnel sections, and also you would avoid the operational delays related to fumes underground.
When do you think this technology will be widespread in underground mining?
The technology is advancing very rapidly. The batteries are increasingly well adapted to the demanding environment of the mining operations. Having said this, there are also transitional solutions that can work very well in the meantime, such as the use of swing units, where you have a second battery being charged while you are using the first one. For some applications we have batteries that last four hours, and the replacing time is just 10 minutes, so you have nearly a 100% availability. If you combine that with the fact that you no longer need to wait to enter certain areas as there are no fumes, the solution certainly offers important advantages. In terms of the battery-charging technologies, we believe that these should be standardized across the board so that chargers can be used in a similar way to cellphones, regardless of the brand. That would save many costs in terms of the infrastructure, and would give mining companies the flexibility to change the equipment and improve efficiency over the life of the mine.
What items do you already have with the battery option?
80% of diesel consumption within a mining site is related to two main activities: the haulage and the transportation. In 2012 we started developing the battery-powered Scooptram ST7. Last year we did the global launch of this product at Condestable. Now, we are doing the first tests with the ST7 in altitude conditions at Atacocha. Besides the Scooptram, we also have battery-powered Dumpers, Boomers and Simbas for production drilling.
Will continuous mining be able to replace drill-and-blast in hard-rock environments?
Miners worldwide would like to use the continuous mining method traditionally used in coal or potash operations, which is far more efficient than the drill-and-blast technique. We have been developing technologies for several years in collaboration with Anglo American and Rio Tinto, and we already have some continuous mining technologies in platinum operations in South Africa, operated by Anglo. While blasting is still the main solution for hard-rock environments, we should not rule out the use of continuous mining technologies in the future.
Finally, could you develop the ideas of interoperability and automation from Epiroc's perspective?
We live in a connected world, and mining should not be an exception. Clients need to take decisions very rapidly, online, regarding their fleets and systems within the mine. Our machines have the Certiq technology that already compiles lots of data and enables for better decision-making. Recently, Epiroc has also incorporated a Swedish company called Mobilaris, that designs systems to compile data related to equipment, people and objects within the mine, and allow for better productivity and safety.
With regard to automation, if you can operate the mines remotely, people will be far less exposed to risks. Also, you will increase productivity, because it is easier to repeat a good task (a good drilling mesh, for instance) if you can automate the process with the support of a computer. In Stockholm we had machines operated from 200 km away and also in Australia, a mine was operated from many kilometers away. Another example of how automation and remote operation can boost productivity is the risk of thunderstorms in open-pit mines. If you operate the mine remotely, you can keep the operation running.