The pandemic is accelerating investment in automation and technology upgrades by mining companies to reduce the numbers of staff on site, according to the chief executive of the world’s largest mining drilling equipment manufacturer.
Miners were already updating equipment to cope with lower grade material and deeper mines, which often involve more water. They have also been responding to pressure from investors to reduce carbon emissions. More are using electric trucks, for example, and every big miner now has a net zero carbon target.
But Helena Hedblom, chief executive of Sweden’s Epiroc, said that the pandemic had led to faster adoption of new technology as mining companies have looked to reduce the number of workers on site.
“Given the pandemic, that has really been identified as an area where automation and digitalisation can help. With connected machines, when you send a technician to site, you know what the problem is. If anything, the pandemic has increased the transition to new technology,” she told the Financial Times.
Ms Hedblom said the mining industry had “huge potential” to improve sustainability, safety and productivity. The average age of mining equipment is increasing, she added, offering opportunities both in new sales and in servicing older machinery.
Epiroc, which was spun out of Sweden’s most valuable company, Atlas Copco, two years ago, competes with Caterpillar of the US, Japan’s Komatsu and Sweden’s Sandvik among others. Services are also a large and growing part of its business, accounting for more than two-thirds of revenues in the third quarter of last year.
Ms Hedblom said Epiroc still had room to grow in this market because it only services about half the machines it sells at the moment. The company is also increasingly rebuilding equipment part way through its lifetime to boost its productivity, including by adding autonomous technology, she added.
“We are a productivity provider in a way. We have employees on the mine sites 24/7 to make sure the equipment delivers,” Ms Hedblom said.
From the first quarter of this year, Epiroc will offer mining customers the option of replacing a diesel motor with an electric battery during a mid-life rebuild.
Electrification could be particularly helpful as mines become deeper, because it removes the need for expensive ventilation to extract diesel fumes, Ms Hedblom said.
Most miners have equipment from several different manufacturers and Ms Hedblom said a significant development would be “mixed-fleet automation” where one control system manages machinery from different companies. Epiroc is taking part in two trials on this in Australia with Roy Hill and Newcrest.
Ms Hedblom added that compared with previous technology shifts in mining that started in North America, Europe and Australia, interest in automation and electrification was “coming from everywhere — that’s different from before”.