TUNNEL SYNDROME Positive metal prices have increased the cash flow of local miners, which could allow for more innovative ways to extract minerals from deeper underground
Local specialised original-equipment manufacturer Rham Equipment is focusing on the development of battery operated, autonomous underground mining equipment, says Rham Equipment capital sales manager Alan Mabbett, who points out that many miners are looking to further develop their deep underground assets.
Mabbett notes that the local gold sector offers significant opportunity for deeper mine development, with some of the deepest mines in the world.
Further, the positive metals prices over the past year has significantly increased the cash flow of many gold miners, which could provide the necessary funds to introduce innovations that allow for extraction from depth, but in more cost-effective and feasible ways.
However, mining deep underground can pose significant safety risks, owing to the harsh environment, with diesel fumes being released from materials handling trucks and excavating equipment also posing health risks to workers.
Mabbett stresses that, as a result of deeper exploration underground and the associated increased risk, there has been greater demand for Rham Equipment to develop autonomous excavating and materials handling equipment. This will enable mining operations to remove workers from potentially unsafe conditions.
Rham Equipment MD Kevin Reynders highlights that the manufacturer’s machines are mostly hydrostatic driven and are, therefore, easier to convert to fully automated machines.
Hydrostatic transmissions have generally been the more efficient method for propelling equipment, and hydrostatic drives can be guided by advanced electronics. In many cases, this enables the operator to exercise greater control over equipment. Low inertia of rotating parts also allows for quick starting, stopping and reversing.
Mabbett adds that the company manufacturers bespoke equipment, from concept to commissioning, including the manufacture of equipment such as load-haul-dump machines, face-drilling rigs, blast hole drill rigs, longhole drill rigs, as well as utility and maintenance vehicles, all for soft and hard rock applications.
It also produces hydrostatic belt drives and material transporters such as scissor lifts and explosives carriers. A key product also includes a remote-controlled hydrostatic winch, which is 100% controllable.
“We are always seeking new development opportunities in the technical field and to assist our customers. We build on prototypes and focus on helping our customers with their challenges,” Mabbett states.
Reynders notes there is pushback from local mining labour unions, who are concerned about potential job losses because of the increased use of automated machines.
He explains, however, that labour unions should consider the potential for increased skills development – as using more sophisticated technology solutions requires more skilled labour, particularly from a fault-finding and maintenance aspect – and, therefore, better wages.
Equipping mineworkers with the necessary skills and equipment would demonstrate that the autonomous technology can help them perform more efficiently, rather than replace them, adds Reynders.
Mabbett comments that improving efficiencies can improve cycle times and profit margins, which could, in turn, enable miners to hire more workers.
“We’re running about four research and development projects, testing different types of autonomous equipment solutions that are getting us closer to fully autonomous and continuous mining cycles.
“We’re focused on developing local solutions, supporting the mines and creating a circular economy. These autonomous solutions can also grow to become a foreign export, once it’s proven and the local market is satisfied,” Mabbett concludes.