Looking ahead to autonomous hauling

By |  July 16, 2018
Autonomous hauling has already reached the mining industry, and it’s only a matter of time before the technology is prevalent in quarry operations. Photo courtesy of Komatsu.

Autonomous hauling has already reached the mining industry, and it’s only a matter of time before the technology is prevalent in quarry operations. Photo courtesy of Komatsu.

Technology plays an ever-increasing role in our lives with each new 21st-century day.

As technology becomes more ingrained in our daily habits, the premise of such developments is straightforward: to simplify, enhance and improve the way we live, communicate and work.

Technological advancements have emerged in industries across the globe in recent decades, and the aggregate industry recently arrived to the party.

In an industry traditionally marked by manual labor and human work ethic, the concept of autonomous technology is a bit foreign at a glance. When examined closely, though, the benefits of autonomous technology become abundantly clear.

“All of it is designed to automate the process within the product line to maximize the capabilities of the machines, to ensure you’re getting the most productivity out of the machine that you can get,” says Brian Yureskes, director of sales and global accounts for Komatsu. “Like any other industry, they’re constantly making improvements and developing new technology that allows us to be even more efficient and to do more with less.”

Considering two consistent points of emphasis for aggregate producers are efficiency and productivity, it’s only a matter of time before autonomous technology ultimately becomes prevalent in quarry operations.

“The priority of what is driving forces changes a bit over different markets and countries,” says Uwe Müller, global chief project manager, advanced engineering for Volvo Construction Equipment (Volvo CE). “But overall the interest is the same and the driving factors [are] improving efficiency, improving safety, more independence from your operators [and] flow in your site being more productive.”

Early stages

As the first manufacturer in the world to commercialize autonomous haulage systems (AHS), Komatsu began AHS trials at Codelco’s copper mine in Chile in 2005. Three years later, Komatsu deployed its first commercial AHS at Codelco.

Fast forward to present day, and Komatsu has more than 100 AHS trucks hauling three different commodities across six mines in Australia, North America and South America. By the end of 2017, Komatsu’s AHS technology recorded a cumulative total of 1.5 billion tons of hauled material.

Each of Komatsu’s autonomous dump trucks is equipped with vehicle controllers, a high-precision GPS system, an obstacle detection system and a wireless network system.

“One of the core values within Komatsu is to continuously pursue products that are unique and reliable in the industry, and trying to align that philosophy with what is going to help solve pain points for customers,” Yureskes says.

As for other manufacturers invested in either automation or related training, such as Volvo CE and Immersive Technologies, exploration began within the last decade.

“Many years ago, we looked at automating a wheel loader and a hauler, and that was really to see what can that technology deliver? How close can we get to a manual operator?” Müller says. “That was maybe six years ago.”

Immersive Technologies, a global supplier for mining equipment simulators, also first tested its simulation-based training solution for autonomous mining at Codelco’s copper mine in Chile in 2014. Since then, the company implemented simulation-based training solutions for autonomous operations within Rio Tinto, the Grasberg mine in Indonesia, and a Canadian oil sands site.

While autonomous technology first proved prevalent in mining operations, aggregate operations have dipped their toes in the water. But aggregate operations around the world are taking a step-by-step approach to embrace the technology.

“We’re seeing an increase in the aggregate side of requesting,” Yureskes says. “We’ve got increased requests from companies based in the United States on utilizing [AHS] technology, but in terms of actually moving forward with deployments, we’ve only seen it in those three regions – Canada, Australia and South America.”

One step at a time

Volvo CE has found autonomous technology gives producers a more complete view of the planning process. Photo courtesy of Volvo CE.

Volvo CE has found autonomous technology gives producers a more complete view of the planning process. Photo courtesy of Volvo CE.

For producers interested in exploring autonomous technology for their operations, a step-by-step approach is the path manufacturers most recommend. As one could imagine, the transitional process from manned operations to autonomous operations is one that considers careful thought and consideration.

“[Producers] clearly need to consider if they need to review their processes and maybe change the way they’re thinking of how they’ve run their site until today,” Müller says. “Normal quarries are run by humans, and humans are used to doing what they’re used to doing. But it’s not always optimized for automation – it’s just how people like it.

“If you want to optimize a site [for automation], the site might change a bit,” Müller adds. “For a human operator, it doesn’t look too logical, but from an automation perspective, it makes much, much more sense. So the thinking inside changes quite a lot if you want to automate.”

While doing your homework is recommended before implementing autonomous technology, the potential benefits of a successful deployment are plentiful.

“The [AHS] system will help reduce variability, keep uniform speed within the machine design and also it can minimize breaks or shift changes and those types of events,” Yureskes says of Komatsu’s AHS technology. “Because the machines are operating within their design, there is less variability in starting and stopping. The availability of the machines typically increases [and] we’ve seen better fuel consumption numbers, better tire life and overall reduced operating costs.”

Like Komatsu, Volvo CE found autonomous technology gives producers a more complete view of the planning process.

“The benefits are clear: you have much better follow-up; you can steer the process much better; you can forecast out time better; you have better maintenance of the machine because you drive them in a much more controlled way; you can have predictive maintenance, which you can service and make part of the process,” Müller says. “So you have much better planning of the complete process, which is running the machines but also maintaining the machines.”

Of course, there are also potential downfalls to consider when adopting a new way of operating.

“While advancements in automation technology have created many new opportunities for companies to increase safety and productivity, it has also created some new challenges with regards to workforce training and development,” says Ravitha Sukumaran, product manager for Immersive Technologies. “User performance plays a critical role in realizing the full potential of autonomous technology being deployed. Without it, it can result in reduced operational efficiency, impacting profitability.”

Another common misconception of autonomous technology is the idea you can simply replace a human with a machine without skipping a beat or change the process around the machine.

“Many customers expect you will replace a human with an automation system and nothing changes – you just replace a human,” Müller says. “Technically, that’s a much, much bigger challenge. And the question then is: is it really worth it? If you really want to gain as much as possible, you should really adjust the complete process towards automation.”

Manufacturers of autonomous technology work closely with producers who want to implement these technologies to find the best fit for a specific operation. But a high level of commitment is required from producers to rethink the way they operate.

“It’s really a paradigm shift in how you approach your work,” Yureskes says. “They’re kind of forced now to think ‘how do I design for an autonomous fleet versus one with manned people in it? Do I need to have the same number of fuel days? Do we redesign intersections? There are different questions in understanding where do I need to adjust in terms of road maintenance and those types of things.

“Essentially, what we try to say is it takes a significant level of maturity and commitment for it to be successful in deploying the AHS,” Yureskes adds.

Without that level of maturity, commitment or understanding, the challenge of implementing a successful autonomous system becomes increasingly difficult. Therefore, productivity, profitability and site safety can all be subject to negative consequences.

“From a training perspective, poor understanding of how to use autonomous systems and/or interact with autonomous trucks can pose safety issues and reduce operational efficiency impacting profitability,” Sukumaran says. “Autonomous haulage operations require different skills and different ways of working compared to manned operations.”

In order to effectively prepare employees for autonomous operations, Sukumaran lists a few key training needs:

  •  Train personnel to interact with autonomous equipment safely.
  •  Train a large number of personnel effectively in a short period of time.
  •  Ensure the right candidate has been chosen to operate critical equipment.
  •  Consistently measure, assess and optimize the skills of critical operator roles within an autonomous environment.
  •  Reduce performance variability of critical system roles within an autonomous environment.

The impact on labor

Komatsu began autonomous hauling solutions trials at Codelco’s copper mine in Chile in 2005. Komatsu deployed its first commercial autonomous haulage system at Codelco three years later. Photo courtesy of Komatsu.

Komatsu began autonomous hauling solutions trials at Codelco’s copper mine in Chile in 2005. Komatsu deployed its first commercial autonomous haulage system at Codelco three years later. Photo courtesy of Komatsu.

In addition to the pros and cons of implementing autonomous systems, producers should closely consider the impact this technology could have on workplace labor.

“The attrition that’s been seen in the industry is pretty bad,” Yureskes says. “It’s difficult to get younger employees interested in the traditional way that it’s been done in the past.”

If the aggregate industry wants to effectively market itself, producers should adapt to the next generation entering the workforce. One way to do that is through new technology, which millennials have experienced since childhood.

“[AHS technology] does open the door for newer positions within the industry that probably some of the newer workforce hasn’t been exposed to,” Yureskes says. “It opens another door or avenue to get into the industry with some newer technology that might be more advanced.”

Not only can autonomous technology attract younger talent to the industry, but also higher quality talent while minimizing workplace risks.

“Some ancillary benefits of adopting [AHS] technology first or being an innovator in a region or industry or specific area, it tends to attract high-quality talent because it’s opening up opportunities for different types of jobs within the industry,” Yureskes says. “You’re able to minimize the risks to [employees] by removing them from the situation and remove operator errors.”

What’s next?

It goes without saying: the future is unpredictable, and so is the role of autonomous technology in the aggregate industry. There’s no telling if or when autonomous systems become commonplace in the industry, but it won’t be in the immediate future, according to Yureskes.

“It’s not something by 2020 where we’re all going to be using this,” he says.

While autonomous technology is still in its infancy, producers would be wise to pay close attention to this trend in the coming years.

“Most of our producers who we’re engaged [with] understood that to remain competitive in the market, they have to find a way to improve their total costs and really drive down their operating costs while, at the same time, creating a sustainable solution where you don’t have to battle workforce attrition,” Yureskes says.

While much of the focus is centered around the development of the autonomous technology itself, there’s more to the picture than first meets the eye.

“It’s not only about the technology side, but also the legal side,” Müller says. “It’s unclear for the manufacturer what are the legal demands, but also for the site operators because they have the responsibility for workplace safety and their workers’ safety.”

All things considered, there seems to be real momentum behind this new wave of technology and how it can be implemented in the aggregate industry for generations to come.

“I personally think, if you think long-term, it will definitely become [a reality],” Müller says. “I think some people are maybe hesitant or think it will take quite a while, and they are probably right. But you also need to stay ahead of what’s happening as a manufacturer.

“Once it really hits, it’s probably like all technology development: once it’s at the customer, it usually accelerates pretty fast,” Müller adds.

Zach Mentz

About the Author:

Zach Mentz is the managing editor for Pit & Quarry magazine. He also serves as the managing editor for Portable Plants & Equipment magazine. Zach received a bachelor’s degree in communications and journalism from John Carroll University, where he served as editor in chief for the university’s student newspaper, The Carroll News. His previous experience also includes time spent in the Cleveland Indians communications department.

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