The latest and greatest technology for aggregate producers

By |  June 13, 2018

The following transcripts were edited from two concurrent discussions at this year’s Pit & Quarry Roundtable & Conference.


Photo by Joe McCarthy

Technology is capable of connecting various aspects of a quarry operation and the equipment that operates within it. Photo by Joe McCarthy.

P&Q: Producers – How did your capital spending in 2017 compare to the previous year, and what are your capital spending plans for 2018? What’s the next equipment or technology you plan to incorporate into your business? Manufacturers – As automation and next-generation technologies become more mainstream, are you reshaping your own offerings to be in line with emerging trends? To all – Which innovations have you seen or experienced that are poised to change how aggregate operations do business in the coming years?

Brent Ward (Summit Materials): I think automation has been around for a long time in the aggregate production business. It doesn’t feel like, to us, as new of a technology. I think what is becoming more prevalent is the monitoring and communications side to monitor productivity and become more productive. That’s the telematics on the mobile equipment, and that’s the scales in the plants, the monitoring of the product mix, and really trying to push the cost out of the business on the production side, and better match the production mix to the market demands.

Ward

Bob Martin (Cemex): We’ve had automated plants and had feedback loops in the plants for years, but I think the focus right now has been on getting to the operators in your mobile fleets. Even in your mechanical fleets, arming them with iPads and smartphones to go take pictures of things and to document repairs so there’s a clear communication of what it is that we need to do.

We’re in the process of getting away from doing a lot of physical surveys and going to drones. So that’s all great stuff that makes us more productive.

Technology cuts both ways. We have outside neighbors that are droning us and coming over to see what it is that we’re doing. We’re trying to figure out how we get a drone capture unit, and capture them and find out who it is. But that’s an ongoing issue.

Ward: I think one of the challenges for producers is prioritizing data. You can easily bury yourself in data. There’s more technology out there to give you the data, and then it’s a challenge of deciding what you want to track and how you’re going to use it. That’s the biggest challenge I think we find.

P&Q: Is there one piece of technology that piques your interest right now that you can put your finger on? Something maybe that’s nontraditional that you’re receptive to or exploring?

Ward: I don’t know of any that we haven’t already discussed. Telematics is, obviously, a big one right now. The crushing manufacturers have a lot of tracking mechanisms on pressures and temperatures. You can monitor productivity of equipment.

So those are the things that just continue to add to a manager’s already hectic schedule of MSHA (Mine Safety & Health Administration), environmental and everything else. Again, it’s deciding which technology you’re going to adopt and how you’re going to adopt it to a certain size plant. Some plants have the administrative staff to look at all this data. Other sites have four or five people, and there’s really no administrative staff. So, again, it’s really understanding the technology and knowing where to adopt it.

Felton

Jarrod Felton (Superior Industries): What Brent’s saying is really important about understanding how to use the data before you go get data. More broadly than that, being able to identify what’s the cause and failure, or predict when is it going to fail, or you can communicate back any depth of performance data that you want to track. It can be really overwhelming. So I think manufacturers that can [simplify] can identify what’s important to producers and be kind of the guiding force.

Martin: There’s a drone solution out there for anybody in this room, because the drones are amazing what they can capture. We have different providers that, based on the size of the operation, they might be a survey company themselves that will actually do all the calculations and fly the drones and own the drones and do all that for you, all the way up to where you buy your own drones and anything in between that.

In the bigger picture for bigger companies, you probably want to own your own drones, or at least lease your own drones so you can control that piece of it and have your own in-house experts. I think it depends on the size of the business that you’re operating. But in our case, we went and bought our own drones and leased our own drones.

Chris Taylor (North American Mining): To Bob’s point, we use drones for a variety of things. Surveying is the key, but then you start finding out what these other opportunities are.

We run 23 draglines in the state of Florida right now. We use drones for boom inspections. So instead of walking a boom every day, just fly a drone, check things out and see if you have problems. I assume the same thing would be done at plants. The pictures taken are just as good as walking up there yourself. It’s an incredible advantage and time saver.

Russell

Jordan Russell (Belt Tech): We have a subsidiary that does drone inspections. We got into it about two years ago. It’s been interesting in the aggregate industry, since that’s a relatively new technology, to see what companies are willing to use drones or not. Some companies want to lease something and have control over everything they do. Others want the processing side. Some outsource so they don’t have to mess with that side of things. It’s been interesting for us to see some companies that are receptive to that type of technology, and some aren’t quite there yet.

So it seems like as we get 12, 18, 24 months down the road, and that technology continues to improve, that may shift a little bit toward more than normal. Right now we’re seeing maybe a 50/50 split in customers that are willing to use drone technology and ones that aren’t. They’re trying to figure out where the value really lies. So it’s been kind of a learning process for us and customers, too.

P&Q: Jordan, what do you think it’s going to take to get some of those people to be more receptive? Education? Maybe some kind of on-site demonstration?

Russell: Yeah, I think a lot of it is education, just educating customers on what they can get. I think there’s been some pushback in the past, because the technology was newer; it didn’t work how it was built for the customer. That’s improved pretty drastically, even in a short time, 12 to 18 months.

I think the proof of the concept has to be there. Once people really start to buy into that, it’s going to become more of a commonplace service, whether it’s done in-house or it’s something that’s subbed out.

McLaren

Paul McLaren (Kleemann): A lot of things we’ve talked about, using iPads for machine inspections, things like that with drone technology, a lot of it comes down to what we see as the interface between what you’re doing and how you get that information. Going to touch screen panels or an operating system, for example, where you can physically see what you’re doing … it’s not an automated process. That’s very readily available, down to telematics monitoring your crushings and conveyor belts and things like that.

We found that you can have an amazing concept that didn’t give the feedback to the operator very readily. But if you come up with a system that that operator can get information about what he’s doing, why he’s doing it, errors on the machines, it’s described to him in a very understandable way, not just with text or a flashing light, but you get an explanation to the operator, we find it’s a lot more receptive from the operators, as a machine manufacturer.

Alexander

Scott Alexander (ACG Materials): We kind of have a metric we look at as about 10 percent of sales revenue we spent on capital, 8 to 10 percent. Our business has been growing significantly, so we’ve been proportionately spending more associated with the growth. We’ll spend even more in 2018 because it’s tied to the growth and we’ve opened up new locations where a lot of that capital is going through operations on the fixed plant and on the equipment side.

Alexander Kanaris (Van Der Graaf): From our perspective, we’ve seen that last year the spending has increased because we just prepare our equipment to service the industry. So we’ve seen that increase and we also see the demand [for] a piece of machinery that is going to last a lot longer and it’s not going to break down, has also been increased.

Because we’re directly related to the conveyor industry, the demand is increasing and also the use of the equipment is increasing. There’s a demand to make sure we put more added dollars into the engineering and design better equipment that’s applicable to the industry. We do that by developing better systems and investing in our infrastructure and our engineering.

Hudson

Alton Hudson (Trimble): We’ve made a significant investment starting two years ago in our devices, mostly scales, for the extraction and then the process and then the loadout. Prior to five years ago, the company was called Loadrite and it was acquired by Trimble.

We put a number of dollars in ensuring our equipment could communicate to a cloud application to, one, increase the accuracy of information that producers are getting out of their quarries; two, more usable data that they can look at to do comparisons and operations from one site to the next; and three, to help improve training.

There’s a big data component to analytics that go in the back, and we work with producers to customize that to whatever they want to see in their reporting.

Paul Ross (Douglas Manufacturing): To Alex and Alton’s point, from their equipment side, I think for years we’ve all suffered from trying to design out costs. Our standard goal is to double the lifecycle of any product that we offer so that you don’t have to worry about maintenance so much as you used to.

To Alton’s side, automation is a big component. We’re kind of a giant dinosaur in the industry, and in the Conveyor Equipment Manufacturers Association we rub shoulders with the unit handling guys, the people that build the conveyors for Amazon and FedEx. They are light years ahead of what we’re doing, but it is coming. Being able to monitor everything remotely is just around the corner for us and we have started adapting to that.

Cadwalader

Kevin Cadwalader (REMco): As younger people come into the industry it changes, right? To dovetail on the automation side, years ago [people said], don’t tell me about that fancy thing. I just want to push a button and it goes. With automation today, as the young guys come in, they want to be able to pull the pressure up on their smartphone. They want to see all of the monitoring systems, and in our smart box it will tell you all of what’s going on with the pressure bearing temperatures, motor temperatures, whether it’s vibrating or not, whether the parts need to be changed or not.

They have no fear of the technology, where maybe their dad or their grandfather didn’t understand that crazy fangled thing and it’s taken some time for the industry to catch up as some younger blood comes in.

Brendan Devereaux (HAMM): I think what kind of surprises me is it seems like most [of] the focus would be on the more present opportunities on the mobile equipment side. The technology is there. You see self-driving cars. I just got a new pickup. The thing basically drives itself. So I won’t argue that those conditions on the road are more complex than a lot of mine sites, right? Sometimes it’s from point A to point B with minimal variations and you start talking about lifecycle, proper operation. I think that’s going to be something that really comes out real fast here over the next handful of years.

Gary Hirsch (Bramco-MPS): One of the big innovation changes that has come on the mobile equipment is telematics on pit loaders. The producers can see idle time, fuel consumption. The distributor and support of that equipment can get alerts, can know things are going wrong before the machine is down [and] can contact customers.

We have people who are dedicated to just looking at that information that’s coming in on all those pieces of equipment and then we go back to the customers and alert them that something is wrong. I think as that becomes more accepted on the producer’s side and becomes more prevalent, it’s going to make a big difference.

Garrison

John Garrison (Superior Industries): To Gary’s point, I think the mobile equipment guys have kind of set the standard for what the crushing/screening/portable plant/conveyor systems are working on. We’re to the point now where we have a dedicated automation team and we do our own automation on all of our systems. A lot more people are taking the automation option these days because they realize that it can track, trend and predict a problem before it happens, so it costs them a lot less.

It costs a little bit more on the front end to take the automation option. But on the back end, they don’t have these major breakdowns that cost a significant amount of money to repair. We’re testing things out now where we can do the condition monitoring and conveyors and crushers and things like that where we actually will pick up the phone or they’ll get an alert sent to them from us.

That’s kind of the next generation of what we’re working on. But I would say the automation side of the industry has grown a lot in the last 10 years.

Cox

Jim Cox (Cemex): As far as capital expenditures, things have been tight for quite some time with our company. But they are increasing, and I see it increasing this year. It has to. We’ve got infrastructure we need to take care of.

To some of the points here on automation, we’ve embraced automation for 20 years, but it wasn’t integrated into all of our operations and we’re seeing that happening now.

We’re a latecomer to drones. But that’s cool stuff. Finally our resource group has supplied the drones and the data processing, too. It’s better than going out there and guessing and then the accountant is coming and hammering it on the head because you’re 10 percent off.

Don Moore (Craft Bearing Co.): This is similar to what I’m hearing, but it amazes me how in just the last seven years, machines have changed so much that some of the old ones are out of date. We couldn’t make quality if we had 10-year-old machines that we make now. Just in the last two years, they’ve improved tremendously.

Will Pierce (Schurco Slurry): As far as monitoring equipment and getting better efficiencies, it’s happening and the costs are coming down every day. So I think that it’s only going to continue to go up.

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