The biggest single driver of change in the rock excavation business is, without doubt, the advent of automation.
The possibility to automate functions and operations that make the work safer and more efficient has had a profound effect on the way these industries work, even though it has been a slow process.
Many companies have been reluctant to jump on the automation bandwagon while traditional methods still produced good results and have only invested in automation in certain areas and usually on a small scale. Today, however, interest in automation has soared and it is now largely seen as the only feasible way to solve the many challenges facing contractors, ranging from skilled labor
shortages to lower profit margins.
But perhaps the biggest motivating factor is the impressive development of automation technology in recent years. It is now possible to automate many more aspects of mining, construction and quarrying tasks than ever before, and at a lower cost.
Epiroc offers an extensive portfolio of automation innovations as part of a continuous drive to make rock excavation safer, more efficient and more productive. Today, digital technologies are changing the landscape of options and automation is becoming more data-driven and reliant on connected machines that coordinate tasks. At Epiroc, we have a way to optimize our customers' value chain through automation, system integration and information management. We call this 6th Sense and it enables a smart, safe and seamless operation.
In this context, it is interesting to take a brief look behind the scenes at how automation development at Epiroc is organized. Epiroc's research and development is focused on three categories: Machine Automation, Process Automation and System Integration.
Machine Automation covers the full spectrum of drill rig functionality from automatic hole navigation to rod handling and control. The SmartROC range of drill rigs is a typical case in point – these machines are chock full of automated systems that make the operator's job lighter, easier and safer at the same time as it boosts efficiency and productivity to levels that were previously unattainable.
The SmartROC series is equipped with Epiroc's advanced Rig Control System (RCS) which constantly monitors the load on the compressor and the engine. The system, which is also standard on all Pit Viper drill rigs, ensures that the right amount of energy is always matched to the work load, keeping fuel consumption to an absolute minimum.
But that's not all. The SmartROC rigs are equipped with rod handling systems which means the operator no longer has to do the heavy lifting. It also features the Hole Navigation System (HNS) which guides the rig to exactly the right spot on the ground and eliminates the need for manual mark-ups on the benches. There's a semi-automatic feed alignment system, too, ensuring that the correct drilling angle is achieved during set-up, which is key for optimal blasting. Process Automation deals with the automation of workflows and covers a range of essential tools for planning drilling operations and collecting performance data. These include:
• Measure While Drilling (MWD) – A monitoring tool that enables drillers to collect relative rock hardness data • Certiq – A telematics solution that gathers, compares and communicates vital equipment information • ROC Manager/Surface Manager – Office-based software tools which enable the planning and evaluation of surface drilling operations • Rig Remote Access (RRA) - Enables two-way communi-cation between the drill rig and the RRA server using the site wireless network. The RRA server detects when a drill rig is connected to an access point and then sends and/or retrieves data.
Epiroc's BenchREMOTE system is a further example of how automation technology helps to reduce work site injuries and fatalities by keeping people out of harm's way. It allows operators to control the rig from a distance using the exact same console and without causing delay to operations.
BenchREMOTE was specifically developed for increasing safety in mines and quarries where benches may be unstable or prone to collapse in bad weather.
System Integration ensures that all component sub-systems are fully compatible and integrated into one system, and is a major consideration for project planners as they prepare for automation. Mining sites typically operate with equipment from different suppliers which creates "islands of automation". By moving towards open API:s and standardized platforms, Epiroc is helping to maximize the potential of automation projects.
Regardless of where in the world worksites are located, customers reap the benefits in terms of less down-time, fewer delays, higher production output and increased profits. In addition, they achieve greater precision in their operations, resulting in higher quality, less reworking and overall cost optimization.
With every new series of Epiroc drill rigs that launches onto the world market, the boundaries of automation technology move another significant step forward. At the same time, Epiroc gratefully acknowledges the pivotal role played by a great many customers in this process. Without their experience, close cooperation and valuable input, the pace of development would have been slower and the current level of automation offered would have been more difficult to achieve.
Implementing automation innovations is not an easy choice. In many cases it can be a tough challenge. There are many parameters to take into consideration such as the need for extra training, a potential resistance to change within the organization, the solid commitment required from management, and of course, the cost.
Automation is a journey and Epiroc helps customers every step along the way. Here's how:
• Insight – Data is collected and analyzed to identify where improvements can be made and how. The analysis covers the complete production cycle, from pre-planning to drilling performance and optimal service intervals.
• Control – New technologies are leveraged to monitor performance, measure changes and KPIs and provide real-time visualization of operations.
• Optimize – Parameters are checked and measured continuously by Epiroc technicians and adjusted to maximize drilling performance and economy.
Epiroc's innovations have helped to keep customers at the forefront of their professions and are radically changing the way things are done in mining, construction and quarrying. Rod Handling System (RHS), Rig Control System (RCS) and Measure While Drilling (MWD) are just a few examples of Epiroc's intelligent and upgradable systems.
Fully autonomous operations, with minimal operator interaction, are also underpinned by other process-enhancing technologies. Certiq, the telematics solution mentioned previously, not only gathers, compares and communicates equipment and production data about individual units, but for entire fleets of equipment.
In this fast changing world where much of the accepted methodology and conventional ways of working are being questioned, uncertainty has become the new normal. Against this background, Epiroc is convinced that serious investment in automation will solve many of the challenges facing customers.
Quite simply, automation is a very powerful tool to have in the rock excavation toolbox and the higher the degree of automation, the better life will be for all stakeholders. It paves the way for smarter production and low total cost of ownership.
It alleviates shortages of skilled labor, makes the worksite a safer place for humans, vastly improves efficiency and running costs and boosts productivity. That's why automation is becoming universally accepted as the road to a more profitable future.