Standing on a dusty parking lot in the middle of Chile’s Atacama Desert, Víctor Domínguez gives his team of 20 truck drivers final instructions before they set off on a 12-hour shift into the heart of Punta del Cobre copper mine. Each team has to extract 15 000 metric tons of rock per day.
Learning to drive Epiroc’s Minetruck MT65 trucks has been a steep learning curve for drivers, given that the cabin is on the left side, which requires reliance on a camera to steer. Damage from collisions of a fully-loaded vehicle with a gross weight of over 100 metric tons can be considerable and repairs costly. For that reason, all drivers spend at least 40 hours of training in a simulator and then another 40 hours with an instructor on board.
“The training was the hardest part,” says Domínguez. “We were one of the first companies to use MT65 trucks. We had to change the structure of the mine, attitudes, everything, to capture the benefits of these trucks.”
In 2017, Chilean selective underground miner Pucobre, which runs three mines, all within a 20 kilometer radius of the city of Copiapó, signed a contract with Epiroc to replace its entire fleet of trucks with 20 Minetruck MT65 trucks and six Scooptram 18 loaders. Faced with falling ore grades and fluctuating copper prices, the company needed to increase production and cut costs.
The trucks offered the capability to transport 25 metric tons more per trip than Pucobre’s previous vehicles and the loaders’ doubled scoop capacity to 18 metric tons. The new trucks contributed to Pucobre’s monthly mineral extraction increasing from 333 000 metric tons to 460 000 tons, and the company has set itself an ambitious three-year development plan (2019-2021) to boost productivity by 40% and reduce costs by 25%.
Epiroc and Pucobre have also entered into a strategic supplier/customer partnership, unique in Chile, with Epiroc guaranteeing mechanical availability over the lifetime of the new fleet, which is nine years in the case of the trucks and 5-6 years for the loaders, in order to help Pucobre meet productivity KPIs.
This required setting up a training center with simulators, a maintenance workshop and Epiroc staff permanently on site to jointly solve problems that arise.
Epiroc has implemented its 6th Sense technology, which includes Certiq telemetric software. Data is fed from trucks to Pucobre’s Mine Operations Center on the surface. Corrective action can then be taken in real time and protocols implemented to improve equipment usage in the future.
Pucobre also implemented the concept of Short Interval Control (SIC), which reduces slack between activities to increase uptime which, in turn, gives more production with the same crew and fleet.
But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing, according to Charlie Ekberg, general manager of Epiroc Chile. Ambitious KPIs that left little margin of error, as well as cultural differences between the two companies initially led to problems.
“We’d never done this with a customer here before, so it was a learning process for both,” Ekberg said.
Getting data to monitor KPIs was not the issue. Certiq provides input on things like oil levels, overheating, and tire pressure, which is used for maintenance purposes, but also operational data like fuel consumption, speed and metric tons per hour.
But while Epiroc is responsible for guaranteeing mechanical availability, Pucobre is in charge of timely maintenance. Factors such as longer-than-expected maintenance or downtime from training can affect KPIs.
“In the beginning we had constant reports, but that wasn’t very positive. Instead of working together, we started working against each other, each defending our own KPIs,” Ekberg said.
Through trial and error, both companies realized it was better to work as a team, not measure everything, do longer term reports, and focus on the bigger picture.
“Epiroc has always shown a great disposition for solving problems and working to ensure that the trucks and loaders are successful,” said Sebastián Ríos, CEO of Pucobre.
According to Ríos, Pucobre is still only half way to where it wants to be in terms of results and costs.
“There are still gaps. Sometimes the trucks aren’t loading to their full capacity, or the loading cycle and return to the surface is taking longer than planned. That equation still has room for improvement,” Ríos said.
But new technology may be able to help in the future. Epiroc plans to test its first battery-powered truck in Chile in 2021, which gives six hours of autonomy and will cut fuel consumption and require fewer spare parts. In addition, Pucobre is piloting a tele-remote LHD loader, which can continue to operate while drivers take breaks.
Meanwhile, down in the depths of the mine, an MT65 truck and an S18 loader are hard at work. In the darkness, they growl and lumber about in their lair like two huge beasts with yellow eyes, one feeding the other. Once filled, the truck roars and disappears up the tunnel to daylight.
“It takes approximately four shovelfuls to fill a truck,” says Hector Masanes, Punta del Cobre’s development operations manager.
Loading must not fall outside 62-65 metric tons, which is the same as what it used to take the former trucks two trips to carry. The trucks travel between 12 km/h and 30 km/h and take 55 minutes to go down, load and come back up.
“We’re in a war against production losses,” Masanes said, referring to the company’s new motto, which appears on signs in all staff rooms.
Pucobre mining operations head, Hilario Arce, emphasizes that the amount of time and effort to train drivers cannot be underestimated and that has been slowed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We’ve lost entire shifts, but the fruits of that training are starting to show,” he said.
Discipline has also been a cultural challenge, in terms of driving, care and maintenance of the vehicles and sending data to the control center.
But that is where Pucobre has discovered a secret weapon; women drivers, who now make up 25% of the total of 80.
“They drive slower and have fewer accidents than men and also take greater care of the machines,” says Domínguez.
All things considered, the relationship is working, according to Dominguez. And that is largely due to the commitment from Epiroc.
“Some suppliers only want to sell you the machine and spare parts. With Epiroc, an instructor has been with us for two years, training permanently,” says Domínguez.
Charlie Ekberg agrees. “For a relationship to work, it requires trust,” he says. “That takes time to build up, and one way to do that is to show success. Despite our challenges, I think we have shown success.”