August 24, 2022
The cursors move step by step across the screen. Operator Marie Arngren sits relaxed in her seat and monitors what is happening. The office, located 1 365 meters below the surface, is furnished in a modern way, with purple lighting along the walls resembling a nightclub rather than a mine.
“We made the LED loop flash in different colors once, but it was so difficult to switch off that we decided to stick to purple,” says Marie Arngren, laughing.
We are in one of LKAB’s mines at Sweden’s northernmost city, Kiruna. The company has been mining here in one of the world’s largest ore bodies for 130 years, but in recent years it has also been running a parallel project: to create a new world standard for sustainable mining.
And this is where the cursors on Marie Arngren’s screen become part of the story. They show how two autonomous loaders independently get from point A to point B in the mine. This is a procedure that is now in full use, and will eventually be part of the autonomous and emission-free mine of the future. Two, and soon three, of the loaders being tested come from Epiroc.
“For us, the work is now very much about finding out how we can minimize the number of stoppages due to the interruption of the safety circuit on the loaders – for example if someone has entered the area to work. On the Epiroc Scooptram ST18, this can be resolved by shrinking the safety area around the machine, which is good,” says Marie Arngren.
"For us, the work is now very much about finding out how we can minimize the number
Johan Enback sips his coffee in the coffee room in the office next to the mining area, and begins:
“It started with the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals.”
Johan is the technical manager for the A new world standard for sustainable mining project and has been involved since its launch four years ago.
“We asked ourselves what we as a mining company can do to contribute to achieving the climate goals. We knew we needed to go deeper into our mines to be able to continue mining ore competitively, but the climate goals made us wonder how we could combine sustainability with the ambition to dig deeper. And it was at that point that we realized that we would need external help,” he says.
Said and done. LKAB probed the terrain and brought in Epiroc, Volvo, automation company ABB, and engineering consultancy Combitech – eventually Volvo changed places with Sandvik. This alliance decided to jointly find the solutions needed to make mining a sustainable industry.
“For Epiroc, LKAB is not a major customer, internationally speaking. But as companies, we are both at such a technological level that we have the capability of doing this together. We also have an easy time talking to each other,” says Joel Kangas, Mine Manager at Kiruna Mine.
Creating a new world standard for sustainable mining is no small task. Electric and smart autonomous mining machines need to be developed, but also digital systems where machines from different suppliers can communicate with each other. Another requirement of autonomous solutions is that everyone who needs to can see what is happening everywhere in the mine, in real time.
“The mines today are really deep. The major challenges lie in the amounts we need to break to be competitive in the future. We need to develop a method to extract 80 000 to 85 000 metric tons of iron ore a day,” says Joel Kangas.
“Moreover,” he explains, “new mining techniques and layouts must be developed that are better able to cope with the seismic activity coming from breaking much deeper into the rock than before. But a concept for this is already in place in our Konsuln test mine.”
Running the project in partnership with other companies also brings added complexity.
“It’s been a journey in itself, finding a work approach where those of us working together on this have enough confidence in each other to be able to lower our guard and collaborate,” says Joel Kangas.
We are back at level 1 365. Marie Arngren loads the ore by remote control from her desk. The actual loading is something the machines cannot yet handle themselves.
“The material is too uneven,” says operator Peter Keisu, who works with Marie Arngren at the office with the purple lighting. He has worked in a mining environment more or less his entire professional life and thinks that the developments that are taking place are exciting.
“Some of the people who have worked in the mine for a long time are a bit worried about everything that’s going on, but I’m in favor of it. Of course, this new way of working will place greater demands on us operators. We must be able to administer the computer systems that control the rigs, go into them and solve problems when they arise. But this is the future,” he says.
"It’s been a journey in itself, finding a work approach where those of us working
together on this have enough confidence in each other to be able to lower our guard
The sun shines over the rugged mining landscape. Snow drifts colored with coal and graystone contrast sharply with the white mountain ranges in the background. A brand new battery-powered Epiroc Minetruck MT42 turns into a provisionally erected charging tent after a trip along its test route on the mountain. The mine truck has not been driven down into the mine yet, because Epiroc and LKAB first have to be sure that everything
is working as it should. But the fact that it – like the other electricallypowered and autonomous machines that are now being delivered to the mine – is here at all is a major and important step in the project.
“So far, it’s mostly been theoretical activities and considerations. But now the really exciting work begins, when the machines arrive and we can really start testing them,” says Johan Enback.
With eight years left to achieve the goal, both he and Joel Kangas are pleased. The project is progressing according to plan.
“I’m not at all worried about the technology,” says Johan Enback. He thinks for a while and then adds: “The biggest challenge is the soft issues, the people. LKAB has always been an innovative company and we are used to change, but what we are facing now is something extra. This will require a lot of us as an organization. A lot of people will be given new tasks and we will need new skills. But we’ll be able to do it, I’m absolutely sure.”
Epiroc and LKAB
Epiroc has long been a supplier to LKAB. They have also been an alliance partner in the A new world standard for sustainable mining project since its launch in 2018. This means that Epiroc is involved in developing electric and autonomous solutions.
So far, Epiroc has developed and delivered the Epiroc Easer L opening hole drill, one Minetruck MT42 Battery, two (soon three) autonomous Scooptram ST18s and two battery-powered Scooptram ST14s. Epiroc provides the Batteries as a Service solution for the battery-powered machines.