According to The Australian Financial Review today, automated drills and driver-less trucks are among the new tools employed by the four biggest companies, including BHP Billiton, in a bid to preserve profit margins during a bear market that began more than two years ago. Using more technology helped reduce costs at Rio Tinto by 8 per cent since 2013, even as it boosted output by 5 per cent, according to Paul Young, an analyst at Deutsche Bank in Sydney.
Last month, Rio Tinto CEO Sam Walsh said "Our highly sophisticated autonomous trucks demonstrate the value of our technology."
Rio unveiled its "Mine of the Future" program in 2008, when commodity prices were surging to records. The aim was to deploy more technology and more efficiently access deep ore bodies while improving safety for workers. From 10 driver-less trucks in 2012, the fleet has expanded to 66, according to the company.
The vehicles can run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, without a driver who needs bathroom or lunch breaks. Each truck can save more than 500 work hours a year, according to Michael Murphy, chief engineer of mining technology at Caterpillar, a supplier of autonomous mining equipment to BHP and Fortescue.
One worker at a computer screen can monitor as many as 50 driver-less trucks, Murphy said. Savings are even greater with autonomous drills inside an underground mine, where labourers using traditional equipment can take hours to walk from the opening to the work site for each shift, and they operate in dangerous conditions, he said.
In the case of Rio Tinto, the number of injuries per 200,000 hours worked last year had dropped to about 0.6 from about 1.8 in 2003.
Productivity rose 4 per cent last year in Australia, which has mines run by Rio Tinto, BHP and Fortescue, which together control 54 per cent of supply, according to Christian Lelong, an analyst at Goldman Sachs in Sydney.
The rest of the industry is taking note. About 69 per cent of the 190 mining companies in an International Data Corp. said they are reviewing remote-controlled equipment, while 29 per cent are considering more robotics.
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