Autonomous mining equipment is finding its way onto more and more mine sites around the world. It’s no wonder—autonomy can result in remarkable productivity gains and cost reductions. The caveat is that it needs to be implemented correctly, and the changes it brings must be managed effectively.
“What we’ve found at Caterpillar is that autonomous systems amplify the site’s existing processes,,” says Jagath “Jag” Samaraweera. “If you’ve got good mining processes in place, you’ll get good results. If not, we’ll work with you to identify and close those processes that need attention so you get the full benefit of autonomy.”
Jag is one of the people responsible for bringing Cat® autonomous technologies to the industry. As Shift Lead and Application Specialist, he played a key role in developing and validating the autonomous Cat 793F CMD haul truck, and he has helped to successfully implement the Cat Command autonomous haulage system on mine sites around the world.
To make sure that your site gets the maximum return from an autonomous equipment system, Jag says you should start by taking a hard look at your operation to identify opportunities where autonomy can add value.
“Think about what automation is good for,” he explains. “It’s great at doing repetitive tasks or maintaining operational consistency in situations where humans get fatigued or bored. Humans are best suited for jobs that are engaging and demand judgment. The goal is to let machines do what they do best and enable people to do more of what they’re good at.”
The first step is to identify a problem and see if there’s a technology solution to address it, Jag explains. “There are a number of factors to consider in determining which sites are good candidates for a large investment in autonomy, such as an autonomous haulage system.
“Are there potential safety issues that could be addressed? Next, can we eliminate significant delays like shift changes, or can we substantially improve on the way human drivers are operating the trucks? Are there efficiencies to be gained with a higher degree of consistent and reliable truck performance? Autonomous systems can help with all those challenges.”
Logistics play a role, too, Jag says. “Do workers have to fly out to a remote location and then be housed, fed and entertained? Autonomy can reduce infrastructure requirements and footprint by limiting the number of people required on site.
“And finally, is it difficult to find skilled people who are willing to come to that remote site? Autonomy can reduce the number of people the site has to hire.”
Once an opportunity is identified, Jag says, the next step is to apply the appropriate level of automation. “Today, Caterpillar can offer everything from advanced autonomous haulage to a range of semi-autonomous, remote-control and operator-assist technologies. Where one site might be a prime candidate for a complete haulage solution, another may be good with some Drill Assist technologies and a few remote-control dozers.”
Jag adds, “The great thing today is that there are lots of automation solutions available, and more are coming online all the time. In the next few years, we’ll see autonomous drilling become common, and Caterpillar has a semi-autonomous slot dozing system well into development. The opportunities are really opening up.”
But even when the right mix of technologies is readily available, Jag says you have to make an honest appraisal of your site’s data infrastructure.
“Operator-assist technologies and line-of-site remote-control systems are pretty self-contained. However, when you start getting into, say, remote operation from a command center, or if you want to implement autonomous haulage, you need a robust wireless network with plenty of bandwidth. That can mean a serious investment if a site doesn’t already have an appropriate network in place.”
The final piece of the puzzle is actually the trickiest, Jag says. “Ultimately, what makes everything work together is effective change management.
“A remote-control dozer or two will fit right into your existing operating practices, while an autonomous haulage system takes major adjustments. You’ll have to move people around to different jobs, reconfigure some of your basic operating procedures and—most important—get everyone on board with the program from the start.”
Jag says it’s easy to slip back to the “old ways” of doing things, “but if you do, you risk losing your ‘quick-win’ gains. Whether you take a toe-in-the-water approach with a remote-control system or go all out with an autonomous haulage solution, you need to make a sustained commitment to change management. You have to keep at it for as long as it takes to create a ‘new normal’ around your autonomous system.”
The rewards for successfully implementing autonomous mining systems are many, Jag notes. “As long as you choose the right systems for your operation, lay the necessary groundwork and then commit to ongoing change management, you’ll see gains in productivity, site efficiency and cost reduction that you can’t achieve with anything other than autonomy.”