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Making complete underground automation a reality

With a proven track record of successfully implementing automation solutions Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology is playing a critical role in establishing Africa’s first fully-automated underground mine.

Speaking on the side lines of Electra Mining Africa 2018, where Sandvik unveiled its Leopard DI650i drill rig for the first time globally, Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology president Lars Engström noted the company’s partnership with ASX-listed gold miner Resolute Mining.

This article first appeared in Mining Review Africa Issue 10 2018

The two parties are working in close collaboration to fully automate Resolute Mining’s Syama underground mine in Mali, West Africa through the implementation of Sandvik’s range of automation solutions.

AUTHOR: Mining Review Africa’s senior deputy editor, Chantelle Kotze

Resolute Mining first considered transitioning its existing Syama open pit operation into an underground mine upon completion of a positive definitive feasibility study (DFS) in June 2016, which confirmed the potential for a long life, low cost underground mine.

Thereafter, the gold miner published an updated DFS which extended the initial 12-year Syama underground mine life by two years to 2032, increased the underground ore reserve to 3.5 Moz and demonstrated that the life of mine average all-in sustaining cost of US$746/oz – a cost that has decreased from $881/oz in initial DFS – will continue to decrease as Resolute adopts new technologies, expands resources through exploration and increases efficiency at the operation.

“The Syama underground ore body is 1 km deep and 200 m wide and provides a fantastic opportunity for a bulk underground mine, says Resolute Mining CEO John Welborn, noting that the operation will adopt sub-level caving as the mining method to produce on average 300 000 ozpa of gold over its 14-year mine life.

“Sub-level caving, the repetitive activity of drilling up into the ore body and collapsing it down into a draw point where the ore is collected and extracted, lends itself to automation and evolving technologies and efficiencies,” Welborn explains.

The gold miner is thus in the process of transitioning its Syama open pit to a fully automated underground mining operation and notes that by partnering with Sandvik, it can create a truly digital mine.

African mine of the future

A formalised commercial relationship exists between Resolute and Sandvik for the full automation of the Syama underground mine including the delivery of mobile and fixed equipment and delivery of training to maintenance and operational personnel.

Not only have the partners collaborated on equipment selection but also the actual design of the underground mine and infrastructure and the ability to match that with Resolute Mining’s ambitions to operate equipment that will increase profitability, reduce costs and improve safety – areas for which Sandvik is renowned.

“We have partnered with Sandvik because we believe Sandvik is the highest quality and most efficient manufacturer and operator of mining equipment in the world and we share the same conviction that underground mining is going automated, and ultimately electric.

“Resolute Mining is automating Syama because automating our operation will increase efficiency and also reduce our risk. In our case, the digitisation of the mine in a highly controlled and regulated sub level caving method provides controlled, high-productivity ore delivery from the deposit – thus removing risk and increasing safety. The control that automation gives you is a massive benefit along with increased efficiency and productivity,” says Welborn.

The Syama underground development has been designed to ensure it is able to accommodate the best available technology for mining, haulage and processing.

Underground development has made provision for a high capacity fibre optic system, which will be installed throughout the mine to allow the operation to install sophisticated mobile equipment monitoring and guidance systems, which will in turn improve safety and productivity in the mine.

The design of underground loading points and ore passes has also been influenced by current trends in mobile equipment operation and automation technology. As these technologies develop their use will be progressively incorporated into the operation of the mine.

The twin decline design has been specifically adopted to ensure future flexibility and allow Resolute to critically examine alterative haulage technologies. In particular conveyer haulage offers potential for improved productivity and lower operating costs.

“The Syama underground mine will be the first purpose built, purpose designed, fully automated underground mine in the world,” says Welborn.

Resolute Mining began long hole stoping in the underground draw points in August and will start sub-level caving in December 2018 – ramping up to 200 000 t of production this financial year.

Automation in the rest of Africa

In addition to the full automation of the Syama underground mine in Mali, further afield in the Democratic Republic of Congo at the Kibali mine, gold major Randgold Resources is operating three Sandvik loaders fitted with the Sandvik’s AutoMine automated mining system and the OptiMine modular information management solution that offers a real-time view of underground mining operations to provide real-time tracking and production management tools and analytics outputs for overall equipment efficiency improvements.

Moreover, in Zambia, Chinese mining firm Nonferrous China Africa is installing automated systems to commence with underground mining at its South East Ore Body project.

These include the AutoMine Truck Hauling, AutoMine Lite, OptiMine systems and Sandvik automated development drilling technology (DD422i).

“It is clear that automation is not only reserved for first world mining countries, as this is already taking place in Africa,” Engström enthuses, noting that Sandvik has three dedicated sales area vice presidents for Africa – in the Southern Africa, Western Africa and Central Africa regions – to proliferate the uptake of autonomous mining solutions, which are aimed at ensuring mines run more productively and they also remove workers from the highrisk exposure zones.

Iterating Sandvik’s thoughts on automating mines in Africa, Welborn explains that while automation is ultimately viewed as the sudden replacement of human beings by machines and robotics, automation in bulk mines in Western Australia for example, is being used to replace high cost labour.

In underground mining in Africa, however, it is about efficiency and safety and provides a workforce benefit in that it allows local Malians to be trained to operate world-class equipment in the world’s first fully automated underground gold mines as opposed to making use of expensive expatriates.

Forefront leader in automation

In response to the growing need to improve employee safety while simultaneously compensating for increasingly difficult-to mine ore bodies and lower grades, Sandvik is focusing intensively on its wide array of automation solutions.

Sandvik was first off the mark with its automated underground self-driving loaders which are operated autonomously from surface and has since built a strong position in autonomous equipment and automation which it plans to maintain going forward.

“Having emerged from the downturn where mining companies predominantly focus their energy on improving cash flows and reducing operating costs, the next significant means to take a quantum leap up the performance curve is to go the route of automation, digitisation and autonomous mining,” Engström explains.

“Having initially automated our underground drilling equipment as far back as 20 years ago, we will have close to 400 machines operating in autonomous operations by the end of 2018 – with over 2 million LTIF operating hours in underground mining operations around the globe.

While there certainly is a strong draw card for the implementation of automated mining equipment in future as an enabler for safety, productivity and lower costs, Engström believes there is a need to keep the more direct hydraulic assortment of equipment because some companies in some of the more remote parts of the world are not ready to make the switch owing to the need for equipment support and maintenance of a technologically advanced machine,” he explains.

“While we are confident that the iSeries will grow and become the more prominent range of products in our stable, we do still see value in keeping both offerings for our clients,” Engström adds.

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Chantelle Kotze
Chantelle Kotze is a Johannesburg-based media professional. She is a contributor at Mining Review Africa (Clarion Events - Africa) and has created content for the media brand over the past 6 years.