While the driverless car revolution hasn’t crept far beyond the confines of Silicon Valley, the mining industry has been using autonomous trucks for more than 10 years, with varying rates of success. And while there is lots of hype and some good pilots documented, many of our clients are seeing a marginal business case because of the cost/complexity of implementation.
The benefits of autonomous equipment in mines can be truly disruptive. Autonomous equipment operates much more safely than the average human operator. Since Rio Tinto started piloting the technology in 2008, they have autonomously moved over 1 billion tonnes without injury. Autonomous equipment can also be a boon for productivity. Getting rid of excess capital and eliminating the millions of lost hours from shift changes, blast clearances, or breaks can easily generate savings >30%.
Still, the economics today don’t work for everyone. The technology is new and expensive. And it requires re-working the entire foundation of your operation to successfully implement.
In our experience, there are 5 components driving up the value of the autonomous business case:
1. New locations or operations: Mixing autonomous and non-autonomous machines slows down the autonomous operation, increases the programming complexity, and limits the potential upside. In new mines, where operations haven’t been complicated by legacy models and tools, a well-structured technology roadmap can flesh out where to use autonomous equipment, when to upgrade, and how much value a solution could deliver.
2. Older and fully depreciated equipment: Replacing non-autonomous capable equipment before the end of its useful life tends to kill autonomous benefits. When considering implementation, the principles of capital efficiency and value still apply, meaning that an eagerness to implement before the time is right could negatively impact the bottom line.
3. Dangerous, difficult, or low-visibility conditions: Advanced sensors navigate easily through environments humans have trouble with or would otherwise be dangerous for operators to enter. In mines where significant reserves have been closed to development, autonomous and remote equipment can open new frontiers, reduce risk, and increase yield.
4. Low environmental maintenance: Autonomous equipment operates from a rules-based model and changing environments (e.g. new roads, intersections, signs, equipment, people, etc.) increase the number of rules and selective logic that equipment need to obey. Before implementing autonomous fleets, it’s best to have a deep evaluation of your process flows to identify where you can increase efficiency and reduce complexity.
5. Remote developments: Staffing and supporting remote, fly-in-fly-out mines can be expensive and a logistical nightmare. In mines where a high % of costs come from non-mining activity (e.g. camps, catering, flights, etc.), there is a strong business case to automate or remotely operate front-line equipment and keep only a small satellite office at site.
Have you evaluated autonomous opportunities at your operation? What did you find were the most meaningful value drivers in your business case?