Mining – equipped for growth

Materials World magazine
1 Jan 2018

The global mining equipment market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 8.3% over the next decade, reaching US$198.3bln by 2025, according to a Research and Markets forecast for 2015-2025. But what factors are influencing this upward trend? Ledetta Asfa-Wossen reports.

Mining is more globalised than ever. Low commodity prices, a lack of financing and decreasing ore grades are forcing many companies to operate beyond their local mining sites to explore and drill in remote landscapes in countries such as Zambia, Congo and Peru, where varying infrastructure, skills and technologies are required.

While there has been a small resurgence in UK mining over the last few years, Europe’s self sufficiency and bulk export years are long gone – it is instead becoming more and more reliant on imported minerals from overseas. Meanwhile, regions across the Asia-Pacific, such as China, Australia and India, are reporting a rise in mining activities. 

Additionally, ongoing challenges around energy consumption are creating demand for innovative and more efficient mining technologies, as evidenced by a report, from Research and Markets, which says that the global mining equipment market is forecast to be worth US$198.3bln by 2025. 

Metal exploration

But could the growth projection be overly optimistic? Callum Baxter, Chief Technical Director of Greatland Gold, UK, thinks not. ‘I am not surprised by the forecast figures,' he says. 'The mining industry is emerging from a period of low activity and is really starting to ramp up again and an increase in exploration, mining and manufacturing efforts will be sure to follow.’ According to the Research and Markets paper, Mining Equipment – a Global Market Overview, one of the major contributors to equipment growth is the increasing demand for base metals such as nickel, lead, zinc and copper. Proposed iron ore extraction projects in Russia, Brazil and Africa are also expected to strengthen the market.

The report adds that the Asia-Pacific region accounted for the highest revenue, at US$50bln, in 2015, followed by Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. 

From a growth perspective, mining drills and breakers are expected to be the fastest rising machinery segment due to increasing use in metal mining. Other impactful technology trends include the development of underground automation systems, the introduction of automatic power crushers, multi-functional excavators, the use of hybrid electric motors and rail-veyor technology – a remote controlled, electric-powered light rail haulage solution for surface and underground mining.

Shifting trends

While the UK gradually withdraws from coal, China and India’s huge demand for it in electricity generating applications is ramping up the need for advanced equipment, as is the rising construction of roads and railways across hilly areas. The result, the report claims, is a renewed demand for mineral processing, surface and underground equipment, mining drills, breakers, crushing, pulverising and screening equipment.

Another factor has been the persistent shift to open pit and strip mining. Although underground mining was once the dominant technique, production has undergone a significant transition to open pit mining. Surface techniques involve the extraction of minerals by way of an open pit and remove tunnelling from the process. Technological developments have made it possible to mine ores of declining grades and more complex mineralogy without increasing costs.

The surface mining equipment segment is expected to remain the largest market prompting growth – it accounted for around 31% in 2015, according to a 2016 Mining Equipment Market Report published by Allied Market Research – due to increasing coal and metal exploration activities in the Asia-Pacific region for power generation and rising metal consumption for large scale infrastructure development. 

Furthermore, the International Council on Mining and Metals estimates that many mining companies, aiming to be more economical and innovative, are focusing on extraction activities that are later in the chain of production, such as smelting, refining and manufacturing. A trend, it states, that has already been visible in the number of steel companies that are seeking to enter mining to ensure a more economical supply of iron ore and coking coal.

New frontiers

Other drivers include the need to improve ore recovery, a growing reliance on sensor technology to monitor fixed and mobile equipment and the replacement of diesel with lower carbon fuel sources, according to a 2016 Deloitte mining trends report. With energy still commanding up to 30% of a mining company’s total operating cost, solutions to implement renewable energy are heavily sought after.

The report states that some companies have started to realise energy savings of up to 40% by investing in renewable energy installations, deploying new technologies and moving towards more automated mine processes to optimise energy consumption. 

Recent examples include the EU Horizon 2020 VAMOS project – a viable alternative mine operating system for cleaner, underwater robotic mining of unreachable deposits that is currently being trialled in Devon, UK. Another is Rio Tinto’s first autonomous rail system for its iron ore operations in Western Australia, as well as enhanced blast hole drill systems that use high-precision geolocation and new engines that allow mine operators to substitute diesel for liquefied natural gas on their haul trucks via a dual fuel system. The list goes on.

While the use of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) in mining isn’t a new concept, only recently is it starting to prove more viable. This is partly due to the likes of larger remote machinery companies such as Brokk Australia and Swedish firm Sandvik Mining spearheading sensory, AI and automated solutions for use in underground mining and materials handling. Other wanted technologies include data collection and sharing via cloud-based networks, machine learning to reduce labour costs, genomic mining solutions, wearable technologies, and even hybrid airships to more easily transport equipment to remote mining sites. 

Baxter believes that another field in which mining equipment is proving vital is in primary exploration. ‘Certainly, in early stage mineral exploration, one of the most important technical areas has been in developing geophysical instrumentation and associated software for 3D visualisation,’ he says. ‘This has been vital in allowing us to really look through cover sequences in search for buried deposits.’

While the mining industry has in many ways been mindful of adopting state-of-the-art technologies, it may now come to be its saviour during a time of volatility. Baxter adds, ‘This is good news for the UK trade sector. The UK mining sector has always been dynamic and supportive of exploration and mining activities globally. It should and will continue to be an important player and innovator in the industry.’

World’s biggest custom-built diamond mining vessel 

In late 2017, Norwegian firm Kleven Verft AS and De Beers signed a memorandum of understanding to build the largest ever diamond mining vessel, which, at the time of writing, has not been named.

Earlier this year, De Beers also launched the largest diamond sampling and exploration vessel, SS Nujoma, to boost recovery of diamonds off Namibia’s Atlantic coastline, as part of a partnership with the Namibian government. 

The new build will cost around US$142m and will commence operations in 2021. It will feature advanced drill technology and sophisticated tracking, positioning and surveying equipment and will be 176m long.

Up in the air

In 2016, US company Lockheed Martin signed the first customer for the LMH-1, a hybrid airship. The aircraft, which is part helium dirigible, part cargo helicopter, part passenger airliner and part hovercraft, will be used to haul cargo and fuel to extremely remote mining locations. Crucially, the aircraft can land on snow, ice, mud, sand and water, eliminating the need for expensive transport infrastructure and lowering exploration clean-up costs. The airships will not be in commercial use until sometime this year.

Self-driving mining trucks

Last year, Rio Tinto was reported to have 73 autonomous mining trucks transporting iron ore 24 hours a day across four of its Australian sites. The trucks, made by Japanese manufacturer Komatsu, each weigh 416 tonnes and use GPS, radar and laser sensors to navigate a site. Komatsu estimates that the trucks have already hauled one billion tonnes of material, mainly in Australia and Chile.