Equipment Suppliers Practice the Art of Accommodation

In the lengthy period of depressed mining markets preceding the late lamented boom the partnership concept was very popular with technology suppliers needing to secure business in a highly competitive environment. Mine operators were perhaps more cynical. In contrast, the high equipment demand levels of the three years up to third-quarter 2008 engendered sellers market conditions to at least some extent. But it seems that manufacturers and dealers have still been prepared to go to considerable lengths to provide customers more than a standard production engineering-based specification; and not only when compelled to do so in order to meet rather specific local regulations. At least that’s what E&MJ has found during recent mine visits.

In reality, the design and manufacture of widely used types of mining machine often requires a balance to be struck between enabling individual customers to meet their particular needs and achieving serial production at a cost these customers are willing to pay. Designing machine ranges utilizing a high proportion of modular components has been the generally successful consensus response. In conjunction with this effort to standardize products manufacturers with global supply networks have offered to provide full support services for their equipment, in some cases the actual operation of the machines as well. When entering such relationships operating companies may be less inclined to request modifications to new machines. A counter-current influence for manufacturers exporting equipment is the existence of national or local authority regulatory requirements that are either more specific than, or in conflict with, the norms for most markets.

But major suppliers have seemingly learned to live with the perversity of cyclical markets and with regional regulatory variance. Especially when building new supply relationships or managing key accounts manufacturers and their distributors have gone to considerable trouble to work closely with the buyer in order to meet special needs. Typically modifications to exported equipment are not carried out at the manufacturing plants, where they would disrupt the production process, but closer to the customer at workshops operated by the local subsidiary, distributor or the customer.

It Takes Three to Tango

The Talvivaara nickel mine near Sotkamo in eastern central Finland has been developed by Talvivaara Mining Co. (TMC) as a fast track realization, self-managed project (see E&MJ, October 2008, pp 59-62, 64, 66). Ore processing started in October 2008 and Finnish Rail (VR Cargo) made the first 100-mt delivery of nickel-cobalt sulphide to Norilsk Nickel’s Harjavalta refinery on February 19 this year. Full rate annual production of 33,000 mt contained nickel with approximately 60,000 mt zinc, 10,000 mt copper and 1,200 mt cobalt could be achieved during 2010.

Using a networked business concept, TMC had worked with a select group of leading partner companies on the design and construction of the mining infrastructure and innovative processing facilities). When selecting mobile mining equipment, Talvivaara likewise looked for leading, reliable partners who were able to supply and support technically top-class standard machines but were prepared to collaborate in optimizing the application as well.

The extraction operations are split between Talvivaara and Destia Oy. TMC’s mining team is responsible for the ore production, including haulage to the primary crusher that involves an average truck cycle distance over the life of the pit of 1500 m; Destia is contracted to carry out waste rock excavation and haulage to the secondary heap. Each company has worked closely with Hitachi Construction Machinery and its Finnish distributor, Rotator Oy, to optimize loading and haulage.

Rotator has supplied the Finnish market with construction, materials handling and access machinery from leading manufacturers since 1954 and has worked with Hitachi since 1983 and Hitachi-Sumitomo since 2007. A staff of almost 150 people, including over 100 in after sales, achieved a turnover of €63.7 million in 2007 making the company one of Finland’s leading machinery distributors. Now owned by the Captum Group, Rotator has its head office at Pirkkala, near Tampere, and another main office, workshop and warehousing facility near the Helsinki-Vantaa airport; premises in five other centers including Talvivaara; and 15 service dealers. The company is organized to help customers acquire optimal machinery and operate in more effective and productive ways, said Managing Director Thomas Åhmann. In total Rotator supplied 25% of the machines used by the contractors who did the site preparation and construction at Talvivaara.

Loading and Hauling Ore

From the start of negotiations with TMC both and Hitachi Construction Machinery (Europe) NV (HCME) and Rotator worked hard to achieve a win-win deal. HCME Area Manager for Heavy & Mining Equipment Malcolm Edwards explained: “We considered key fleet scale factors such as annual production targets, length of haul roads, weather conditions, and work and maintenance schedules. The Hitachi software system then calculated the total machinery requirement for production and cost effectiveness.” The preferred solution was to offer a package comprising the EX3600-6 excavator and EH3500 AC II dump trucks plus full support.

The potential difficulty with the plan was customer unfamiliarity with these models: although the nearby Siilinjärvi mine has six smaller Hitachi EX excavators the EX3600-6 would be the first one delivered to northern Europe while the EH3500AC II would be the first one delivered anywhere. Rotator’s Thomas Åhman recalled, “There was relevant statistical information on the same type of excavator we were able to provide but we couldn’t physically show the customer any EH3500 AC II dump trucks working in Europe.” However, added Edwards, the new truck had taken four years to develop and HCME was able to provide convincing data demonstrating its performance and its compatibility with the EX3600-6.

Another issue was the relatively high uncertainty factor. On the supplier side the lead time from order placement to equipment delivery pertaining at that time was very long, up to 20 months for trucks; the mine was still at an early stage of development. So planning had to be based on a number of assumptions. Taking this into account, HCME and TMC built a degree of flexibility into the terms of their deal. This included HCM keeping a manufacturing time slot open so the equipment could reach the mining project when required. Initially three trucks would be delivered, one at a time, during the start up period to work with one excavator. Talvivaara anticipates a need for probably two more excavators and a maximum truck fleet of 18 units as production grows.

The EX3600-6 was delivered from port by at least 12 truck-trailer units; the first EH3500 AC II truck arrived on 17 trailers. The truck bodies are delivered in two halves that must be welded together. Mine Manager Arto Suokas commented that the excavator assembly procedure, with which the Rotator team was reasonably familiar, went well but the first truck proved a bit difficult as nobody had all the relevant experience. The subsequent truck assembly and commissioning exercises went smoothly and quickly, taking two weeks or less, Suokas said. Unsurprisingly, Hitachi’s truck designers have been keen to monitor the performance of the new truck and Malcolm Edwards has made several visits to the site to check on progress.

The EH3500 AC II truck combines a Cummins QSK 50 engine and technologically advanced IGBT-based AC drive developed and manufactured by Hitachi. This system enables the operator to bring the truck to a stop using the retarder. Two LCD displays in the cab are based on those in Hitachi EX mining excavators. Video cameras are available as an option. For the dump body, HCM favors a closely spaced horizontal stiffener design that minimizes stress concentrations by dissipating load shocks over the full dump body length. The close spacing also minimizes the distance between unsupported areas.

The EX3600-6 has a 4,450-kW Tier II Cummins QSK 60 engine. Equipped with either a 22-m3 backhoe or a 21-m3 loading shovel bucket, the excavator is designed to five-pass load the EH3500, which has a standard payload of 175 mt. However, Talvivaara’s excavator is the backhoe version with a 20.65-m3 heavy-wear bucket and has been loading the trucks in four passes. This is a result of the acute tire shortage in 2008. Unable to secure the usual brands of tire in time, HCM fitted Torch tires from China but recommended reducing the payload to 152 mt to take account of the tire specification.

To assess the feasibility of five pass loading, TMC has been working with HCME to optimize the bucket, truck body liner and tire characteristics. MST, based in northeast England, was contracted to build a second bucket, while HCME has monitored wear rates of the Japanese made heavy duty wear steel to see if a different material grade should be employed. So far the installed liners have not needed replacement and no final decision on the specification has been made, said Arto Suokas.

Kari Sirvio is one of five people operating the EX3600-6 through the three-shift operation. He previously worked at a nearby Mondo Minerals talc mine. Compared with the smaller hydraulic excavator he had worked with there, the EX3600 is much easier to use, he said. Sirvio particularly appreciates the quality of the cabin and the smoothness and lightness of the controls. He added that he and his fellow operators have been impressed and motivated by the high reliability of all the Hitachi machines on site.

Truck operator Jouni Karjalainen said that the operators had taken time to get used to the size of the truck although the four cameras fitted for added safety are a big help. One minor problem is that the safety rail on the operator’s entry way is in the line of sight from the cabin.

Maintenance programmes for the TMC Hitachi fleet have been scheduled by Rotator over a five-year period. The dealer recruited a 14-strong team of technicians, a parts specialist and foreman to provide support for the machines. “The key factor is to develop excellent relationships,” said Åhman. “Our role is to ensure that TMC is happy with the local support they receive. If we are successful from the outset, then we will be able to secure this business for the future.” The maintenance shop is equipped to look after the trucks and the Sandvik DRi drilling rigs. The overhead cranes can lift the dump bodies of trucks up to the EH4500 and 5500 sizes. The building has office accommodation on two floors.

Waste Removal

Destia’s main business is road building and the company was TMC’s network partner responsible for planning, design and construction of roads and earthworks at Talvivaara. The mining contract runs for three-and-a-half-years and covers excavation and haulage of 720,000 m3/y of overburden from the open-pit to the secondary leach heap.

Product Engineer Anssi Auvinen, who oversees the operation, explained: “This is one of Destia’s first mining contracts, so we had to be sure that we selected the best machinery and back-up for the rigorous demands of this site. Fortunately, the all-encompassing package provided by Hitachi and Rotator has proved that we made the right choice.” The Hitachi fleet purchased from Rotator comprises seven new EH1100-3 rigid dump trucks plus one used machine, teamed with two Zaxis ZX870LCR-3 excavators. In addition, the distributor supplied a Zaxis ZX470LCH-3 excavator equipped with various attachments, which was soon nicknamed the ‘tool carrier’. The EH1100-3 has an MTU DDEC engine and is very fuel efficient compared with equivalent competitor trucks, said Malcolm Edwards. The Rotator team at Talvivaara is maintaining the Destia loading and haulage fleet as well at the larger TMC machines.

Strong Foundation

Production at the mine is expected to continue for 24 years. So far, TMC Mining Manager Arto Suokas has been generally impressed: “The attitude and approach of Hitachi—through Rotator and HCME—have been excellent since day one. In terms of predicted lifetime cost, reliability, performance and local support, all the boxes were ticked.” As of mid-May the EX3600-6 and the first EH3500 AC II have worked 4,500 hours; the second truck, commissioned in September 2008, has done 4,000 hours and the third, commissioned in October, has 3,100 hours on the clock. TMC has added work lights and modified the operator’s cabin to suit local conditions. The machines have generally performed as promised, Suokas said, although truck tire life has been shorter than expected as well as limiting payload. Talvivaara commissioned a fourth truck in early May 2009 and another EX3600-6 excavator is scheduled to arrive in July. A brand tire delivery was scheduled for mid-May.

Anssi Auvinen is also positive: “The ZX870LCR-3 is excellent, the ZX470LCH-3 quickly proved to be reliable and the EH1100s are all working productively”, he commented. “Destia’s operators have adapted well to the Hitachi machinery and it is easy to use. We work safe in the knowledge that help can be found quickly if we need repair or maintenance work thanks to the on-site support offered by the Hitachi team.”