Using the latest technology, a Redpath miner operates an LHD from the surface using teleremote controls.

Service providers in a major hard rock mining district use creative tactics to safely improve performance and productivity

By Steve Fiscor, Editor-in-Chief

Ontario has a high concentration of diversified hard rock mining operations. Some claim that Greater Sudbury is the hard rock mining capital of the world. Beyond the Sudbury Basin, significant investments are taking place in the Red Lake district and in the polymetallic orebodies that border the north rim of Lake Superior. Many of the mines are or will soon be mining at depth to recover precious and base metals, as well as battery minerals. As such, the province is a hot bed of activity for technology development, which it proudly exports to the world.

The suppliers that serve this part of the world had to deal with the issues related to COVID-19, just like everyone else. They were fortunate the province declared mining essential, which allowed them to continue with business and it gave them the confidence to employ some creative techniques to keep the supply lines open.

The mining sector is thriving in Ontario and mining operations have regained momentum in neighboring provinces. These suppliers are exploring new ways of supporting their customer today and well into the future.

Redpath Adapts to Meet Protocols

Locked down and communicating from his home office, Paul Healy, president of Redpath Canada Ltd., emphasized that the company’s No. 1 priority is safety. That includes the safety of its workers and the safety of its customers. “We’re doing a lot of work today to identify and eliminate risk throughout our organization,” Healy said. “When COVID-19 hit at the end of the first quarter of 2020, it affected us significantly. Quite a few of our fly-in/fly-out projects were placed on care and maintenance, and Quebec shut down all the mines. Projects started to rebound for us in the third and fourth quarters of 2020. We are now back to pre-COVID-19 volumes despite all of the complications related to travel restrictions.”

Redpath Canada is busy these days and Healy said they are bidding on a lot of work. “In Ontario, we’re starting a project for Battle North in the Red Lake gold district. We’re also doing some work for Evolution Mining in that region. We are also starting up a project with Trevali at the Caribou mine in New Brunswick.

Acknowledging that no one really knows what the future holds, Healy said all-in-all, the business environment for mining is positive right now. Between the improved metal prices and the recent ownership changes with mergers and acquisitions, mining companies are making some significant investments in  Canada and internationally.

Redpath crews are on-site every day at mines as contractors and they must follow the same health and safety guidelines. Every company, province and country has different policies, Healy explained. “Mongolia, for example, shut down completely. We have expats that have been working there since March that have been unable to leave,” Healy said. “The situation in Indonesia is similar, but not as extreme.”

Different places also have different rules regarding quarantines. “If we bring people to Vale’s Voisey’s Bay nickel mine in Labrador from outside the province, they must quarantine for two weeks before they are allowed to visit the mine site,” Healy said. “Alternatively, local visitors for some mines only require a quick assessment at the gate.”

With Ontario’s current lockdown, Redpath’s administrative offices in North Bay are currently closed and those people are working remotely. Their shops, however, continue to operate following guidelines from local health officials. “When the gear arrives at the site from our shop facilities, the training and the sign-offs are fairly routine,” Healy said. “If it’s something special, we will send people to site and commit the necessary resources for the process.” Healy explained that, even though they are located only 90 miles east of Sudbury, North Bay lies outside of Vale’s travel-restricted zone and a site visit to one of their properties would require proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test result.

Many of the traditional mining companies in this region have merged with others, Vale-Inco, Newmont-Goldcorp, etc., who are not only making investments, but they also have different approaches to business. “Their new capital investment programs are obviously important to Redpath.” Healy said. “We have new companies with new management and new expectations, so we have to remain nimble.”

“We are improving our services to meet the needs of our clients,” Healy said. We continue to evolve as an organization to improve productivity and performance. As a global company, we get exposed to a lot of new ideas and we share that information internally to make us better in all the markets we service.”

Healy said Redpath is vitally interested in new technology and innovation. “The two big things for us are systems and training,” Healy said. “We’re always looking for ways to provide the best information we can in real time to make better decisions from senior management down to our frontline supervisors. That’s an area where we keep seeing constant improvement. We’re also using technology to roll out training packages that ultimately will help our people operate more safely and efficiently.”

Training Technicians for Tomorrow

Based in Collingwood, Ontario, MacLean Engineering is Canada’s largest manufacturer of underground mining vehicles. The company employs about 800 people worldwide. The company shut down operations for two weeks at the onset of COVID-19 to establish proper protocols. “That was a wise move. We haven’t lost a day since, and we have been very fortunate with a low number of cases,” said Stuart Lister, vice president marketing and communications for MacLean Engineering. “We design and build equipment, transport it to the site, and today we have to commission and support it in a travel-restricted world. That’s where it gets tricky with training, especially getting all of the technical expertise connected to the site, but because mining was deemed an essential sector in Ontario, we had some leeway.” To provide the service its customers expect, MacLean has developed some creative, socially distanced methods for training.

The company took that initiative a step further when it recently announced a partnership with Sudbury’s Cambrian College to support skills and technology development for the electric, automated and digitalized mines of today and tomorrow. The MacLean Research and Training Facility in Greater Sudbury will now host the hands-on component of Cambrian’s industrial battery-electric vehicle (BEV) maintenance course. Cambrian’s curriculum is designed for heavy-duty technicians currently working in the mining sector.

A MacLean BEV boom truck emerges from the Borden portal in Ontario.

In addition to delivering corporate training courses, Cambrian’s Centre for Smart Mining is also the only federally recognized Technology Access Centre specific to mining technology. As such, the Cambrian-MacLean strategic skills and technology partnership will focus both on the training mechanics to support BEV fleets, as well as supporting the development of the next generation of mechatronics workers in the mining industry by providing Cambrian students with the opportunity to work directly with the MacLean Advanced Vehicle Technology (AVT) team based out of the company’s Research and Training Facility.

“Practical training for BEV mechanics and applied research opportunities for the next generation of mechatronics professionals to facilitate the adoption of on-vehicle technology — these are concrete examples of MacLean leveraging its test decline in Greater Sudbury to make a difference in the industry,” said Stella Holloway, general manager for MacLean’s northern Ontario operations. “This is a chance for us to walk the talk when it comes to ramping up our research and training facility to actively support long-term, positive change in mining and I’m thrilled that we’re doing this in partnership with Cambrian.”

“Successful innovation depends on great collaboration, and I think this partnership with MacLean is a perfect example,” said Stephen Gravel, manager of Cambrian’s Centre for Smart Mining. “No single educational institution or company can drive change entirely on its own, but rather it’s a spirit of cooperation that will help us drive innovation in mining of the 21st century.”

The Greater Sudbury branch is Maclean’s largest, employing about 100 people. It’s located in an area with a great deal of activity, the Sudbury Basin, where majors like Vale and Glencore operate large mines with deep future development projects that will incorporate the use of BEVs.

“The Greater Sudbury branch is our innovation engine and our service and support hub,” Holloway said. “The partnership with Cambrian College speaks to what we are doing to further support customers and provide field technicians. We have to train yesterday’s techs for today and tomorrow. Cambrian developed a curriculum to train these techs. We assisted with the curriculum design and we’re providing the equipment and the environment to train them. That’s really something above and beyond.” Most of the training is virtual right now, but when COVID-19 passes, Holloway expects to host new groups for training sessions at least once a month.

Pre-bagged shotcrete is popular with Ontario’s underground miners.

Noting that Greater Sudbury, with nine mines, two mills, two smelters and a nickel refinery, is the world’s most diversified mining cluster, Holloway said she is most excited about the growth potential they are seeing throughout the company. “The design and engineering work for these advanced vehicle packages is happening here,” Holloway said. “With the MacLean Research and Training Facility, we will have the technology and the achievements on display.”

While most of its equipment sales are diesel-powered units, MacLean has 30 pieces of BEV equipment in operation in Canada and they are expecting a steady transition to BEVs. “We have a good foundation and now it’s all about getting the right training in place,” Lister said. “We have a contingent of 80 engineers and 25% of them working on advanced vehicle technologies. We are hiring autonomous vehicle programmers. The industry needs the workforce to support this shift from diesel to BEVs. Four years ago, we would not have hired a programmer or a mechatronics specialist. That’s how quickly the field has changed.”

MacLean currently has 10 vacancies in this area to fill.

Jennmar automates the production of its Friction-Lok stabilizers in Sudbury.

Shotcrete Solutions for Rapid Development

Sika operates two shotcrete production plants in Ontario (Toronto and Sudbury), supplying many of the mines in the Sudbury Basin as well as other mining districts in Ontario and throughout eastern Canada. For much of Canada, the company produces a range of specialized, pre-bagged, dry shotcrete products, some of which can be used for wet applications as well.

In March 2019, Sika acquired King Shotcrete Solutions, which built its business on pre-bagged solutions. “They are not only convenient to transport and handle, they also add value from a quality assurance/quality control perspective,” said Fabian Erismann, global head mining for Sika. “With each delivery, miners get the exact same high-quality product when they need it and where they need it.”

Pre-bagged shotcrete has become quite popular for remote sites in northern Quebec and for the mines in the Arctic territories of Yukon and Nunavut. “They are sought after especially for new mine development,” Erismann said. “We use sealift operations to deliver bagged and palletized shotcrete to those operations. The pallets are transported to a Canadian port in Ontario or Québec and shipped to remote mining sites during the ice-free time windows.”

Shotcrete consumption is on the rise dramatically throughout the world, Erismann, said, especially with deep mines and caving operations. He estimated that globally 80%-90% of shotcrete is mixed wet in on-site batch plants, then transported underground with trucks or pumped with slick lines. “Transporting or pumping wet shotcrete poses different requirements on quality control as far as how it’s batched,” he said. “If a mine is batching 250,000 m3/year, they have to have a good handle on quality as well as costs.”

Pre-bagged dry shotcrete is popular in Canada. The product arrives at the mine in big bags and is easily moved underground using truck or shaft haulage. It can be applied wet or dry. For dry applications, the miners fill the shotcrete machines with dry mix and spray it directly with a small amount of water. No additional accelerators are required. They are blended into the mix. For wet applications, miners mix it on-site with agitated trucks and spray it wet.

For the really deep operations in Ontario, Sika has developed shotcrete with rapid early-strength development and fast, high yielding fiber reinforcement, Erismann explained. “These new products absorb considerable amounts of energy over short periods to deal with seismic shocks and destressing events,” Erismann said.

Sika also produces some specialty products for the Canadian climate, such as cable bolts for permafrost applications. In these polar regions, the top portion of the ground layer of soil remains frozen for years all year round as the region endures extreme subzero temperatures for long periods of times. “Under these conditions, normal cementitious processes will not work,” Erismann said. “To grout a cable bolt in these conditions, the grout has to generate sufficient heat to cure. We are the clear market leader with such specialty products.”

The company has made considerable investments in material handling operations and logistics for this region. “We see demand for shotcrete increasing in Ontario and around the world,” Erismann said. “We are prepared for a considerable expected ramp up in mining activity in eastern Canada. We will have ground support solutions available when and where it’s needed to promote rapid development in difficult conditions.”

Jennmar Restores Canadian Ties

Jennmar sold its Canadian business to DSI in August 2014. That non-compete has now expired and numerous customers have approached Jennmar to see if they would consider re-entering the market, explained David Hurd, managing director for Jennmar Canada. “We evaluated the situation as far as the requirements to be successful and whether it made sense to re-enter the Canadian market. We quickly determined that it was in our best interests and we should re-enter” Hurd said. “We started with due diligence in early 2020. We also started to look for the right location for servicing the mines and we found the former Marcette Building on La Salle Boulevard in Sudbury and concluded the purchase in September. We have been restoring our presence and building the business. At this point, our primary focus is our ground control products, but we will soon offer the full range of Jennmar’s products and capabilities.”

Jennmar is taking a blended approach by maintaining a healthy stock of bolts and other ground control supplies. Resin cartridges will be manufactured in Pennsylvania as they always have been, Hurd explained. “Our primary focus is having the product available for the customers when they need them,” Hurd said. “If that means the best place to manufacture them is in Canada, that’s what we will do. If we need to stock U.S.-made products in Canada, we will do that, too. We’re taking the approach of having sufficient stock locally to support the sector and be able to deliver in a short time frame. If the miners need products, we will get it to them as quickly and as cost effectively as possible.”

Hurd said Jennmar has seen interest in its ground control products across the board from friction stabilizers to torque tensioned rebar bolts to cable bolts. Noting that some of the mines in region are fairly deep, he said Jennmar is currently working with three clients on developing specialty products and solutions for the changes they are experiencing with their ground control plans. “There has been some influence from Australian hard rock practices and we’re looking at ways to clear the round and install ground support as quickly as possible,” Hurd said.

Dealing with COVID-19 slowed installation of manufacturing equipment in Sudbury. “Our cable line is now running after significant COVID challenges,” Hurd said. “Our friction-set repacking lines also started production recently. We have invested considerable time and effort to automate the manufacturing process. We have implemented state-of-the-art technology to change the way products are manufactured utilizing automobile industry thought processes for the friction stabilizers, torque tensioned rebar bolts and inflatable bolts.”

Jennmar has more equipment arriving from the U.S. and they are working every day on a solid logistics plan while delivering products to the mines. “By the end of 2021, we hope to have a team of 25 to 30 people supplying a full range of our products to the mines in Canada, which includes introducing Jennmar’s bits, cutting tools and conveyor idlers,” Hurd said. For the mines in western Canada, Jennmar is partnering with Mine Supply in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Having spent more than 40 years in mining, Hurd viewed this as a phenomenal opportunity to rebuild what Jennmar once had in Canada. “Beyond filling a void in the market, we are going to build a company that will support the mining industry well beyond my time,” he said.