E&MJ looks at future-focused technologies and upcoming product releases
By Carly Leonida, European Editor
According to new research from GlobalData, the global population of underground mining trucks and loaders, including active units and those in care and maintenance, at the end of 2023, totalled 22,927. Of these, 9,461 were underground mining trucks, including 8,108 at active mines. Sandvik, Epiroc and Caterpillar are thought to account for around 75% of these, although there’s a growing range of options and innovations from smaller players too.
Put simply, more mines means more trucks, and the firm predicts steady growth in output, as new operations ramp up over the coming years and others look to replace aging fleets. The highest deliveries of new machines are expected in Oceania, Africa and the Middle East, followed by South, Central and North America.
Given these predictions, and the challenges that the industry faces surrounding resource depletion and depth, geotechnical constraints, safety, talent scarcity and more, it’s pertinent to wonder what the underground mining trucks of the future might look like? Will diesel engines remain a prominent feature? Will automation be used more widely? Will electric and battery-electric technologies feature more heavily? (As of November 2023, GlobalData had identified 67 electric underground mining trucks in operation globally, although it expects this number to grow.)
In a bid to understand what’s coming next and which factors are driving research and development (R&D), E&MJ spoke to five leading OEMs.
Sandvik: 1,000 Trucks and Counting
In November 2023, Sandvik Mining and Rock Solutions reached an important milestone, producing its 1,000th large underground mining truck in the 51-63 metric ton size class. E&MJ visited the company’s Load and Haul division at its home in Turku, Finland, shortly after the TH663i left for delivery to a mine in Portugal, with a view to learn more about the company’s truck line and the direction in which it’s heading.
But first, a little history… Turku has been home to Sandvik’s Toro brand for nearly 50 years. The company moved into the site in 1974 and, over time, the facilities have grown significantly. The latest development (which was almost complete when E&MJ visited in early December) was the EUR 10 million Turku Business Park project. Announced in 2022, this included the modernization and expansion of Sandvik’s existing facilities, as well as investment to boost the manufacturing of battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) for underground mining.
Today, the business park acts as a hub for Sandvik’s global Load and Haul business, housing its research and development (R&D) activities, as well as sales, manufacturing, marketing, purchasing and communications, among others. It also supports the company’s global manufacturing base which has outposts in China, South Africa and Malaysia, as well as an R&D centre for BEV loader and truck batteries in Camarillo, California.
Mikko Jukakoski, Vice President of Product Line, Load and Haul Division, said: “The Toro brand can actually trace its roots back to 1971 in Tampere, Finland. The 1.5-metric ton (mt) capacity 100DH loader, which was the first model the company produced, would fit inside the bucket of the largest loader we produce in Turku today.”
Keeping Technology Options Open
Sandvik now has one of the widest underground load and haul offerings on the market, including diesel and battery-electric models in its two bestselling size classes. The diesel-driven TH551 (51 mt capacity) and TH663 (63 mt) were launched in 2013 and are now in their third-generation design iteration, and battery-electric equivalents, the TH550B (50 mt) and TH665B (65 mt), followed in 2021 and 2022 respectively.
“Electrification is not a new topic for us,” said Jukakoski. “Sandvik has been making cable-electric loaders since the 1980s and its first concept electric loader was produced in 1972. Optimizing the power-to-weight ratio of our machines by removing the diesel engine is a core part of our design capability, but it’s only in recent years that the industry has started to realize the potential safety and environmental benefits that electrification also offers.
“As we speak, we have the first TH665B undergoing site acceptance testing with Barminco at AngloGold Ashanti’s Sunrise Dam mine in Australia. We also have multiple TH550B units operating globally. Some of these are approaching the 20,000h mark which makes it a mature design.”
Juha Virta, Vice President for Sales & Marketing at Sandvik’s Load and Haul division, told E&MJ: “There are many factors feeding into the drive for electrification, including sustainability through a decreased carbon footprint, safety through lower diesel particulate levels, reduced heat and noise emissions, lower ventilation costs and increased production through higher hauling speeds.
“When we layer automation on top, the potential gains can be huge. But every mine is different in terms of its design, geology and mining method. Regulations and energy sources also vary geographically, as does availability of talent. That’s why optionality is such an important part of our product line, both for the power source and the way in which the machines are engineered.”
Given the complex and varying demands of future load and haul applications, Sandvik has opted for a modular design on both its trucks and loaders, with as much commonality in parts, e.g., wiring harnesses, inverters and motors, as possible. This provides the flexibility to leverage different power sources and simplifies servicing and inventory management.
Its’ current generation trucks feature enhanced ergonomics for operator comfort, uprated suspension, and the i-versions of the diesel trucks come with the latest analytics and automation-ready capabilities. Jukakoski added that the company is working to add automation to its BEVs too.
“As a vendor, we need to be prepared to support our customers in achieving their sustainability and productivity goals whatever the future looks like,” he said.
Exclusive: New 60+ Ton Diesel-electric Truck
Having successfully launched both diesel (mechanical driveline) and battery-electric trucks, Sandvik is now working to add a diesel-electric model to its portfolio. The prototype TH66X diesel-electric, which features a diesel engine with an electric driveline, was on the test track when E&MJ visited, where it was undergoing technology validation before heading to the Callio project at the Pyhäsalmi mine in Pyhäjärvi, Finland. The mine is one of the deepest in Europe at 1,445 m and the long haul ramp will put the diesel-electric concept to the ultimate test.
“For sure we are commercializing it. There’s high interest already,” said Jukakoski. “But there’s still further engineering and scaling to be done on the design. We’ve worked with a number of customers to gain feedback on this product, and we plan to integrate some of the technologies from the TH665B that’s currently being trialled in Australia too. In time, Barminco and Byrnecut will each get a prototype of the diesel-electric TH66X to test.”
The TH66X essentially provides an option that sits in between Sandvik’s current diesel and BEV offerings, combining the best of both designs. In time, Sandvik will likely add to this with a diesel-electric hybrid too, and thoughts have already turned to which technologies might come next…
“We’re also looking ahead and have many R&D projects ongoing, for instance, in alternative fuels and trolley assist. We’re using an agnostic approach in our designs so that customers can choose which combination of technologies is best for them.” Jukakoski told E&MJ.
Virta added: “Our philosophy at Sandvik is to work closely with customers to respond to their needs, but also to anticipate what they might need and offer them new ideas. That way we can work together to optimize the technologies and get the best possible solutions.”
He added that development is only half the challenge with new technologies; supporting miners in their deployment and operation through services, spare parts and training is equally as important.
“We’re investing a lot in competence development,” said Virta. “Our Product Master Programme provides global coverage with technicians certified to a high level. Their job is to support the mines and to be our eyes and ears on service-related tasks. We also have customers coming to train here in Turku almost every week on topics from electronics to hydraulics and BEVs. We have very advanced e-learning capabilities too.”
Fossil-free Steel, and Beyond
Sandvik Mining and Rock solutions also signed a letter of intent in November 2023 for the purchase of fossil-free steel from Swedish steel manufacturer, SSAB. This will be used in the production of Sandvik loaders and trucks for the mining industry. SSAB aims to deliver fossil-free steel to the market at a commercial scale during 2026, and the agreement ensures that Sandvik will receive a portion, including early samples to create, for example, a prototype frame, loader bucket or truck box, for use in demo products.
“This is another important tick in the sustainability box for mining companies and vendors alike,” said Virta. “We haven’t announced the first products that will feature the steel yet, but you may hear something within the next year.”
Jukakoski added: “The amount of product innovation that’s going on in the mining sector has skyrocketed over the past five years. But, even though Sandvik is investing in new concepts and technologies, we’re investing even more to support our existing product and customer base. Diesel-powered machines remain at the core of our offering, and we will continue to develop and support them as well as supplement the range with new concepts, such as hybridization and maybe even e-fuels in the future. There are interesting times ahead.”
Aramine Optimizes Truck Designs
“We’re observing a strong trend towards innovations to improve the durability and safety of mining trucks,” Marc Melkonian, co-president of Aramine, told E&MJ. “Engineers must find ways to improve the durability of machines to reduce and facilitate maintenance, while maintaining high productivity. This necessitates a delicate balance to optimize performance.”
Safety features, which are a focal point of these innovations, are being overhauled to not only fortify the equipment but also prioritize the wellbeing of operators and those in proximity to the machines, for example, through heightened driver visibility and the incorporation of emergency brake systems.
“Concurrently, there’s a discernible trajectory towards data analytics and predictive maintenance technologies,” said Melkonian. “This seeks to enable the real-time monitoring of the health of mining trucks and moderate the occurrence of downtime through proactive and informed maintenance measures.”
He added that, arguably the most pivotal trend steering the current wave of innovation is sustainability. “Mining companies are trying to limit the environmental impact of their operations by reducing energy consumption and emissions,” he explained. “This is pushing the industry towards the development of mining trucks with alternative power sources, reflecting a resolute commitment to ecological responsibility.”
However, mining trucks operate over very long distances, making models that are powered entirely by batteries seem somewhat utopian. The ideal solution would involve hybridization through the use of battery technology alongside a diesel engine, but the bulk of these power sources would not allow for a powerful and compact truck. Alternatively, a hybrid version could combine a trolley system for long distances and battery power for shorter distances, but this solution requires the mine to have a fixed installation for the longer routes.
“While awaiting the perfect solution, Aramine mining trucks are equipped with the latest-generation diesel engines, thanks to our collaboration with Cummins and Volvo,” said Melkonian. “This has enabled us to integrate Stage V engines with exhaust gas treatment, producing remarkable results in terms of pollution and reliability, even in challenging environments.”
Evolution in environmental regulations and industry standards has significantly shaped the landscape of underground truck design in recent years. Manufacturers have responded by adjusting their designs to align with emerging standards, encompassing emissions, safety, and broader environmental considerations. Engines have also evolved to produce more power with less diesel consumption and fewer emissions.
Melkonian explained: “A decade ago, miners predominantly required mechanical trucks. Demand was driven by apprehensions about the nascent nature of advanced technologies and concerns about machine durability. However, there has been a paradigm shift. CAN bus electric systems have demonstrated their efficacy, dispelling earlier uncertainties. Miners are now actively seeking trucks that not only integrate these technologies, but also incorporate advanced features like data analytics and predictive maintenance tools.”
In contemporary designs, mining trucks are fitted with various sensors and monitoring systems. These provide real-time data on the health of the equipment, empowering operators with actionable insights. This integration facilitates the implementation of predictive maintenance strategies, effectively minimizing downtime and elevating the overall reliability of the equipment. This shift reflects a progressive adoption of technology and a heightened focus on optimizing operational efficiency in the mining industry.
“We’ve also seen an evolution in braking systems,” Melkonian told E&MJ. “Underground mining trucks are equipped with advanced emergency brake systems designed to bring the vehicle swiftly to a halt in critical situations, ensuring the safety of both operators and surrounding personnel. These systems incorporate cutting-edge technology to enhance responsiveness and reliability in emergency braking scenarios within the challenging underground mining environment. The latest evolution is in the ergonomics of the operator’s compartment. These are now more comfortable and provide improved visibility and manoeuvrability of the equipment.”
Aramine’s latest truck models are the T1601C, which has a haulage capacity of 15-mt, and the 17.5-mt Mine-Truck T1801C. Developed for small- to medium-scale underground operations, the 1801C is ideal for headings measuring 10 m2 to 16 m2. The operator’s compartment is designed to offer the best possible comfort and ergonomics with a forward-facing operator seat.
Aramine’s Mexican subsidiary recently delivered a fleet of mining trucks to an underground operation in Mexico to replace an older fleet from a competitor brand. The operators had to adapt to the more modern technologies featured on the Aramine trucks, so Aramine dispatched trainers to help with a smooth transition.
“To meet the demand of our customers seeking a truck to complement our 4-ton mining loaders (the L350D and L440B), our engineers are developing a new, more compact truck model,” said Melkonian. “Based on the L440B loader, the new truck will be available in multiple versions to optimize its usage, ranging from full battery-powered to full diesel, depending on the applications and working distance.”
In terms of future developments, Melkonian told E&MJ: “2024 will be the year of optimization at Aramine for our R&D team. The goal is to replace a significant amount of the steel in our machines with decarbonized steels. These will be introduced starting in January on our battery-powered mining loader, the L440B. Additionally, we will optimize the software in our battery-powered machines to a V.3 version, bringing more features and a reduction in unnecessary battery consumption.”
Caterpillar and Newmont Demonstrate BEV
In December 2023, Caterpillar announced it had successfully demonstrated its first battery-electric prototype underground mining truck, growing its portfolio of battery-electric and semi-autonomous technology for underground mining applications. The demonstration for Newmont and other industry leaders, at the company’s proving ground in Tasmania, Australia, comes on the heels of the 793 battery-electric prototype surface mining truck, which was unveiled in November of 2022.
Caterpillar developed its first battery-electric prototype underground mining truck with input and support from Newmont Corp. The companies are collaborating to achieve Newmont’s vision of a fully connected, automated, zero carbon emitting, end-to-end mining system.
“This milestone is a reflection of the partnership between our teams at Newmont and Caterpillar, showcasing the impact of strong collaboration in the mining industry,” said Rob Atkinson, executive vice president, Newmont. “Achieving this milestone together, combining capabilities and shared values, is a testament to the strength of our strategic alliance.”
This battery-electric truck will complete Caterpillar’s first fully electric underground load and haul solution when paired with the commercially available R1700 XE battery electric loader.
Denise Johnson, Caterpillar’s Resource Industries group president said, “This is a milestone for the entire Caterpillar team as we work closer than ever with Newmont to provide more sustainable choices for the underground mining industry.”
Caterpillar also completed a demonstration of its growing autonomy and automation capabilities. This technology addresses some of the key safety challenges faced daily by its underground mining customers, like the risk of collision when moving heavy machinery through dark, cramped spaces. Autonomous trucks can help to enhance mine site safety by removing operators from potentially hazardous or remote sites. Additionally, these features can improve productivity by creating increased visibility for mine site coordinators, enabling more consistent operations for both staffed and autonomous machines.
Johnson added: “We are building on our foundation of industry-leading autonomous solutions for surface operations, along with our deep experience in underground technology, to provide significant improvement in both productivity and safety for underground mining customers.”
Epiroc Outlines Next Gen Minetrucks
In March 2023, Epiroc upgraded the Minetruck MT65 S — the company’s highest-capacity truck for large underground operations. The latest version offers 18% more productivity compared to the previous model and improved reliability.
Daniel Sandström, Global Product Manager – Minetruck at Epiroc’s Underground division, explained: “The close collaboration with our customers has been key during this project development and outcome. The implemented changes and updates on the Minetruck MT65 S have been verified in the field at our customers’ sites, safeguarding the improvements work as intended in real mining applications and environments.”
One important highlight of the new MT65 S is the uprated speed. This has been increased by up to 10% going up the ramp and 18% going downhill, thanks to the optimized drivetrain and new software, allowing the machine to recommend and hold a certain speed depending on conditions. Reliability has also been addressed in the update; several of the machine’s main components have an extended life expectancy thanks to more protected component locations.
The Minetruck MT65 S is part of Epiroc’s Smart series of machines, which makes it prepared for 6th Sense functionality, such as automation and remote control. The mine truck features Epiroc’s Rig Control System (RCS), offering data monitoring possibilities for the best underground operations optimization.
Byrnecut has ordered a fleet of Minetruck MT65 S haulers for use at the Kathleen Valley mine in Western Australia, with production slated to begin in 2024. Epiroc also won its largest-ever equipment order during 2023 for the expansion of the Kamoa-Kakula copper mine in the DRC. Kamoa Copper has ordered, among other things, Minetruck MT65 S haulers, as well as Scooptram ST18 S loaders.
Eti Bakir, Türkiye’s largest mining company and a long-time customer of Epiroc, also has a fleet of underground machines on order, including underground trucks. These will primarily be used at a new copper mine which is currently under development near the city of Elazig.
Diesel Electric Prototype Heads to WA
Looking ahead, Epiroc is working with Gold Fields Australia to develop and test a proof of concept for the Minetruck MT65 E-Drive — a diesel-electric model which combines a traditional combustion engine with electric drive system technology. The aim is to have a prototype running at Gold Fields’ Granny Smith mine site in Western Australia in early 2024.
“Epiroc has set ambitious sustainability goals for 2030, including halving our CO2 emissions, and our innovation agenda goes hand in hand with our customers’ sustainability agenda,” said Sami Niiranen, President of Epiroc’s Underground division. “We are proud to partner with Gold Fields in the development of a future-proof, low emission mine truck in the large segment that will support them in reducing their emissions as well as overall TCO, without compromising on safety and productivity.”
In December 2022, Epiroc prototyped the world’s first underground battery-electric mine truck (the Minetruck MT42 SG) with a dump box made of fossil-free steel, in partnership with SSAB. The result was a 10-mt reduction in CO2 emissions per manufactured dump box.
It became the first mining OEM to sign a delivery agreement with SSAB for SSAB Zero in April 2023. The fossil-free steel will be used in Epiroc’s battery-electric range of underground mine trucks and loaders, and the companies announced an expansion of their partnership in June 2023 to secure fossil-free steel for use in the production of other equipment too.
ReNAM: Autonomy for the Future
In September 2023, Epiroc announced that it’s working with the robotics and AI team at Luleå University of Technology and technology company, Algoryx, on the ReNAM project. This will utilize simulations and apply state-of-the-art research to enable the next level of autonomy and safety on Epiroc’s underground mining machines. ReNAM will develop and validate advanced sensor technology and autonomous control technology for mining vehicles, and will run from 2023 to the end of 2025.
“Through this partnership, we are contributing to a new generation of machines with improved autonomy capabilities. This is an exciting addition to the on-going development of our automation offering, which helps to further improve safety and productivity for our customers,” said Åsa Gabrielsson, VP Research & Development at Epiroc’s Underground division.
As a first step, digital twins of mining machines and surroundings will be modelled in a physics-based simulation environment. Once the sensor- and AI-equipped virtual mining machines have been developed to the point where they can solve tasks safely and reliably in the digitally simulated environment, the next step will be to transfer the control systems to Epiroc’s mining machines and have them perform the same tasks in a real test mine.
GHH Fleet for Bulgarian Gold Mine
German OEM, GHH, which is currently in the midst of a take-over from Komatsu, announced in December 2023 that it had booked a “double-digit number” order of machines for Breznik Minerals Ltd. The Bulgarian company is part of the Assarel-Medet JSC group of companies — a leading Bulgarian miner.
The machines will operate at the Breznik gold project, which is the first underground greenfield mine in Bulgaria for more than 50 years. The site is located 35 km west of the Bulgarian capital Sofia. Breznik Minerals Ltd will take delivery of the first machines from GHH dealer, Strotech Engineering JSC, in the third quarter of 2024, with the remainder scheduled to arrive in Q2 of 2025.
The order comprises multiple LF-7 diesel LHDs and MK-20 and MK-30 diesel dump trucks. The LHDs are designed for a payload of 7,000 kg with bucket sizes up to 4 m3. The dumpers have 20- and 30-mt payloads, with boxes up to 18 m3 and 320 kW engine power ratings. GHH claims that low operating costs are made possible by its unique truck frame and system design. All vehicles can be monitored remotely to manage maintenance with the GHH inSiTE software.