Advancements in machine design are not limited to production equipment

By Steve Fiscor, Editor-in-Chief

Utility equipment is a vague term. E&MJ defines utility equipment as any non-mining/non-production support equipment. Many of the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) specializing in utility equipment would probably define it differently. There is, however, a vast array of equipment underground that supports the production process. It can range from the units that transport men and materials to the machines that charge explosives and spray concrete.

Similar to the major OEMs, utility equipment manufacturers are experiencing some difficulties. Those include coping with growing demand from the mines, incorporating the latest technology, and training new users how to properly operate and maintain the equipment. While many of the major OEMs have simply told customers that these are the models they have to choose from going forward, the smaller utility OEMs are trying to remain as flexible as possible to supply mines with what they need.

Mines that understand technology are using it to automate processes and predict maintenance patterns. While some see new sophisticated controls as an aid for machine operators performing repetitive processes, others see it as a way to move miners out of harm’s way. In either case, the new utility equipment available to miners will ultimately improve safety, increase production and lower mining costs.

Optimizing Equipment and Processes
Normet specializes in underground equipment for spraying concrete, charging blastholes, lifting and installation, scaling loose rock, and transporting men and materials. Most of the equipment is built at its factory in Iisalmi, Finland, where the company recently inaugurated a new technology center. “We are developing R&D and engineering to meet different customer needs on every continent,” said Jukka Pihlava, marketing manager, Normet. “We also have state-of-the-art prototype manufacturing at the technology center. We can put these new units to the test long before we place them at the mines.”

Through a new facility in Santiago, Chile, Normet also builds and distributes the Semmco product line, which consists of small Alpha concrete sprayersand small Tornado mixers for concrete transport. The company recently formed a partnership with construction chemical expert TAM International for additional support on the concrete spraying process. “We have invested heavily in our sales and support network worldwide,” Pihlava said. “Together with TAM International, we now have 34 customer support and service centers around the world.”

Business for Normet has been very good. Similar to other suppliers though, it has had to work hard to incorporate modern components, secure long-lead items, and manage a workforce in a cyclic business. Last year was a record year for the company. Turnover surpassed the record level of 2008. Business declined slightly in 2009, but mining has since returned to a growth track.

Pihlava sees a trend toward more underground mining at deeper levels. “We are seeing a greater push toward automation even with concrete spraying and explosives charging,” Pihlava said. “There is still a lack of skilled personnel, which increases the need for training—not just the training on the equipment, but educating them on the entire process.”

Today, concrete sprayers and explosive chargers can come fully equipped with CANbus control systems (a controller area network of multiple microcontrollers that communicate), which can easily integrate into the mine’s wireless network. The mine can not only monitor the equipment, but the concrete spraying process as well. Some of the data includes the amount of concrete sprayed, the amount of accelerators used, the temperature of the concrete, the temperature of the accelerator, and the ambient temperature in the mine. Using this information, the mine can optimize the process. When the machines aren’t working the way they should, maintenance technicians have access to full diagnostics.

A great example is the next generation Spraymec 8100 VC for tunneling applications (the mining version will be available soon). It is an electro-hydraulic, self-propelled mobile concrete sprayer. The compact design enables the machine to spray cross-sections from 15- to 140-m2. In addition to concrete pumping and spraying, the NorSmart system controls accelerator dosing, moves the spray-boom and positions the nozzle. It provides data and fault diagnostics for the spraying process (and the vehicle) in real time.

“With the increased use of sprayed concrete underground, Normet’s concrete spraying and concrete transport equipment has become very popular,” Pihlava said. “It represents about one-third of our turnover.”

Almost all of the machines Normet supplies come equipped with diesel engines. The company, similar to its customers, has to contend with new diesel emission regulations (Tier 3/Stage III, Tier 4/Stage 4), which is having an impact on design and manufacturing, as well as maintenance at the mines. The new engines require low-sulphur fuel with low levels of contaminants. In some parts of the world, especially when transporting diesel underground, that is difficult to achieve.

Because of the heat generated by the emission controls, the engine compartment needs to be much larger to accommodate the engine and the radiator and eventually the urea tank on Tier 4 engines. “With the new engines, there are a lot more variables to be considered,” Pihlava said. “The OEMs are also becoming more dependent on the engine manufacturers. Everything is more interconnected than before.”

There will be quite a bit of variation within each product line. “More of the high-end equipment—those with the new engines and a high degree of automation—will be shipped to the mines prepared to operate them,” Pihlava said. “For mines that do not have the skilled technicians and cannot secure higher quality fuel supplies, the lower spec product line is still available.” Different areas require different equipment.

Looking down the road, Pihlava believes miners will see more use of electro-hydraulic controls with explosives chargers and concrete sprayers, which will lead to a higher degree of automation underground. “We are seeing more interest in self-propelled equipment,” Pihlava said. “Underground mines are relying less on compressed air piped through the mine and more on the compressors found onboard the sprayers and chargers.”

Obviously, with all of this new technology, the miners will need more training and support. To accommodate this need, the company recently established the Normet Academy to train its staff as well as miners. “Sometimes we fly customers into the academy, but more often the mines prefer we train people on-site,” Pihlava said. “Within our network, we can train our people and then they can train the miners on site. People learn best by doing. On-site, hands-on instruction is the best training you can get. The training covers the commissioning of the equipment and the various processes, concrete spraying, charging, transport, scaling, etc. They learn how to do it and why they are doing it.”

Increasing the Performance of Existing Equipment
Located in Emsbüren, Germany, Hermann Paus Maschinenfabrik GmbH also supplies utility equipment for the mining business. They have never been busier than they are today. According to the company’s Managing Director Franz-Joseph Paus, there was a period of six to nine months during 2008-2009 where customers were somewhat hesitant to buy equipment and then the business returned to its previous robust state. “The market is busy and demand is high,” Paus said. “There is a lot of enthusiasm for high minerals prices. We can’t get enough components to supply everything we need, especially long-lead items, such as axles and engines.”

The company recently increased production at its factory in Germany by 20%. “In Germany, that is difficult because of a shortage in skilled labor,” Paus said. They also moved a South American workshop to a larger space to accommodate business and implement a training program.

Paus echoes the sentiments on the new diesel engines. “The diesel engine is a big deal for us,” Paus said. “We view it from two different perspectives. We agree it is much easier to have common regulations for emissions control. In the Western Hemisphere, for example, we supply the latest technology to the mines in a position to run and maintain the equipment. However, there are those in other regions that do not have to comply with these policies. So we have the same machines with two significantly different engines, which is not an easy thing to manage.”

The new engines are more complicated. They have more electronic controls, more sensors, more components, etc. “The equipment with the Tier 4 engines are so new we have no experience yet with what it will take for the mines to keep these machines running,” Paus said. “The more sophisticated components require CANbus technology, which is not always the best option for all of the mines.” For miners unfamiliar with these technologies, the systems are complicated and present more problems than solutions.

“Our approach has always been to keep the machines as simple as possible,” Paus said. “Strong, sturdy, robust and simple. In an emergency, miners can repair the equipment by splicing a cable rather than relying on a PC to troubleshoot the problems. We have customers that do not want it and we have customers that insist on the latest technology.”

Paus said they have always kept mechanical maintenance (accessibility to filters, pumps, hoses, belts, etc.) in mind with equipment design. “Most of our field engineers have a direct connection with our people at the factory,” Paus said. “If something is not working and they need to change the arrangement of components, they give direct feedback to the factory. That’s the way we have always run the business.”

As far as utility equipment, the Paus line of equipment for transporting men and materials has always been very popular. The Universa 50, for example, has three models based on payload (50-2, 50-3, and 50-4). “We have developed these versatile units in response to requests from the mines over the years,” Paus said.

Featuring 4-wheel drive, the Minca, which is short for mining car, can be used as a platform for all kinds of applications, Paus explained. Similar to the Universa, the cabin and the engine make up the front half of the vehicle, while the rear has several uses, such as scissor lift platform, boom and basket, platform and crane or passenger cassette (18 seats), with a payload of almost 3 tons. “It’s a 4-ton vehicle compared to the 10-ton Universa,” Paus said.

“Visibility is very good. In the last year, we have completely overhauled the drive line. It has a new suspension and a more robust frame.” The driveline is either torque converter or hydrostatic, with a 4-wheel steering option.

“Versatility is the key with the Minca,” Paus said. “The performance and comfort is unmatched.” These units have always been in high demand, Paus explained, but in the last 15 to 20 months he has seen demand grow even further.

Minca is powered by a 115-kW Deutz 2012 engine. For use in gassy mines, the Minca is flameproofed and this has a 70-kW Perkins 1104 engine with the latest exhaust gas controls. The flameproof system is all electric, fully controlled by sensors and automatic shutdown procedures. All relevant values like temperatures, pressures and levels are constantly monitored; in the case of failure, engine will automatically shut down. Starting is also electric, avoiding the use of an air compressor (which has to be flameproof itself and always bears the risk of overheating or gas ingress). All electric components are completely enclosed (flameproof).

The exhaust gas cooling system is a dry system. “This keeps water from polluting the environment and is almost maintenance free,” Paus said. “Inside the exhaust gas system, a catalyst is included to further reduce exhaust gas values. The cooling system makes sure surface temperature will not increase above 150°C and also the exhaust gas temperature is below 70°C when leaving the system: this is extra safety for operators. Flame arrestors both on the fresh air and exhaust side make sure no combustion is leaving the engine.”
In case of gas ingress from the air filter into the engine, the system will automatically close the air inlet valve immediately and shut down the engine.

While this is exciting, Paus believes the company’s true strengths lie in developing solutions for the mines. Some of the machines that have been built over the years could be considered “one-off” pieces of equipment. Paus reminisces about an 18-m scaler they built for a Russian ore mine with a hammer and a second basket many years ago. “We introduced a dinting machine for road maintenance,” Paus said. “We built some special rail-mounted machines to clean the ditches on the main haulage.”

“In the last couple of years we have really focused on the 852 scaler with a telescopic boom,” Paus said. “The unit is very popular in South America. It can be used in 2- x 5-m cross section. It can be used in the heading right after blasting. It can be moved to other headings quickly.
“Our strength is flexibility,” Paus said. “We promise to be innovative and flexible like we have always been.”