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The path to autonomy starts with planning

Eltirus founder Steve Franklin spoke at the IQA National Conference about what quarrying can learn from the mining industry’s great leaps into autonomy and electrification.

Eltirus founder Steve Franklin spoke at the IQA National Conference about what quarrying can learn from the mining industry’s great leaps into autonomy and electrification.

The Institute of Quarrying Australia (IQA) National Conference in Newcastle was a thought-provoking affair, prompting discussions around workforce engagement, the circular economy and the future of quarrying in the country.

Eltirus founder Steve Franklin fell into the latter category and aligned his speech with the Re-Think portion of the conference theme: Re- Think, Re-Source, Re-Engage.

After visiting a similar event in the US, Franklin returned to Australia with an invigorated desire to inspire people to prepare for a future in autonomous quarry operations.

While many would agree that more sustainable quarrying is the way to go, Franklin spoke with an urgency that suggested good intentions were no longer enough and could leave the quarry industry playing catch-up.

“When I speak about this subject to people in the industry, I generally get an ‘over-there- ness’, that it’s something that might apply to the mining industry, or it’s a little bit of an unreality,” Franklin said at the IQA Conference.

“But I think the most important thing is that, in reality, it’s just going to take us to change our mind.

“We have this amazing cousin in the mining industry in Australia, which is probably one of the most technically advanced on the planet, and I think that there are a lot of lessons to learn from them.”

And while Franklin acknowledged that the mining industry has more cash to splash on technologies, he looked at mining’s mentality from a different angle.

“They could choose to sit on their hands and still make a lot of money. But interestingly, those companies ruthlessly apply technology and ways to drive costs down,” he said.

“They’re not moving to autonomous operation for any other reason than the fact that it gives them tremendous benefits.”

But the road ahead for the quarrying industry is one similar to that of a haul road out of a quarry or mine – long and uphill.

With a lack of network infrastructure, site planning and an understanding of various geologies, Australia has some work to do before it sees its first fully autonomous quarry.

These latter two subjects – site planning and understanding geologies – are particular areas of expertise for Franklin and Eltirus, which has begun offering a range of quarry planning, optimisation and management services to get the most from any one resource.

The consultancy also offers autonomy and electrification services as the industry continues to transition towards more sustainable operations Franklin cited some trials in Europe that give hope such a transition is possible.

One example came from a Holcim limestone quarry in Siggenthal, Switzerland, where Volvo autonomous electric haulers could be seen going about their business to improve safety and carbon emissions.

Another example was also made of Volvo’s Electric Site research project at the world’s first emission-free quarry near Gothenburg, Sweden.

“Electric Site took an existing aggregates operation with conventional diesel-powered equipment including 50-tonne dump trucks and replaced them with autonomous and electric machines,” Franklin explained.

“Particularly as we move forward and sustainability becomes more important to all of us, this is going to be a really important case study.”

Of course, mostly thanks to the mining industry, Australia now has the highest population of fully autonomous trucks in the world at around 500. The opportunity to align with these European case studies is growing.

“I’ve had advanced discussions with Volvo about their autonomous quarry and construction vehicles and they’re giving me a timeline of about three to five years before full commercialisation,” Franklin said. “We’re going to have to start on this journey now.”

It’s an admittedly daunting task for an industry that has largely done things the same way for some decades. But it can also be an exciting one, according to Franklin, as companies implement technologies that are largely already available.

“There’s going to need to be a change in infrastructure,” Franklin said.

“One of the things that we see is that many sites have very poor bandwidth and that will be one of the key things that will have to change as we start to introduce a lot more autonomous operation and a lot more technology into businesses.”

Having wireless mesh networks over quarry sites is going to be and important part of the journey, allowing machines and sensor configurations to talk to a central control room, according to Franklin.

“So too will ensuring we’ve got the systems to not only control this equipment, but to collect information about it and make sure that that information is fed back into the system,” he said.

But having the infrastructure in place will mean very little if we’ve not got the human resources to use them.

Franklin cited projections that while Australia will need 1500 new mining engineers by 2025, only 50 will graduate this year.

“It’s going to require mining engineers in our businesses to do the planning and control of this new technology. And the problem is going to be that, in many cases, these people are just not going to be there for us,” he said.

“We really need to think about how we’re going to resource this transition.”

Such statements reinforced the motive behind Franklin’s presentation of bold truths, outlining the difference between where the industry is and where it wants to go.

He closed by making an example of one major player in the global construction materials industry and left his audience with one simple question.

“We’re going to start asking ourselves if this is a prize worth aiming for or if it’s a bridge too far,” Franklin said.

“I think that will be a discussion that companies will need to have and look at this as a long-term strategic priority and planning idea.

“At HeidelbergCement, for example, they’re very clear in their Managing Chairman’s report that quarry digitalisation is one of the primary planks of their progress in the future.

“So some companies are grabbing hold of this and looking into the future. My question to the Australian quarrying industry is: are you guys going to do that too?”

Visit eltirus.com to find out more.

This feature appeared in the May issue of Quarry.

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