Eltirus founder Steve Franklin was on hand at the recent CONEXPO 2023 in Las Vegas.
For those who haven’t heard of it, CONEXPO is the largest construction materials show held in the US.
Every three years, industry people descend on Las Vegas – 139,000 this year alone – to be a part of the show. It’s big, with some 2,400 manufacturers and suppliers in attendance and 28 hectares of exhibits.
This was also the year that alternative energy and autonomous equipment came to the fore.
Do electric machines stack up?
There were several electric machines and technology solutions from Caterpillar, including a 950 GC wheel loader and 320 excavator, while Komatsu showed a PC210E electric excavator.
The Caterpillar machines looked particularly impressive, but I must say that it took a bit to get used to seeing the engine bay of the wheel loader full of wires and batteries rather than a diesel engine.
Cat also showed a number of charging solutions for their machines, all similarly impressive.
The impression I was left with was that electric equipment will play a big part in decarbonisation of our industry, but that we need to be planning for this now. Why? Because, if you have to potentially double the amount of electricity supply to your site, it’s going to take some planning (and capital) to achieve this.
Likewise, we’ll need some very smart thinking about how and where we charge equipment on-site. Is it in the operating quarry area? How do you manage the peak loads that will result from charging?
People who have been around coal mining (and the early days of quarrying) will note that electricity supply into operating areas is nothing new, so perhaps we start by looking there.
At the International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC) in Sydney last year, one of the manufacturers was talking about a charging system that could charge a truck in approximately five minutes. The problem, however, was the power capacity needed to undertake such charging, but he also noted that with the sheer amount of electricity being delivered into the machine in such a short time frame, it wasn’t safe for the operator to be in the machine while it was being charged.
I had written off hydrogen as an alternative energy source, but by the time I left CONEXPO I realised that I was wrong.
When I thought of hydrogen, I immediately thought of fuel cells generating electricity as a power source, and this is a valid approach. By way of example, Volvo had its HX-04 fuel cell-powered articulated hauler on display.
But what I hadn’t appreciated was that you can also run an internal combustion engine on hydrogen – a point not missed by the majority of the major engine manufacturers.
Cummins took this a step further by showing a 15L engine that could run on diesel, green diesel, natural gas and hydrogen. Depending on the application, a different head and inlet/exhaust arrangement is used, but the engine below the head stays the same.
Cummins this year launched a green energy offshoot called Accelera to provide battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell power sources for heavy industry. I think this development, more than any other, made me realise that change really was coming.
When a company as large as Cummins takes a deliberate step on this path, it is evident that it is not a passing fad.
A big disappointment was the lack of autonomous machines on display.
After Caterpillar’s announcement of its partnership with Luck Stone to bring autonomous 777s to Bull Run quarry in Virginia earlier in the year, I was hoping to see one at CONEXPO. Alas, no such luck.
I was also expecting Volvo to bring its TA15 autonomous electric truck to the show. Volvo has several trial projects around the world, with the Holcim Siggenthal quarry trial probably the best known. While the TA15 was not on show, Volvo did have its very futuristic LX03 autonomous, electric wheel loader on display.
Interestingly, the company that not only brought autonomous machines to the show but demonstrated them for real was Develon (formerly Doosan), which showed an autonomous electric excavator and small dozer.
While these machines are not particularly relevant to the quarry industry (at this time), it was particularly interesting to see an excavator that could dig autonomously.
It’s early days for the technology, but it is increasingly gaining maturity. Hats off to the Develon team – it was quite a show.
CONEXPO 2023 was a big success by all measures and a very strong comeback from 2020 when it was cut short by COVID (last time I made it back into Australia just a few hours before the border closed).
The clear message was that sustainability, digitalisation and autonomy are becoming increasingly more common and that the technology that we are going to need to decarbonise our industry is starting to come into play.
Of note, however, was that the innovation focus has changed away from autonomy and more towards decarbonisation – trying to do both at the same time has been a little too much for most manufacturers and producers. Given the clear need to decarbonise, this seems to make a lot of sense going forward.
We are clearly in a time of significant change – well done to all the Australian and New Zealand producers who are working to make these changes a reality whether it be through renewable energy projects, electric truck trials, carbon capture and a myriad of other projects.
Together, we all make a difference.