A competitive edge, safety standards like no one else, and a hunger to innovate – Wolff Group founder Terry Wolff writes that piloting new technology in the resources sector is about the ‘long game’ – and it’s one well worth playing.
Words by Terry Wolff
Founder, Wolff Group
When Hastings Deering approached Wolff Mining with an opportunity to undertake the world-first pilot trial of Caterpillar’s Command for Dozing module in a production mine environment, it immediately resonated with our guiding principles of safety, innovation and integrity. Wolff prides itself on being a first mover with mining technology.
It also made commercial sense for Wolff to participate in a project that would help to give us a competitive edge.
The purpose of Caterpillar’s Command for Dozing Pilot Trial was to extend the operation of dozers from merely a remote-control operation to that of being semi-autonomous in a production dozing environment.
The Caterpillar Command for Dozing module uses a combination of machine sensors, high precision cameras and GPS coordinates to control the movement of the dozer in either a remote control or semi-autonomous operation.
This move into automation meant the right approach and mindset was critical to achieve success.
The dozer information is communicated via a local area network to the remote-control station which contains a similar operator chair as to that used during manual operation. From this operator chair the operator has the same level of functionality as what would be achieved by manually controlling the dozer, yet the operator can control from one to four dozers from this single station.
With remote control technology having been primarily developed for applications deemed unsafe for manned operations, the development of semi-autonomous and autonomous mining technology is driven by a similar safety need. Just as importantly, this has also brought about the opportunity to bring a step change in operational costs through reduced operator labour and an increase in productivity per machine work hour.
The Wolff Automation Control Centre
Of course, this move into automation meant the right approach and mindset was critical to achieve success. The collaborative success achieved between Caterpillar, Hastings Deering and Wolff Mining was realised through a combination of existing relationships, open communication and the ability to persevere regardless of the project outcome.
Integral to the establishment of the Command for Dozing Pilot Trial was the constraint of identifying, scoping and reaching agreement of a mine location. With Wolff having successfully undertaken manned bulk dozer push at Curragh Mine for over nine years, this was a natural fit for the pilot trial.
It was equally important to ensure there was compliance across the mine-specific policies, procedures and Government Mining Regulations, as well as effective communication across the wide variety of interested parties, including CFMEU, mine employees, Caterpillar and Wolff employees and so on.
During the process of reaching terms with both Caterpillar and Curragh Mine for the pilot trial, the project scoping also included the development of likely benchmarks around safety, cost and productivity.
Furthermore, with the pilot trial site being an active mine, there was minimal opportunity for research and development such that a critical path for success was premised on reaching production capacity in the shortest possible time frame.
It would be fair to say that the workload required to implement the pilot trial far exceeded the initial expectations of the scoping study, but again the success was premised on many individuals focusing on the end result – ie. dozers working semi-autonomously rather than getting bogged down in the reasons why it wouldn’t succeed.
Similarly, when the workload became unachievable for individuals, it necessitated both parties to allocate additional resources and at times delay completion dates to facilitate a more reasonable completion timeline.
November 2017 marked the successful completion of Caterpillar’s Command for Dozing module in action in a production mining environment. And there were numerous direct outcomes in the form of mine site benefits.
The immediate and most readily measurable improvement has been brought about through increased dozing hours per shift. Typically, we have seen at least a 15 per cent improvement in effective dozer hours per shift.
With the operator working from the remote control centre it has also brought about a safer work environment and will additionally remove the incidence of soft tissue and, in particular, lower back injuries. With the operator not being physically inside the cab, they are not subjected to the high level of vibrations that typify D11 dozing work.
“We have seen at least a 15 per cent improvement in effective dozer hours per shift.”
With further analysis being undertaken, we are expecting there to be a lowering in the cost of performing bulk dozer push. With one operator controlling between one and four machines and the effective work hours in a shift increasing by at least 15 per cent, it will translate into a lower cost.
Furthermore, there are several broader mining industry benefits that include raising the technology profile of both mining and mining roles such that future operators will see a mining career as a technology opportunity rather than a low skilled career. This is sure to attract key talent, which will help drive future innovations.
This also translates into opportunities for greater operator diversity through increasing female operator participation in what traditionally has been a typically male-dominated role (we are currently on a recruiting drive that specifically targets female operators for Phase II).
The Caterpillar Command for Dozing Pilot Trial also demonstrated that, while typically mine automation is a capital-intensive project that requires a longlife asset and the development of significant mine infrastructure and communications networks, automation is possible in a low-cost environment, with a finite project and minimal mine infrastructure.
This result has additionally benefited Caterpillar in better understanding future applications for the rollout of low cost similar mining automation projects, which will ultimately benefit the broader mining industry through introducing cost saving applications.
For Wolff Group, the success of this pilot trial in a production environment represents a game changer both for us and our clients. Wolff is not a Tier 1 contracting business, doesn’t have a large technology budget and doesn’t have a dedicated technology group. However the team achieved an outcome within a time and budget that even surprised Caterpillar.
Stepping outside the Bowen Basin, the successful outcome of this pilot trial has also enabled Wolff to open dialogue and investigate options in aligned sections of the mining industry (ie. across hard rock mines and stockpile management) and therefore possibly introduce efficiencies and cost savings into related mining operations.
There’s no doubt that automation is a big part of where the industry is going. The ‘journey’ in being a first mover into automation is extremely exciting yet at the same time presents numerous challenges. The key is ensuring you have the right partners – in our case, that was CAT, Hastings Deering and Curragh Mine – and being prepared for the long game.