From test mine to hall of fame

Sandvik is the leading global supplier of automated mobile equipment solutions for mining operations. This journey began in the city of Tampere in Finland, where Riku Pulli, Timo Soikkeli, Brett Cook and Janne Kallio and their teams have worked tirelessly in conjunction with customers since the 1990s to develop the innovations that form the company’s growing AutoMine offering. In recognition of their role as pioneers in mining automation, they were recently awarded a spot in the International Mining Technology Hall of Fame.

It is symbolic that the roots of the Sandvik AutoMine offering can be traced back to Tampere, Finland. In the 1990s Finland was considered one of the cradles of telecom and high-tech development, spearheaded by Nokia, which stimulated technology innovations and nurtured the growth of hundreds of small spin-offs.

The Intelligent Mine Programme had started in Finland in the 1980s, driven largely by Finnish mining and metallurgical company Outokumpu, which wanted to modernize traditional mining. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that Sandvik research into automating mining operations, now called Sandvik AutoMine, really accelerated.

Pioneering the market
Riku Pulli, vice president, mining automation, has worked with AutoMine for 15 years. He’s responsible for research and development (R&D), product management and systems delivery.

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Riku Pulli, vice president, mining automation, Sandvik Mining.

“In 1998 and 1999 we realized that bits and pieces of technology had advanced enough to get an exciting product out to the market,” he recalls. “We pieced together the puzzle and started integrating systems. That was the birth of AutoMine.”

But implementing it in mines would not have been possible without the cooperation of such customers as De Beers and Codelco, who were the first and most eager mining houses to automate their operations.

“These companies wanted to be the best of the best and first with everything, so that’s where we started,” Pulli says. “We wouldn’t be here today without them. Going through the first delivery level with these customers meant that we could take automation to the next level.”

Close customer cooperation has continued ever since. AutoMine has been developed further through recent collaboration with customers including China Molybdenum, Northparkes, Rio Tinto, Newcrest, Dundee Precious Metals, Glencore Xstrara, LKAB and Boliden.

As the testing site for the Sandvik automation team, Tampere is an important part of AutoMine, but not the only part.

“Without strong cooperation with the Sandvik loading and hauling product line, we wouldn’t have been able to test the technology and turn it into such a reliable system,” Pulli says. “Sandvik Mining sales areas have also played a vital role during rollout of new products and technologies. They are the crucial link between the factories and our customers.”

A golden journey
Timo Soikkeli, mining applications director for Sandvik Mining China, was general manager for mining automation between 1999 and 2006. In that first year, the team reached a major milestone by commercializing AutoMine Loading and Hauling.

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Timo Soikkeli, mining applications director for Sandvik Mining China.

“We’d worked on R&D for AutoMine right through the 1990s, but it wasn’t until 1999 that we saw the technology was mature enough for commercialization,” Soikkeli says. “We assembled a mining automation business strategy, and the implementation breakthrough came with our first mass-mining customers.”

Between 1999 and 2003, automated loading and hauling systems were developed with key customers in South Africa, Canada, Chile and Finland. The AutoMine offering development was finalized during that time in close collaboration with mines including De Beers Finsch, Codelco El Teniente and Inmet Mining Pyhäsalmi.

“We developed a full-scale AutoMine system in the test mine based on requirements from these key customers,” Soikkeli says. “This was a golden opportunity for us to test the technology and to prove the system’s reliability before mine installations began.”

Convincing the mining industry that it was a good idea to automate their operations was no easy task at that time.

“The mining industry can be quite conservative, and when we started with our first customers we had no references in real production environments,” he says. “So to really get the breakthrough was quite a challenge. We had to prove not only the benefits in safety and performance, but also the system’s reliability. The test mine was our team’s most valuable asset for this purpose.

“It was a real journey,” he adds. “Now we feel like we’ve finally taken the lid off underground mining.”

What started out as an automated solution for underground loading and hauling has developed, and is still developing, into a complete automation offering for both surface and underground mines, loading and hauling, drilling and a host of remote monitoring solutions to support productivity in mining operations.

Where it all started
The test mine is located at the Tampere production unit, a unique asset for Sandvik R&D. It’s a glimpse into the future. In this 36-metre-deep test mine with a 3.5-kilometre labyrinth of tunnels, every automation solution from Sandvik Mining is put to the test before it appears in a customer’s mine.

Sales support manager Brett Cook, an Australian who has been with Sandvik for 17 years, recalls long nights spent in the control room with late-night pizza deliveries during the peak of the development process.

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Brett Cook, sales support manager, Sandvik Mining.

“It’s unique, really,” Cook says. “I don’t think any other company can go 200 metres from its office and test out new ideas. Without this test mine, we wouldn’t have our automation offering today.”

Cook is the link between the salespeople handling customer enquiries and the automation product management and engineering teams. For him, automation and safety go hand in hand.

“The primary benefit of our system is to move personnel from underground operations to the control room,” he says. “We want to improve the health of operators by giving them a safer and more comfortable work environment.”

Having worked in the Australian mining industry for many years, Cook understands that miners often spend long stretches of time away from their families, underground, in remote locations.

“In the future, I think it’s really about bringing operations back to hubs where you can operate mining equipment remotely from the site itself,” he says.

Customers are increasingly looking for more automation to improve safety at their mines. They also want to have better control of their operations and to operate with lower costs and higher efficiency.

Yet, Cook emphasizes, automated operations won’t happen overnight. In a new mine, it’s easier to plan for automation in advance and incorporate it in the mine design properly from the beginning. This means optimizing the mine layout for automation and taking into account the complete mining cycle, interfaces to other systems and infrastructure requirements, which is harder in a brownfield operation.

“As you already have your mine designed and personnel and equipment, you need to adapt your mining process to bring in automation,” he says. “You need to take a step back and see how you can do it. That’s where you’ll need experts who can help you move forward.”

Experts such as the Sandvik Trans4Mine team, the company’s consultants who can advise customers how to improve their operations to achieve the best possible productivity rates and can also support the change to automation.

Cook says that from his experience, the key to success boils down to knowing what needs to be achieved with the system and good communication flow among all the stakeholders.

From scratch to finish
Originally a telecom engineer, engineering manager Janne Kallio is responsible for the safety side of automation in R&D. Like his colleagues, he has also spent years working with AutoMine.

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Janne Kallio, safety engineer, Sandvik Mining.

“We had to start nearly from scratch back then,” he says. “In the late 1990s we had some of the building blocks available, but it took a lot of time and effort to integrate all the pieces.”

Even though the basis for the navigation system was developed more than 15 years ago, Kallio still counts the navigation in the loading system as one of the cutting-edge features.

“It enables the machine to travel at full speed without any manual interference, even though the equipment was built for a manual operator,” he says. “That’s still impressive, even today.”

Looking to the future, Kallio believes underground mines will become more connected.

“There will be a communication network underground in nearly all mines in the future,” he says. “This opens up opportunities to make our equipment even more intelligent. We’ll be focusing on developing further flexibility and improved functionality in our systems.”

In the years to come, equipment from Sandvik will be more integrated with mines’ management systems. The company recently announced the execution of a memorandum of understanding with Maptek in Australia that will see the two leading mining suppliers cooperate to develop integrated planning, execution solutions and robust automation systems for the mining industry.

“My dream is to see all our equipment connected,” Kallio says. “Some will be operated from remote locations; others will be operated locally but monitored through the network.”

A glimpse into the future
Five minutes from the automation team’s office is a snow-covered mock-up of an open pit where two automated surface drills are being tested.

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Kimmo Käänta, project manager, Sandvik Mining.

Parked just 150 metres away is a Volkswagen Transporter van that has been converted into a mobile control room. There are cameras fitted to the rigs so the test engineer sitting in the van can see everything on his screens.

The idea is that the operator doesn’t need to sit in the cabin of the rig. He can sit in a remote control room and operate rigs from there. In the test pit, the machine shows an orange light as it swings into operation, all controlled from the remote van.

The automated rig fleet, a new concept that was tested at a customer’s mine in Finland, will be launched later in 2014. It will either be sold as a retrofit package, which can be used to incorporate the technology into existing rigs, or it can be built into new orders.

“You will only need one operator for multiple rigs, and that person will be able to supervise the rigs from afar, which makes the operation a lot safer and more efficient,” explains Kimmo Käänta, project manager. “For example, this automated rig could be particularly useful for drilling on benches above voids or close to pit walls – anywhere there’s a potential danger of collapse or rock fall.”

The achievements of Soikkeli, Pulli, Cook and Kallio in developing the Sandvik AutoMine offering have recently been officially recognized by their induction into the International Mining Technology Hall of Fame.

Sandvik’s AutoMine solution

What started out as an automated solution for underground loading and hauling has developed, and is still developing, into a complete automation offering for surface and underground mines, loading and hauling, drilling and more. The AutoMine offering from Sandvik Mining covers a complete range of automation solutions for the control of machines, from a single machine to full fleet automation. In addition, Sandvik offers remote monitoring solutions, which show how a machine or fleet of machines is performing, and how they are contributing to a mine’s productivity. These solutions are available whether or not the machine is remote-controlled. Sandvik also offers a team of experts to support a customer every step of the way until the optimum automation solution for its needs has been determined. Today, Sandvik has systems installed across the world in different mining applications and environments. The benefits for customers are improved safety and better working conditions for their employees, higher fleet utilization, increased productivity and lower maintenance and operating costs.