Australian companies in the mining equipment, technology and services (METS) sector are finding that the key to successful innovation is collaboration with their industry and mining clients, ongoing research and continuous improvement practices. Carole Goldsmith reports.

This May, the CSIRO released its Mining Equipment, Technology and Services Roadmap, aimed at promoting growth in Australia’s $90bn METS sector. Launching the Roadmap, CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall said: “METS is an important Australian sector and a global leader, but it can’t rely on past successes in a rapidly changing global landscape. The sector must continue to innovate and take advantage of enabling technologies and new business models which are causing disruption across industries.”

Developed in collaboration with the METS Ignited Industry Growth Centre, as well as government, industry and researchers, the Roadmap urges companies to take action to unlock key opportunities in the mining sector. It highlights the vital role that the METS sector will play in the nation’s innovation ecosystem to drive change to meet future global mining challenges and metal supplies.

CSIRO Mineral Resources Director Jonathan Law says the METS Roadmap identified five key growth opportunities to support the continued success of the METS sector. These are: data-driven mining decisions; social and environmental sustainability; exploration under cover; advanced extraction; and mining automation and robotics.

Law explains these sectors: “With data-driven mining decisions and readily available data, mining companies can now run their mines in a much more efficient way than in the past. Those mining companies that can translate the data into new mining strategies or operational efficiencies will do well.

“Around the world, all industries must also be concerned with social and environmental sustainability. New web and app-based technologies are poised to track company performance to enable companies to better manage their triple bottom line responsibilities. Social and environmental performance will be a key differentiator of tomorrow’s successful mining companies.

“Regarding exploration under cover, around 70% of Australia’s bedrock surface area is buried under transported sedimentary cover that obscures underlying mineralised areas. There is an entire range of technology and equipment required for exploring through this cover.

“In advanced extraction, mining companies need advanced drilling and cutting technologies, sensors and ore sorting equipment, but of course the real value lies in the effective integration of these technologies. With mining automation and robotics, the future will require a complex network of inter-connected technologies ranging from robotics, artificial intelligence, communication architecture, cutting tools and complex man-machine interfaces. Mining3 (a collaborative research partnership) is currently working to build these technologies in partnership with researchers, miners and METS sector partners who share a common vision.”

According to Law, METS companies need to collaborate with each other and with mining companies to develop products to support these mining industry growth sectors. The CSIRO report unpicks the key technology elements to identify opportunities for the METS sector through exciting new technological developments.

“There has been an explosion of discrete point solution technologies into the mining sector and the industry in battling to bring them all together to deliver valuable benefit,” Law adds. “Similarly, the METS sector is struggling with the same issue as they seek to engage the miners, who are reluctant to test new technologies in operating mines with expensive infrastructure and operating deadlines.”

Collaboration is key to success

“Collaboration will be key to success, which is why we’re working with METS and mining companies, as well as organisations such as METS Ignited and Austmine to develop and accelerate the commercialisation of new advanced technologies,” says Law. “Innovation is providing METS companies with competitive export opportunities, while delivering benefits to Australia’s mining industry and the nation’s economy.”

Law says that CSIRO is working with several innovative manufacturing companies to support commercialisation. CSIRO Kick-Start is a new initiative that offers dollar-matched funding of up to $50,000 to enable research projects for start-ups and small businesses that are on their way to becoming Australian success stories.

Tomcar Australia is one of six businesses to receive the the first funding and is using it to do feasibility research into electrification of its modified off-grid, off-road vehicles with CSIRO’s Manufacturing team. The work will provide an integrated systems solution tailored to Tomcar Australia’s vehicles, and builds on CSIRO’s electric motors expertise. Following the feasibility testing, Tomcar Australia plans to continue collaboration with CSIRO in the development of prototypes and full production of Australia’s first electric vehicle, forecasted for a 2018 launch.

“Our Tomcar Australia team greatly appreciates the CSIRO Kick-Start funding and on-going collaboration that we have with CSIRO in the electric vehicle feasibility research and getting it to market,” says Tomcar Australia co-founder and CEO David Brim. “Working closely with CSIRO’s Director Manufacturing Dr Keith McLean and his researchers, we recently finished the initial feasibility study for our electric vehicles.”

Law offers some possible ways that METS manufacturers could be more innovative. “They can develop integrated products that will minimise disruption when they are deployed in the mining site’s operations. Also, they need to build the right partnerships in the mining, research and METS sectors. This virtuous triad of stakeholders can ensure that the research and service sector deliver the products that mining companies need.

“Mining productivity is increasingly dependent on integrating specialist technologies such as real-time sensors, mineral analysers and complex data, and the METS sector is vital in achieving this vision and shaping mining’s future.”

Tomcar Australia – A winning innovator

Last year Tomcar Australia won an AusIndustry Business of the Year Award for Innovation, in recognition of its foresight, resilience and innovative achievements. Brim is every proud of this award, paying tribute to the Tomcar Australia team, as well as the suppliers and clients who have all helped his company succeed. Tomcar Australia’s vehicles are produced for the mining industry by its manufacturing partner MtM, at its factory in Oakleigh, in Melbourne’s south-east.

“All of our vehicles are designed by the Tomcar Australia team and hand-built by MtM staff, to world-class standards and made to order,” explains Brim. “The vehicle was originally designed by Tomcar Australia for the defence industry, and it has been modified for the mining sector. It has the same chassis (base frame) as our defence vehicles, but for mining, the chassis is coated with a non-corrosive titanium and zinc coating. This is designed to reduce corrosion when the vehicle is underground.”

The Mine Spec LV1 diesel-powered mining light vehicle (LV), which was launched in May last year, has several other features that set it apart from the company’s other vehicles. Among these are the different seats and sealed cabins, while all aluminium parts have been replaced with stainless steel components. Brim advises that Tomcar Australia vehicles are the only standard car in the world with the certified Roll Over Protection Structure (ROPS).

Tomcar Australia has quickly developed a reputation in the defence sector as a designer and manufacturer of high-quality military LVs. It has also been producing LVs for the agricultural sector in recent years.

“We were approached by the mining industry a couple of years ago, to design a mining LV,” Brim explains. “These have been designed as diesel fuel-powered vehicles and trialled at several mining sites around the country.”

Plans are underway for an electric LV, due for launch in 2018. Tomcar Australia will be designing these electric mining LVs to last an entire shift on one charge. Brim says that the proposed EV-zero emissions feature will cut diesel discharges and pollutants from mines and save thousands of dollars each month through cheaper capital costs and fuel charges.

Tomcar Australia is currently producing 100 LVs annually, with plans for 5,000 LVs per year in the future. With the last of the big car companies ceasing manufacturing operations in Australia by the end of 2017, Tomcar Australia will soon hold the status of Australia’s last remaining car maker.

“Automotive manufacturing has been operating in Australia for almost 100 years and we still do not have an Australian brand. I want to change this with Tomcar Australia,” says Brim. “Australia needs a burgeoning car industry, just like the UK reinvented itself. The UK is now a specialist manufacturer of F1 motor sports vehicles. This country needs niche auto manufacturers, like Tomcar Australia, where the IP stays in Australia.”

Donhad – A culture of continuous improvement

Donhad manufactures high-quality technically advanced grinding media and forged products, servicing the global mining industry. In business for just over 50 years, the company operates three manufacturing operations, strategically located in Perth, Newcastle and Townsville.

“To remain a successful manufacturer in Australia, it is vital to have a continuous improvement culture,” says Noor Crookshanks, Donhad’s Sales Marketing and Innovation Director. “We are a fervent supporter of Lean manufacturing which we practice at all our sites.”

Lean manufacturing aims to produce zero waste, with a focus on providing value and excellent service for the customer via key systems and smooth processes that are continuously improved. According to Crookshanks, Donhad works on both sustaining innovation and disruptive innovation initiatives. In sustaining innovation, incremental improvements are made that sustain and improve an existing product or process. Disruptive innovation represents a step change that helps to create new business models, markets, products and customer bases.

“In sustaining innovation, we are doing incremental changes in the business,” Crookshanks explains. “As one example, we are becoming more efficient in reducing waste in our manufacturing plants. We have employee suggestion schemes and other systems to help cut the waste. Also, we are operating our plants using the Kaizen production system.”

Targeting disruptive innovation, Crookshanks says that Donhad is collaborating with external partners including customers and other stakeholders in the mining value chain: “We are asking customers if they have problems that we can help resolve together to add further value to our respective businesses. Lean manufacturing with continuous improvement systems has been imbedded in the Donhad business for over seven years.”

Donhad was founded in 1965 in Bassendean, Western Australia, where its head office is still located. Today the company is part of the US-listed Valmont Industries and employs 137 people. Donhad manufactures semi-autogenous grinding (SAG) and roll-forged ball grinding media, engineering forgings and a range of specialised forged critical fasteners for use in the mining, mineral processing and engineering industries. Donhad primarily serves the Australia, New Zealand and Asia Pacific markets, and over the past 50 years has exported products to customers in Africa, Europe, North and South America, and the Middle East.

Crookshanks explains that grinding media comes in a range of forms, such as balls and rods (sizes from 27mm to 140mm balls), and is made of steel alloy or carbon steel. Grinding media is instrumental in the comminution process (reducing material such as mineral ore to minute particles or fragments) as it aids in size reduction, which further allows the viable minerals to be economically extracted. This uses a mechanism that increases the reactive surface area of the minerals, which then increases the kinetics of its extraction in the concentration step within the mineral-processing plant.

“In Perth, where we started in 1965, the company was involved in forging products for the mining sector,” Crookshanks continues. “Then Donhad started producing grinding media and this created a lot of demand for our grinding balls. The company eventually moved into automation and a continuous roll forming line. The mining sector customers told us that they needed product in New South Wales and Queensland to supply the mines there. All of our three facilities are located near our markets and close to ports for exporting our products.”

Donhad provides world-class technical service and support to its mining customers and maintains an in-house R&D and testing laboratory that is NATA and SGS-quality accredited. The company has recently developed HiCarb, a range of branded grinding media that represents the latest technical development from its continuous improvement initiatives.

“The HiCarb product has been produced to provide a higher wear resistance, improved operational life and help reduce milling costs through improved throughput on a cost/tonne basis,” says Crookshanks. “We have patented HiCarb technology in Australia and across our key global markets and we have had a very good response from clients to this latest innovation.

“Donhad is building on the HiCarb success with further product and process development initiatives with a range of collaboration partners including customers and industry stakeholders,” Crookshanks says. “Our focus is on technology to provide big data modelling of key mill process metrics. This capability would enable operators to optimise the comminution process and achieve a step change in power usage, processing rates and grinding efficiency.”