Automation, Digitization: Key for Underground Mining
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Automation, Digitization: Key for Underground Mining

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Perla Velasco By Perla Velasco | Journalist and Industry Analyst - Wed, 02/01/2023 - 18:11

In 2022, Mexican authorities announced that no more permits for open-pit mining projects will be issued during López Obrador’s remaining term, set to end in September 2024. While some companies are opting more for separate underground operations, others have decided to keep trying to advance their open-pit projects. For those looking to go underground, technological advancements provide a slew of advantages, industry experts said.

Nevertheless, technology does not stall, advancements in technology have altered the outlook for underground and open-pit operations. According to Ariel Navarro, VP Exploration, Reyna Gold, one of underground mining’s biggest challenges is sticking to stricter rules and regulations. “It is very important to understand that in mining, you do not really choose what type of mining you resort to. Nature chooses and companies must adapt their operations to these conditions,” says Navarro.

There may be a reason why underground mines are less of an issue to Mexico’s government. “Regulation favors underground mining the most because open-pit projects are more eye-catching. Lawmakers appear to be responding to the general public’s concerns. It is clear then that our challenge is a public relations matter,” said Arturo Vaca Durán, Vice President Energy and Technology, Peñoles.

Vaca also emphasized that modern mines must adhere to the strictest security and environmental standards. If the mining sector did a better job of communicating these practices, the perspective on mining and regulation would change drastically.

Furthermore, experts agreed that mining technology has greatly helped to further achieve ESG targets. Among the most beneficial developments, experts mentioned electrification, automation and digitalization. “The mining industry has shown that it can evolve and meet all the challenges imposed on its operations. Today, mining ought to be clean, safe, efficient and friendly to the environment. We should be proud that everyday mining is forging ahead despite these challenges and doing so while improving its practices,” said René Valle, General Manager, MacLean Engineering. Moreover, experts said that by looking at environmental, social and governance (ESG) benchmark compliance, the authorities can be certain that the mining industry is a responsible one.

Valle explained that the deployment of automation and digitization technologies was a great opportunity to attract new talent to the mining industry. Nevertheless, he underlined training and education are paramount to this end. “We are excited about what the machines are capable of doing but it is the people who control and develop them that truly create value,” he added. Valle pointed out the capacity to train workers under simulations so that they can gain valuable experience without being exposed as a boon to operational safety.

Rodrigo Guzmán, Underground product & Sales Support Lead, Epiroc, discussed the advantages of implementing state-of-the-art technology, which is constantly evolving and can tackle production issues, improve safety and protect the environment. However, he recognized investment as a challenge to further implement solutions. “Technology always has a cost and excessive spending can detract further investment. Nevertheless, as we have seen, these investments can be recovered in short periods and dramatically increase safety and productivity. It is our job to demonstrate that these solutions are worth the money,” said Guzmán. “They mean that we can carry out our operations, drastically diminishing safety risks for the personnel,” Navarro concurred.

Automation may add a wealth of value to underground projects. Mining insiders agreed on the advantages of running autonomous technology in the mines. In addition to this, electrification sets another key trend for mining. According to Gabriel Furlong, Director of Mining Business Development, Austrade, electrification is an energy trend as much as it is a mining issue. He added that the transition toward new electricity technologies is a matter of culture. Furlong therefore insisted on education regarding best practices that can greatly enhance safety standards and productivity results.

“Great strides are being made in optimizing underground mining. Although some developments are still in the initial stages, there is no doubt that we have made progress as an industry. It is important to continue training ourselves and our staff. For this, private and public support is important. Hopefully, these new technologies can also help the public understand that the mining industry implements best practices wherever possible,” explained Navarro.

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