Boliden is sitting on a gold mine of future technology
In an industry that globally remains in traditional mining, Boliden has undergone a digital transformation and positioned itself as one of the world's leading mines in terms of automation. Where the biggest mining giants - which can be ten times larger than Boliden - have not done their homework in digitisation, Boliden has already come a long way, launching remote-controlled wheel loaders and drill rigs, among others. The mining company is also in the process of replacing wifi networks with its own telecoms network.
The introduction of new technology is largely about making mines even safer for employees, and Boliden, for example, was the first in the world to use wireless networks in its mines for voice calls and 3D positioning. Overall, the Swedish mining industry has come a long way. Compared to the construction industry, for example, the Swedish mining industry is statistically safer.
Productivity and safety are strong keywords in Boliden's process work - tell us more about it.
- We work more with business development today. We have our own Lean programme with a strong focus on the new technology way of working that we have developed in collaboration with our partners. Once the technology is there, it has to work in production. That's where I find many others fall down - they buy new technology but can't make it work," says Peter J Burman, programme manager for the mine automation programme at Boliden.
VR technology in the mine
It is important for Boliden to embed the new technology with trade unions and to train employees, as in many cases it affects everything from shift patterns and work management to how daily work is carried out.
- As a concrete example, giving all miners tablets, as we have done in the Renstrom mine, means that all employees carry a computer with them and have access to the same intranet. It would be strange if it didn't affect the way people work in the long run. One important conclusion is that we need to be careful about telling staff exactly how to do the job. Mine automation is not really about technology, but about the people who will use it," says Peter.
Peter J Burman sees the next five to ten years as a time when technology will develop faster than in 50 years. The mine of the future will be accessible in virtual reality and it is highly likely that drones will fly underground to inspect the rock. Boliden has also launched a project with Telia to build its own telecom network.
- With our own 5G network in the mines, we will be able to position all employees and machines underground. We won't have to worry about someone digging a cable halfway to Stockholm," says Peter.
Mobile control rooms
Boliden has also implemented mobile control rooms at the enrichment plants, where processes are largely carried out using remote-controlled technology. At the Aitik open pit mine, Boliden already has remote-controlled drilling rigs, and driverless wheel loaders are being tested at the Kankberg mine. The next chapter is about self-propelled small dump trucks.
Several machine manufacturers have shown interest in working with Boliden because they can contribute a unique test environment with four connected mines.
- Where is the ultimate test environment of a driverless truck if not in a mine? No human lives are at risk and they can get a precise location of where the truck is. But all this information coming from the machine suppliers should be applicable on an even larger scale - what if we could get all the machine suppliers working with driverless vehicles to share the information to the same database," Peter says and continues:
- "Then we could build a 'street view' of the mine where we can see the deformations in the rock. At the same time, geologists can see how the rock is settling, or measure all the rocks falling from the roof, in real time. The data information will give us great opportunities in the future," he says.
More electric trucks
Unlike many other mining companies, Boliden has its own smelters, including Boliden Rönnskär in Skelleftehamn. Boliden is a world leader in recycling metal from electronic materials and lead from car batteries. The Rönnskär plant reduces its emissions and also produces electricity and district heat from the electronic materials.
Boliden constantly strives for sustainable production where a high proportion of the material consumed can be reused or recycled. As part of the effort to reduce environmental impact and emissions, the first electric truck in the pilot project to electrify transport in Aitik has started rolling - and more are planned. The aim is to move most of the 70 million tonnes of rock transported annually from the opencast mine without the use of fossil fuels. The pilot project is supported by the Swedish Energy Agency and is being carried out with a number of partners, including ABB and Eitech, which is responsible for the electrical infrastructure. Caterpillar and Pon Equipment are contributing with the conversion of forklifts.
- This is exactly the kind of development we want to see to benefit the whole industry. The more companies that work with this, the better and more cost-effective the technology will be," says Jonas Ranggård, technical manager of the pilot project.