New technological solutions are needed as mining proceeds to ever greater depth. Above all, the future mine will place higher demands on automation and digitalization. This is a prerequisite for mining a greater depth in the Kiruna mine. "We are already operating three automated loaders and in December we will scale up to five units," says Mikael Winsa, production manager at LKAB's mine in Kiruna.
Automated loading, or remote loading, is nothing new. LKAB was actually a pioneer of a technology that has advanced with great strides since automated loading first saw the light of day, or rather darkness, at LKAB back in 2000.
“The infrastructure is much better today and there are better conditions for doing it really well. All of the components to make this work, for example, the network, are now more mature and stabler,” Magnus Lindgren, who is production manager for remote operations. Magnus has been with LKAB since1994 and worked with the first driverless loaders when they were first introduced.
Today three Sandvik LHD621 loaders are operated from a control room at level 1365 in the mine. Sandvik has also provided the software, i.e., the automation system that makes it possible to control the machines at some distance from the production area.
“The traffic system has revolutionized automated loading. It allows us to run several machines at the same time, in the same area, and back and forth to the same destination. This is a great leap forward in terms of technology and development,” adds Mikael Winsa.
The automation system Multi-Lite enables greater flexibility by creating better prerequisites for increasing production, i.e., the number of tonnes delivered to the shafts per 24-hour period.
“We can boost production in one area from around 3,000 tonne to 5,000 tonnes, since we can run more machines, even at night time,” says Mikael Winsa.
This means that significantly more buckets of ore can be hauled when all hours of the day and night can be utilized effectively, something which is not possible with conventional loaders after blasting, since co-workers cannot be exposed to blasting gases.
“In some ways, this is a completely new approach to loading and production. It’s very exciting to take part in this journey and contribute to a solution for mining at greater depth,” says Magnus Lindgren, continuing, “We are also in the starting phase to launch Epiroc’s remote loading. The system is now being fine-tuned and we plan to commission the traffic system early in the new year.
The automated loaders navigate through the drifts safely and efficiently. Cameras are installed at the front and back of the machine, which means that the operator can follow the loading progression in real time. In addition, one operator can run several machines simultaneously.
“We are able to increase both availability and production by operating more automated loaders. But this doesn’t mean that the manually operated machines have outlived their usefulness. It just means that we have more tools i our toolbox,” explains Magnus Lindgren.
And the flexibility this enables is the key to mining the Kiruna mine at greater depth, not least after the seismic event that occurred on May 18th, affecting much of the production areas. This has meant that fewer areas must produce more ore. In that context, automated loaders are decisive.
“We are always taking small steps forward. It feels like we’ve crossed a threshold and can see many new possibilities leading into the future,” concludes Mikael Winsa.