Rio Tinto CEO Sam Walsh has revealed how a 2005 United States roadtrip inspired the company’s Mine of the Future automation program.
Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Walsh – who in 2005 led Rio’s iron ore operations – described taking his team to visit Stanford University and industrial giant Schlumberger, among others, in the search of global best practice.
“We deliberately did not visit a single mining company,” Walsh said.
“At Stanford we saw R&D programs for driverless tractors in farming. At Schlumberger we saw oil and gas platforms being remotely managed.”
Walsh drew direct parallels between what his team saw in the US and the directions they would later take under Mine of the Future.
The driverless tractor demonstration inspired the company to embrace autonomous haulage system (AHS) trucks, which now number 69 vehicles across Rio’s Pilbara sites.
“As they trundle back and forth from our mines, they are unmistakable harbingers of what the future holds,” Walsh said, noting efficiencies had been gained because they did not require things like breaks and shift changes.
Load and haul costs were cut by 13 percent, Rio Tinto revealed last year.
Meanwhile, the visit to Schlumberger would go on to inform the creation of Rio Tinto’s remote operations centre in Perth.
That centre now manages “15 iron ore mines, 1700 kilometers of rail, four ports, three power stations, and various other facilities in real time,” Walsh said.
Walsh said the centre helped Rio Tinto recruit people that it would have found difficult to attract to the Pilbara.
He also described how something as simple as a weather event could now be counteracted by rebalancing Pilbara production from Perth.
“If we see a mine slowing down because of heavy rain, for example, we can increase production elsewhere, maintain the consistency of our iron ore blend, and keep the whole show running,” he said.
The company has previously said that the “deep system visibility” enabled by Mine of the Future had enabled it to unlock additional iron ore capacity from its existing mine operations.
While other miners including BHP Billiton and Roy Hill have also gone down the automation path, Walsh reiterated his belief that Mine of the Future had given Rio Tinto a decade’s head-start on its rivals.