Mining company Boliden is sitting on a gold mine of future technology

In an industry that, globally, is struggling to adapt to digitalization, Boliden stands out having undergone a digital transformation and having positioned itself in the vanguard of automation. The world’s largest mining giants – which are up to ten times larger than Boliden – are way behind the curve on digitalization. Boliden therefore has had a real head start, having, among other things, launched remote-controlled wheel loaders and drilling rigs. The mining company is also about to replace Wi-Fi networks with its own telecom network.

The introduction of new technology is first and foremost about making the mines even safer for employees – Boliden, for instance, 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. In comparison with, for example, the construction industry, the Swedish mining industry is statistically safer.

Productivity and safety are keywords when it comes to Boliden’s process work.

– We are working a lot more with business development today. We have our own lean program with a strong focus on the new technologies’ work methods, which we have developed in cooperation with our partners. As soon as the technology is available, it has to work well with our production lines as well. That’s where I believe many others tend to fail – they buy new technology, but don’t get it to work properly, says Peter J Burman, program manager for the Mine Automation Program at Boliden.

VR technology in the mine

It is important for Boliden to introduce the new technology in concert with the unions and to train employees, since in many cases it affects everything from how work shifts are scheduled to how the daily work is to be carried out.

– A concrete example: if you give all the miners tablets, which we have done in Renströmsgruvan, the result is that all employees carry a computer and have access to the same intranet. It would be strange if something like that didn’t affect the way you do your job. An important conclusion is that we have to be careful about telling the staff exactly how the job should be done. Mine automation isn’t really about technology but about the people who are going to use it, says Peter.

Peter J Burman predicts that in the next five to ten years the technology development will go faster than it has done the past 50 years. In the future, the mine will be available in Virtual Reality and it is highly likely that drones will be used underground to inspect the mines. Boliden has also initiated a project together 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. Then we’ll be able to avoid the risk of someone digging through a cable halfway to Stockholm, says Peter.

Mobile Control rooms

Boliden has also implemented mobile control rooms at the enrichment plants where the processes are largely carried out with remote controlled technology. In Aitikgruvan’s open pit, Boliden already has remote-controlled drilling rigs and in Kankbergsgruvan, driverless wheel loaders are being tested. The next step deals with driverless small dump trucks.

Several machine manufacturers have shown interest in collaborating with Boliden as they can contribute with a completely unique test environment with four networked mines.

– Where is the ultimate test environment of a driverless truck if not in a mine? No human life is at risk and you can establish the truck’s exact position. But all the information that comes from the machine suppliers should be applicable in another dimensions – imagine if we can get all the machine suppliers who work with driverless vehicles to share the information to the same database, Peter says and continues:

– Then we would be able to build a “street view” of the mine where you can see the deformations in the rock. At the same time, the geologists could see how the rock sits and moves or monitor the stones that fall from the roof of the mine, in real time. This kind of data will give us fantastic opportunities in the future, he says.

More electric trucks

Unlike many other mining companies, Boliden has its own smelters, such as 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 heating from the electronics materials.

Boliden is constantly striving for sustainable production lines where a high percentage of the material that is consumed can be reused or recycled. As part of reducing environmental impact and emissions, the first electrically-powered truck in the pilot project for the electrification of transport at Aitik has started to roll – and more are planned. The goal is that most of the approximately 70 million tons of rock that is transported annually in the open pit can be moved without the use of fossil fuels. The pilot project is supported by the Swedish Energy Agency and is carried out together with a number of partners, including ABB and Eitech, who are responsible for the electrical infrastructure. Caterpillar and Pon Equipment contribute by rebuilding the trucks.

– It is precisely this type of development that we want to see, that will result in benefits for the whole industry. The more companies that work with this, the better and more cost-effective the technology will be, says Jonas Ranggård, the Boliden employee responsible for the pilot project.

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