Is there a role for the best Australian mining technology in eastern Russia, do Australian mine safety messages translate well in that part of the world? In Phil Goode's experience the answer to both questions is a resounding "dah"! A new project with diamond giant Alrosa adds the exclamation mark.
Successful transfer of Australian remote control technology and know-how to Russia has been a progressive affair for Remote Control Technologies. RCT, the leading supplier of advanced remote control and automation to Australasian mines over the past 30 years, completed its first remote project in Kazakhstan in 1998 and has worked in Russia for more than a decade.
But the new project completed with Caterpillar equipment dealer Vostochnaya Technica (VT) for Russia's largest diamond producer Alrosa represents a major milestone for one of the world's premier niche technology companies.
The supply and commissioning of a fully integrated Teleremote surface mining solution at the Udachny openpit mine in the permafrost region of Yakutia, Siberia, has brought a conspicuous level of control and predictability to an operation that works continuously in a brutal and volatile environment. A year after the project was awarded to VT and RCT, four Caterpillar 740B trucks and a Cat 993K loader are operated simultaneously - and safely - from a purpose-built dual operator station caravan similar to many RCT has deployed in Australasia, Africa and other parts of the world. In Siberia, though, the caravan is a 'polar standard hut' procured by VT.
Teleremote mining at Udachny allows the 993K to extract ore quickly from blasted benches 15-25m high. The 740B articulated trucks are manoeuvred into the loading position on Teleremote, then driven to safe ground where operators take control for the longer tram to in-mine stockpiles.
RCT's integrated turnkey solution allows day and night operation in extreme environmental conditions; from freezing cold to hot and dusty, with rockfalls a distinct possibility during loading, and wet, boggy and steep underfoot mine conditions. The mine, more than 50 years old already well into the move to underground production, has a pocket of about 1.5 million tonnes of diamond ore in 3.5Mt of material that is expected to take about one year to recover.
"It's being mined in the harshest conditions I have ever seen," said Goode, who has visited and worked at mines around the world for the past 40 years.
"The mine is a real credit to them, which I mentioned in our meetings. There is some instability and slips and it will get worse when they take out the two or three benches that contain ore."
Russian Government-backed Alrosa completed extensive research over a number of years to examine the economics of an openpit cut-back versus remote mining of the diamond-rich remnant ore. Alrosa executives were shown remote controlled Caterpillar machines outside Russia, by local VT managers, which inspired confidence that remote mining could be viable. Alrosa produced a comprehensive technical specification outlining its mining objectives. RCT, working with VT, prepared a project scope of work including engineering and operational risk itemisation to meet the documented specifications.
Goode, whose first visit to the region near the end of 2012 happily coinciding with the coldest winter in Siberia for 50 years, met with VT executives and managers in Novosibirsk and then travelled with VT to Mirny in the Mirninsky district (near the diamond mine of the same name) for discussions with Alrosa regional head office directors, executives and representatives of the group's technical university.
International companies working in Russia have long highlighted the extent to which translation difficulties can make communication difficult, but a key message Goode wanted to get through was that RCT wouldn't work to the experimental technical specifications. It would only deliver reliable proven technology that would work from day one.
A drive to the Udachny mine in minus-50C and meetings with some 35 senior mine managers and engineering staff followed then VT entered final negotiations with Alrosa before the latter sent a senior delegation to Perth, Western Australia, to meet RCT leaders and visit its facilities. They were suitably impressed, with demonstrated capabilities. The project was formally awarded to VT & RCT late in March 2013.
"This project required input across every department of RCT," Goode said. "It's the biggest single and most technically complex offshore integrated solution delivered turn-key by RCT to date.
"Again this has demonstrated our ability to provide industry-leading technology solutions that make mining safer and more productive, on time and within budget, anywhere in the world.
"It's important in terms of what we're doing in the Russian and CIS market because Alrosa is an internationally recognised major miner, they are also watched closely domestically too.
"The Russia and CIS mining market ranks alongside African mining countries in terms of technology uptake. They are using technology to improve mine production and to demonstrate a safer approach as public scrutiny increases. Both markets have a mix of old and new mines doing mechanised mining and there are fleets of equipment that are actually important earners in the context of a country's GDP.
"We remain confident we can supply technology anywhere that helps improve mine safety and production, this provides essential building blocks for smarter mining operations and better jobs."
After a mine site audit by RCT's integrated solutions engineer in mid-2013, during which some technology was tested on machines and in the mine, all subsequent testing, manufacturing and assembly took place in Australia before the bulk of the installations were completed at Udachny in October and November last year.
Commissioning and then comprehensive training was completed earlier this year.
RCT mobilised five of its customer service and integrated solutions technicians and engineers to the mine to ensure a maximum transfer of OEM knowledge and experience to VT and the Alrosa team. Training focused on up-skilling operators and maintenance personnel so they can sustain maximum utilisation of the Teleremote mining system.
VT managed Russian certification and approval, importation, documentation translation and mine logistics, and deployed a hand-picked group of technicians to complete mine installation, testing and commissioning with RCT.
"VT will provide local after sales service with RCT providing ongoing OEM support," Goode said.
Alrosa and other Russian miners are understood to be keen to pursue machine control and automation projects. The former has identified similar remnant ore situations in its other opencut mines.
Underground Teleremote installations have been a big driver of RCT's business in Australia and other parts of the world in recent years and opportunities are clearly emerging in this area too in Russia.
"All the major miners I've visited in Russia and the CIS of late are using technology in some form to improve their mining performance and safety," Goode said.
"We have done business in Kazakhstan and Russia starting back in 1998, and six out of the 16 regions' major miners are using RCT remote technology supported by RCT via Caterpillar dealers. We see significant sales potential in these markets as we connect locally we envisage putting in local technical support next for customers."
The company most recently appointed a new business development manager in Moscow to support Russian and CIS customers.
Connections forged remotely with mines in the region are set to become stronger while the Alrosa Teleremote project should signal the biggest endorsement of all.