From a console in Las Vegas during MINExpo International 2021, a Komatsu employee teleoperated a new hydraulic excavator at the company’s proving grounds in Tucson, Arizona, more than 400 miles away.
An audience gathered around a stage set up among Komatsu’s towering exhibits at the September trade show while an announcer described the mission and movements of Jeff Davis, senior equipment operator, who manipulated the mining machine’s controls.
Above the stage, large monitors broadcast the driver’s view and a live video stream of the PC7000-11 teleremotely scooping, swinging and dumping ore into a dump truck.
“I don’t have to be out in the real environment operating where it is sometimes dusty and dirty,” Davis told Mining the West magazine.
He has 24 years of open-pit mining experience and has worked with Komatsu for the past seven years.
“That’s awesome,” one observer said over the applause when the demonstration concluded.
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Komatsu’s live demonstration was one of the products and services that some of the approximately 1,400 participating companies debuted or demonstrated at the event, which boasted a focus on sustainability.
‘Clear business focus’
MINExpo International is hosted by the National Mining Association every four years, although the 2020 event was postponed until this year because of COVID-19.
“With a show like this, the importance of the in-person experience cannot be overstated,” said Ashley Burke, NMA head of communications, in an email after the event. “Taken together, the equipment, products and services that are so essential to our industry – the interactions with technical experts on the show floor – just can’t be fully appreciated in a virtual environment.”
Turnout this year tallied about 22,000 registrants compared to a peak attendance of 40,000 in the expo’s history since the 1990s, Burke said. About 30 countries sent representatives to the event.
“But we consider this to be a year unlike any other and are extremely pleased with turnout from both exhibitors and participants,” Burke said. “In fact, we received feedback that this year was even more valuable than in previous years because, while the number of attendees was lower than in the past, those who did attend came with a clear business focus and the format allowed for in-depth interactions and valuable discussions.”
Sustainability of mining, planet
Valuable discussions took center stage during the opening panel and five education sessions covering environmental, social and governance issues; safety; diversity, equity and inclusion; environmental challenges and artificial intelligence, in keeping with this year’s event’s focus on sustainability.
How emerging technologies like Komatsu’s remote-operated and automated equipment help the industry achieve safety, production and environmental goals became a repeated subject.
Those topics and the ability to discuss them in person came at “a truly a remarkable moment for mining,” said NMA President and CEO Rich Nolan during his welcome speech. “Never has the policy agenda meant so much to mining and simultaneously relied so much on our industry to achieve it.”
Nolan referred to the nation’s need for mined materials to rebuild infrastructure, support economic recovery, help provide reliable, affordable energy, restore manufacturing and build a secure domestic supply chain.
Yet he also pointed out the paradox of some federal policymakers’ demand for progress in those areas while others want to suppress the industry.
“Even with this positive momentum, there is in the U.S., some concerning efforts in Congress that would make the industry less competitive on the global stage,” Nolan said, citing proposed royalties and fees being debated in Congress.
He encouraged attendees to galvanize globally to address forecasted demand for minerals, especially those essential in the push to go green, such as lithium.
Lithium is expected to grow in demand 40-fold by 2040, he said. Demand for graphite, cobalt and nickel are slated to increase 20 to 25 times each, while copper demand will double.
To meet the worldwide appetite for minerals, Nolan predicted that mine operators will enact responsible mining practices and embrace many of the emerging technologies shared at this year’s mine expo.
Exhibitors sharing their new products at the Las Vegas Expo Center included Epiroc, with an underground jumbo drill with expanded reach; Mincon with its portable Rock Drill technology and a more efficient form of drill pipe; ASI Mining with its Mobius software to convert mine equipment into autonomous equipment; and many more.
As evidenced by the displays, support companies are hoping to help miners meet their goals of increasing safety and efficiency while reducing environmental impact with help from technology.
Yet adopting new technology will not happen overnight, mining company and support industry leaders explained during an opening panel discussion.
“We’ve got an enormous amount of work to do,” said Mark Bristow, president and CEO of Barrick Gold Corp., during the opening panel discussion. “It is easy to talk, but technical delivery is going to be the challenge.”
Barrick is the majority owner the Nevada Gold Mines joint venture in northeastern Nevada where the company operates the world’s largest gold mining complex. Newmont Corp. is the minority owner.
Technology and innovation also needs investment, panelists said.
“As an industry, we’ve always rushed to comply instead of, in a considered fashion, invested,” Bristow said. “An expo like this has to be a forum where we all align ourselves in re-engineering our industry for the future.”
As an example, Komatsu Mining Corp. President and CEO Jeffrey Dawes described the challenge a mine might face if it converted a fleet of 70 trucks to electric power. The site would then require an additional 50 megawatts of electricity to operate, and that electricity would need to be green power. Suddenly, the scope of the project goes from only swapping diesel for batteries to building new power generation sources and updating distribution infrastructure.
To help achieve their goals for safety, environmental standards and production through technology, developers discussed needing to work with operators earlier.
Komatsu’s relationship with customers is more collaborative today than it was a few decades ago, Dawes said:
“We have to involve them in our development process much earlier than before because their investment in infrastructure … is millions of dollars and requires them to do a lot of work as well in parallel, so we can come together as an industry so we can have a solution down the track before the 2030 guideline that has been set.”
A 2030 guideline for emissions reductions that Dawes referenced requires that committing companies decrease greenhouse gases before the end of this decade. Mining companies around the world have pledged to meet emissions goals, along with other environmental standards.
“There have been some very significant commitments made about greenhouse gas production, and now we have to work out how are we going to meet those commitments,” Dawes said, adding his company entered into an alliance to build a zero-emissions truck that can run on diesel, battery, trolley or hydrogen fuel cells.
The commitment to decarbonization begins further up the supply chain, and companies like Komatsu and Caterpillar Inc. acknowledge their role in the process.
“As you look as the communities on a local basis that we serve, we are certainly recognizing that we play a part in the ecosystem of a mine site in a way that can contribute to everything from noise emission to actual carbon reduction,” said Denise Johnson, group president for Caterpillar’s Resource Industries, on the panel. “So as we look at providing solutions, we are looking more holistically across the site in ensuring that we have the right technologies available during the right timeline.”
Yet Bristow said mines’ responsibilities go beyond commitments to the environment. He proposed that because the United States is a first-world country with well-run mines, it has an opportunity to set an example in additional ways.
“I think what you see today, and you see in the exhibits, is the ability for this country to really lead the world in technology and innovation, and I think that’s what we need. At the same time, one of the things is, it’s all very well looking at the GHG [greenhouse gases] and emissions but there is a broader ESG [environment, social and governance] base to our responsibility.”
That includes participating in and supporting the communities where the businesses operate, partly through investments to improve quality of life.
“Poverty is equally as destructive as greenhouse gas emissions,” said Bristow, who grew up in South Africa. “… So we’ve got a big challenge ahead of us as the developed world, the privileged few, to not only worry about the globe as a whole but also the people that actually live on the globe.”
Global social issues such as those Bristow put forward fall under most companies’ programs that consider the social, environmental and governance effects of their operations, known by the acronym ESG. Stakeholders including the government, environmental groups, local communities and investors are putting increased pressure on mining companies to adopt ESG policies.
Rules and standards around the environmental and governance aspects of an ESG program help keep companies accountable, but the social component is a little more nebulous.
“There is no question we’re all going to follow the rules and regulations, but I think the fact is, for us to be profitable and thrive, we have to go beyond that,” said panelist Paul Lang, president and CEO of Arch Resources Inc., a coal mining company and U.S. producer of metallurgical products for the steel industry.
That’s partly because the social aspect of running a large business like a mine affects the community and a company’s acceptance.
“Today, your license to operate as a miner is probably more important that the legal license to mine,” Bristow said, explaining that the key stakeholders in the industry have shifted from shareholders to host countries, states and communities.
“If you ask 100 people, “’What do you know about ESG?’ The first thing they want to talk about is the ‘E,’ the environmental part,” said panelist Jimmy Brock, president and CEO of CONSOL Energy, a coal mining company. “No one wants to talk about the social part … I mean, what happens to these communities when these mining companies pull out or we when we don’t invest in those communities? It’s devastating to them. They never overcome it, for the most part.”
To combat economic bust when a mine or large business closes, many companies invest in local economies and people. Komatsu, for example, offers employee skills training that can be applied to other jobs, Dawes said. Barrick through Nevada Gold Mines contributed to a revolving loan fund to help small business.
The wider community in this country also includes young people who care about the environment; women who might like to enter the workforce but need quality childcare; and existing employees who want meaningful, high-wage jobs with responsible companies.
“For us to sustain civilization and give everyone a chance to live their lives, we need serious investment not only in mining but in the skills required to be responsible miners,” Bristow said.
As the expo came to a close, a first-time attendee reflected on the past three days.
“I learned so much by talking to the vendors and looking at the equipment,” said Jackson Partlow, a geologist with PELA GeoEnvironmental in Alabama, who attended to earn continuing education credits.
“The technological advances—we see it coming in so many different ways, but I saw a guy drilling with an automated rig in Tucson, Arizona from a chair here at the expo,” he said, referring to another Komatsu live demonstration.
“You better be paying attention to that,” he said. ￼