The mining industry continues to be a hotbed of innovation. Activity driven by the need for greater productivity as well as safety. Related to this, miners are using tunnelling machines in place of traditional drilling and blasting methods. Deployment of these potentially reduces disturbances to the geographic conditions thereby increasing safety. In the last three years alone, there have been over 48,000 patents filed and granted in the mining industry, according to GlobalData’s report on Robotics in Mining: Tunnelling Machines. Buy the report here.

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According to GlobalData’s Technology Foresights, which uses over 350,000 patents to analyse innovation intensity for the mining industry, there are 150+ innovation areas that will shape the future of the industry.

Tunnelling machines is a key innovation area in robotics

Tunnelling machines perform boring function, to excavate tunnels with a circular cross-section through a variety of soil and rock strata. These are used instead of drilling and blasting through rock and conventional mechanical excavation in soft ground and have been used for a variety of purposes as part of new and expanding mining projects, including new access, ore and waste conveyance, drainage, exploration, and water diversion.

Some of the benefits of using tunnelling machines include higher and more sustainable progress rates in generally good quality hard rock conditions. Lower ventilation is required, allowing for the construction of smaller tunnels and improved health conditions for workers who are not exposed to blast smoke and fumes. They also produce a smooth tunnel wall, which lowers the final lining cost. Tunnelling machines significantly reduce the total excavation time of long tunnels when compared to conventional excavation methods.

GlobalData’s analysis also uncovers the companies at the forefront of each innovation area and assesses the potential reach and impact of their patenting activity across different applications and geographies.  According to GlobalData, there are 10+ companies, spanning technology vendors, established mining companies, and up-and-coming start-ups engaged in the development and application of tunnelling machines.

Key players in tunnelling machines – a disruptive innovation in the mining industry  

‘Application diversity’ measures the number of different applications identified for each relevant patent. It broadly splits companies into either ‘niche’ or ‘diversified’ innovators.

‘Geographic reach’ refers to the number of different countries each relevant patent is registered in. It reflects the breadth of geographic application intended, ranging from ‘global’ to ‘local’.

Patent volumes related to tunnelling machines

Company Total patents (2010 - 2022) Premium intelligence on the world's largest companies
Komatsu 209 Unlock Company Profile
Sandvik 99 Unlock Company Profile
Joy MM Delaware 90 Unlock Company Profile
Caterpillar 67 Unlock Company Profile
Anglo American 56 Unlock Company Profile
Deere & Co 27 Unlock Company Profile
Tian Di Science & Technology 22 Unlock Company Profile
China Energy Investment 17 Unlock Company Profile
China Railway Tunnel Equipment Manufacturing 15 Unlock Company Profile
Shanxi Tiandi Coal Mining Machinery 11 Unlock Company Profile
Hyosung 6 Unlock Company Profile
Tiandi Shanghai Mining Equipment Technology 6 Unlock Company Profile

Source: GlobalData Patent Analytics

Leaders in tunnel machines include Komatsu and Sandvik. Amongst the innovations, Komatsu has partnered with Codelco to test a new tunnel excavation method using Komatsu's newly developed mining TBM. The mining TBM is outfitted with new technologies that allow it to adapt to small curves, reverse direction, and pass-through intersections in hard rock tunnel excavation. This new technology increases equipment flexibility and allows tunnels to be excavated in accordance with the more unique designs of each mine. The trial, which will begin in 2024 at Codelco's Chuquicamata mine in Chile, aims to accelerate the potential implementation of the new technology.

Similarly, Sandvik's tunnelling jumbos provide high productivity and dependability using face drilling, mechanised longhole drilling and bolting. The company’s tunnelling machines include DT1232i, DT923i (fully automated), DT1231, DT1131 (three-boom, electro-hydraulic), and DT912D (self-contained, air-mist flushing, diesel-hydraulic high reach single boom).

To further understand the key themes and technologies disrupting the mining industry, access GlobalData’s latest thematic research report on Mining.

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GlobalData, the leading provider of industry intelligence, provided the underlying data, research, and analysis used to produce this article. 

GlobalData’s Patent Analytics tracks patent filings and grants from official offices around the world. Textual analysis and official patent classifications are used to group patents into key thematic areas and link them to specific companies across the world’s largest industries.