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Frances Penwill-Cook: What effect has the difficult economic climate had on the development of mining vehicle technologies?

Caterpillar: Caterpillar continued to invest in research and development of mining machines and machine management technology throughout the downturn, and recently announced new additions to the line of mining equipment and expansions in manufacturing capacity.

Specifically, Caterpillar continued testing pre-production models of the first AC electric drive mining truck ever produced by the company, and the truck will be commercially available soon. The 795F AC, with a payload capacity of 345t, has performed successfully in field testing and commercial delivery of several trucks will be made in late 2010. The truck features four-corner braking using proven Cat oil-immersed disc brakes and blended retarding using both an electric resistance grid and the disc brakes.

“In 2009, Caterpillar rolled out two new F-Series versions of the two largest trucks in the Cat line.”

In the fourth quarter of 2009 Caterpillar rolled out two new F-Series versions of the two largest trucks in the Cat line, the 797F and the 793F. The 400t-capacity 797F is the largest mechanical drive truck available. The F-Series model features the new Cat C175 20-cylinder diesel engine, which has been developed and adapted to mobile applications over the past few years. The engine develops 4,000hp in this application. Similarly, the 793F mining truck became commercially available in late 2009, filling the popular 250t-capacity niche. The 793F features the new Cat C175 16-cylinder engine, which produces 2,650hp in this application. The C175 is designed for high power output from a compact package (high power density), high fuel efficiency and reduced emissions.

FP-C: Are there any technologies in the pipeline that you see as potentially transforming the mining industry?

C: We have made significant progress on our autonomous haulage system – driverless mining trucks working in concert with other mining machines. The system now is being tested at the Tucson Proving Grounds in Arizona, US, and the first fleet of Cat autonomous trucks will start operating at a North American mine site in the first half of next year.

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As an upgrade to the Cat MineStar mining information management system and as a step toward the autonomous mine site, Caterpillar also introduced MineStar FleetCommander 3.0 last year. MineStar FleetCommander is an assignment and scheduling system that is a key building-block technology in the development of a Cat equipped autonomous mine. A key element is the FleetCommander 3.0 assignment engine, which provides closer integration with the digital mine site model. Additionally, algorithm optimisation and software improvements are targeted to future management of the Cat autonomous haulage system and autonomous drill system.

FP-C: How far has autonomous technology for mining come?

C: Another building block for autonomous mining machines, object detection, became commercially available in early 2010 for Cat large mining trucks. The Cat integrated object detection system is now in use on operator-driven trucks. The system aids an operator when starting to move a truck and during low speed manoeuvring. It combines cameras, radar, and alarms to notify the operator when an object is close to the machine but not in the operator’s field of vision. A display screen in the cab provides visual confirmation of the objects detected by radar, which enables the operator to make informed decisions when moving a mining machine.

In another move toward autonomous operation of underground machines, Caterpillar recently commercialised the MINEGEM system for semi-autonomous operation of load-haul-dump machines (LHDs). MINEGEM allows the operator to work from a safe and ergonomic workstation far from the LHD – either on the surface or underground without sacrificing machine productivity. The system enables the machine to autonomously steer during the hauling and return portions of the production cycle. The operator takes control during the loading and dumping portions of the cycle.

“Driverless mining trucks are being tested at the Tucson Proving Grounds in Arizona, US.”

The value of this system is that it boosts machine utilisation and saves time, because the operator does not have to travel from the surface to the machine. The MINEGEM system also increases productivity when tramming by operating in second gear over a first-gear operation for teleremote and line-of-sight systems. The system uses LADAR, a laser detection and ranging system, located on the front and rear of the machine, to provide spatial information. Cameras provide real-time video to the remote operator.

In June 2010, Caterpillar announced a multiyear investment of nearly $700m aimed at strengthening Caterpillar’s product lines and manufacturing capacity. Caterpillar will produce five hydraulic mining shovels ranging from a 125t model to an 800t model. The smallest shovel will be available commercially in 2011 and the larger shovels will be introduced in 2013 and 2014.

FP-C: Some mining companies are looking at working in different locations and harsher climates. How does this affect the type of vehicle technologies that Caterpillar develops and offers?

C: Global mining companies have long valued the ability to monitor machine productivity and machine health in detail. Cat machines and technology products enable those companies to gather and analyse data at the mine site or from a remote location. The systems enable experienced managers to view and act on information without physically visiting the mine site. The onboard electronics, such as the Cat VIMS monitoring system, and the Cat MineStar suite of technology products were developed to provide such capabilities.

Additionally, Caterpillar offers different machine configurations and options that enable a mining company to better adapt a machine to the mine conditions. For example, the popular 793F mining truck can be equipped with extended-life wheel stations for mines with long, uphill hauls. Conversely, the 793F can be equipped with additional retarding capacity for mines with long, downhill hauls.

Most Cat mining machines have options for extremely warm and for extremely cold climates. For example, for a truck operating in cold weather conditions, options could include body heat, engine coolant and oil heat for cold starts, and external heated mirrors.

FP-C: What type of vehicles are likely to be most in demand from your range at Caterpillar and what stands out technology-wise in relation to these vehicles?

“The Cat integrated object detection system is now in use on operator-driven trucks.”

C: Mining trucks continue to be the most populous machines at most mine sites. Demand for them as well as other mining vehicles continues to be strong. Caterpillar designs and manufactures a broad line of surface-mining machines, which include trucks, track-type tractors (bulldozers), wheel dozers, wheel loaders, motor graders and wheel tractor-scrapers. Cat hydraulic shovels will be introduced starting in 2011. Cat technology products cover all of these machines in addition to blasthole drills and draglines (through the AQUILA drill management system and the AQUILA dragline monitor) and rope shovels (through the CAES ore control and grade control system).

For underground hard-rock mining, Caterpillar designs and manufactures load-haul-dump machines and underground articulated trucks.

FP-C: How does the current climate affect Caterpillar and how does it remain competitive in a market where buyers are sourcing supplies from countries such as India, and sourcing cheaper equipment (as in the past) from Russia and China?

C: Caterpillar announced in June 2010 that it was accelerating previously announced capacity expansion plans for trucks in Decatur, Illinois, US, with additional capacity expected to come online in 2011. The expansion in Decatur will increase truck capacity at the facility by nearly 30%. Decatur produces Caterpillar’s largest mining trucks.

In addition, Caterpillar plans to increase capacity for 60t and 100t trucks at its existing manufacturing facility near Chennai, India. The capacity expansion would more than double truck production capabilities in India. The expansion for its 100t 777D and 60t 773E trucks in India should be completed by early 2012.

The increased production in India and Decatur will better position the company to serve mining customers in every region of the world, with a particular focus on the growing demand and customer base in the emerging markets of Asia and in Russia. Caterpillar has been doing business in China for 35 years and has a number of construction equipment manufacturing facilities in the country, and the company has also announced expansion of the excavator facility in Xuzhou. It is critical for Caterpillar and its dealer network to continue investing in China to increase manufacturing operations, research and development, marketing and customer support for success in this growing market.