Mining Technology spoke with Mark Ryan, vice president of Equipment Offering and Research & Development at Normet, about global mining trends, market challenges, and what sets Normet apart as a provider of underground mining and tunnelling technology solutions.

What are some of the most prominent changes you’ve seen in the mining industry?

Mark Ryan: Easily mineable resources are depleting, so it’s becoming more of a technical challenge to conduct mining and tunnelling at greater depths, greater elevation, in more remote and challenging locations than ever before. With tunnelling, in particular, we are seeing more large urbanisation projects, and they have their own set of technical challenges related to noise and vibration. Normet is currently developing or already have available technical solutions to address all the technical challenges mentioned above.

Another trend is autonomous operations and machine process data; most of our customers want us to be able to reduce the exposure of their personnel to danger areas. They want to be able to collect actionable data from our machines to be able to make informed decisions about what to do with their assets and how to improve their processes safety optimisation, productivity utilisation and availability.

Typically, what are the main development stages from the feasibility study to launching a product?

MR: At Normet, our R&D process has five checkpoints and it’s a big cross-functional team effort. Typically we first start with the business study. Generally, we have product line and sales directors that are constantly monitoring the market, looking at the trends and engaging with customers to look at ways that they can improve customer process safety, performance, utilisation and productivity. We start to look at the feasibility of that project, such as payback calculations and trying to understand the size of the market and how it could add real value to our customers. It might not necessarily always be a new product; it could be an additional technology feature that we would add to an existing product. The general cornerstones that we would look at are whether it improves safety, productivity utilisation and availability.

Then the next two stages are concept design and executing design. This part of the development process is self-explanatory and involves our R&D teams working together.  Stage four is prototype testing and validation, this is where we test every aspect of the solution in real environmental conditions to make sure the solution fulfils all the safety and technical specification requirement. The last phase is the production, sales and marketing ramp-up.

At every part of the process, we stop and we analyse to make sure that the specification still meets the market needs, that the demand is there and that the market hasn’t changed, particularly for projects that might take more than one year to complete. The R&D process is important because the market moves and shifts, so we make sure that we stay up to date with all the important and relevant project aspects, especially in the area of safety.

What innovations that are currently in the research and development cycle do you think we should be most excited about?

MR: There’s a lot going on at the moment, particularly in the area of battery electric vehicles and electrodynamics. This technology definitely allows us to provide added value to our customers, not only by allowing zero local emissions and health benefits associated, but also in the area of total cost of ownership and performance benefits that come from battery electric vehicles on ramp speed etc, so lots of additional benefits.

One example of the problems that our customers face in urbanised tunnelling projects is noise pollution. A lot of major projects have to stop in the evening or only do work that does not create so much noise.

One of the big noise-making factors that we see in tunnel projects is ventilation. Those fans can be quite noisy. If, for example, we can reduce the need for ventilation by using less equipment that produces diesel particulates, you may have the opportunity to reduce the noise levels and continue to work on hours that are today not possible.

What trends do you expect to see in the future?

MR: As customers have technical challenges associated with operating at greater elevations or greater depth, it’s not just about the machines operating; there are people working in that challenging environment too. We must be able to create technology that can take personnel away from dangerous areas.

Customers are trying to reduce the number of people that are exposed to these locations in a tunnelling or mining project, so we are developing technologies to move people to safer location using autonomy and semi-autonomy.

What are some of the main challenges that research and development teams are facing today?

MR: I think the pace of development and technology complexity has increased dramatically over the past years, and keeping up with this pace and making sure you have the correct people and skills in our team to deliver customer solutions is always very challenging. Normet prides itself as being a technology leader so keeping up with this ambition level is always a positive challenge.

How does Normet stand out from the competition?

MR: Normet is a fast-growing company and we are truly global. We’ve got almost 50 years of experience in the mining and tunnelling business with more than 1,300 experts and 50 offices globally, so if there is a hole in the ground anywhere in the world, we are normally there supporting the customer.

If we think about the equipment itself, we have delivered over 13,000 products. We also offer a wide range of services, with a much wider portfolio than our competitors, particularly around onsite service support contracts, construction chemicals, rock reinforcement and process optimisation consultancy services.

But Normet’s real differentiator is application expertise. We really know the area that we’re involved in and pride ourselves on being industry experts. It is very common for customers to call us with unique challenges, and we are there to support them. We are more than just an equipment supplier.