Mine Hoist Services: Ensuring Safety and Efficiency in Mining Operation

Mine Hoist Services: Ensuring Safety and Efficiency in Mining Operation

Mining runs 24/7 which means ABB’s service engineers are on call around-the-clock, too. That is particularly important for critical infrastructure including hoisting systems and while smart technology streamlines diagnostics, dedicated people are essential to maintaining safe, smooth and reliable operations.

“Faults with winders don’t usually occur at the nice, sociable hour of 10 o’clock on a Tuesday,” says Nick Algate drily. Algate is the Statutory Projects Superintendent at Perilya’s Broken Hill operations. “They can be in the middle of the night, on weekends and they seem to happen when Alec is on holiday with his wife!”

He’s referring to ABB’s Alec Robinson who’s been a System Support Specialist with ABB Hoisting since 2007. “Hoists are the bread and butter for a mine, so when there’s an issue there is always a sense of urgency,” says Robinson. “My wonderful wife totally understands that I need to do whatever it takes to get the customer’s hoist running again.”

A strong relationship is critical. “We consider Alec to be a part of our team – he has a good rapport with our technical team, myself and other people on site because he comes out here regularly,” says Algate. “When we need him it is often quite urgent, and he’s always available to help. We get very good service!”

Robinson racks up a lot of travel as a key service engineer for ABB’s Australian Hoisting customers as well as working on hoists in Canada, Sweden and India. “In 2023, I received an email from Qantas saying I’d travelled on 49 flights and 62,310 kilometres,” says Robinson. “And that doesn’t include the flights we take that are run by the mines!” For Perilya, he usually spends five days in Broken Hill twice a year. “I’ll go out with a mechanical engineer for the annual full hoist inspection to check everything out electrically and mechanically, as well as six-monthly visits to test all the safety functions.”

You get the sense that this strong family man with three adult daughters isn’t one who relishes being away from home, but knowing that it is part of his job he tries to make the best of both worlds. “Broken Hill is a beautiful city – I enjoy walking around and soaking up its rich history, especially as the birthplace of one of today’s mining giants,” he says. “It is also very exciting to experience different cultures when travelling to overseas places, like having monkeys running across the winder buildings in India!.”

Beam me in, Scotty!

These days, of course, Robinson can run diagnostics remotely. “We’ve got the kind of rapport where we can talk issues through, but more often than not, wherever in the world he is, Alec has his laptop with him and he can dial into the control system,” says Algate. “I’ll talk through what’s going on and then we share the computer screen and work through the problem together and solve it relatively quickly.”

Algate adds that despite always being able to get him when they need him, “We understand that Alec and his colleagues don’t just service us!” Indeed Robinson says he and his wife were “globe-trotting to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary” when another customer had a problem with its skip winder at a mine in WA. “I went from watching The Lion King on Broadway one night to the next night asking my wife if we could have a night in while I logged in from our downtown hotel in New York to help fix the skip winder!”

Robinson has plenty of examples of when remote connections have saved the day, including one where a mines inspector was on a site visit to an underground mine and heading underground on the cage hoist to check some equipment. “On the way down, the cage came to a stop and the driver had to restart it to continue the journey,” recalls Robinson. “The mining company called me urgently to have an explanation as to why it had stopped – we had about half an hour before the mines inspector was to get back to the surface.”

Robinson, with the help of another service engineer, went online and they went through the logs. They saw that the switch on the cage door had vibrated loose, implying to the safety system that the door had been opened. “That’s why the winder came to a stop – it was actually a safety stop, the switch just needed a small adjustment. When the mines inspector was told that, he was happy because that’s what’s meant to happen when somebody opens the door!”

The power of real-time data analytics on a mine site

The next game-changing technology for mine hoists says Robinson is the combination of the IBA data gatherer and the ABB Ability Smart Hoisting systems. ABB has spent more than a decade developing the Smart Hoisting solution and while it isn’t yet operational in Australia, Robinson has already had a glimpse of how powerful the real-time data analysis that underpins it is. “The IBA data logger records thousands of data points to help with fault finding and checking the general health of the critical components of the hoist,” he says. “We’re installing the IBA data acquisition system on most of our hoisting equipment, paving the way to installing Smart Hoisting systems in the future.”

Even before the Smart Hoisting system goes in, the availability of incontrovertible data makes diagnostics much more straightforward. “It helps us by providing data-driven analysis of the hoist,” explains Robinson. “If a customer has any kind of random event with the hoist and resets the system to get production back up and running as soon as possible, we can take the data from the data gatherer and quite easily analyse exactly what happened. In the past, it was often anecdotal – ‘Fred said this happened and John said this happened.’ Now, the data shows us, ‘Actually, this button was pushed and that’s why that happened.’ It can help us pin down what’s causing simple operational issues. It’s a huge step forward from a service perspective. When the Smart Hoisting system is installed with the data gatherer it helps even more. It delivers those insights to pre-warn customers of any deviations that suggest something’s starting to fail – alerting us to check what’s happening before it becomes an issue.”

How to upgrade third party mining equipment

While wanting to promote its latest and greatest systems, ABB also steps into upgrades to keep equipment made by other manufacturers – sometimes decades ago – compliant and safe. It’s an approach to sustainability that Algate lauds, telling how ABB upgraded the electrics of the two hoists in Perilya’s Broken Hill shafts while managing to preserve the original equipment.

“The mechanical side of them was a Fulton Hogan design from the mid-50s,” says Algate. “At the time the winders were put in, mechanical engineering had already come a long way. When we came to upgrade them, we reverse-engineered all the mechanical side and it stacked up against today’s standards. However, because the electric side has advanced so far, our winder didn’t comply electrically.”

In 2016 Perilya worked with ABB to design and install an upgrade on the converter, control and safety systems for both its winders to bring it up to standard. “The main cage service winder is a men-and-materials winder which takes the workforce underground and can also take stores, equipment and a small trash truck,” Algate explains. “The other one is a bulk haulage winder, which has a payload of about 13 tonnes and it continually hoists all day.”

When it came to upgrading the electrics, the standards were high. “The New South Wales mining legislation, especially for winders, is very prescriptive and sets the highest standards,” says Algate. “ABB with Alec’s input designed a system that was retro-fitted to the existing winder to ensure it complied and in fact actually exceeded those standards.” Algate says post the upgrade the winder has been more reliable and fault-finding has been easier, “because there’s now more feedback from the equipment so we can understand what’s going on”. Not bad for a 70-year-old veteran winder!

Robinson is typically modest. “I’ve seen significant advances in technology over my career, and obviously as an engineer that is always interesting,” he says. “But also a lot of my work is around relationships, and I must say customers are always very kind to me – maybe because there are always going to be those 2am calls!”

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