The widespread use and application of automation in the aggregates and quarrying sector will come – it’s a question of when, not if. Here, Ross Hayward, Head of Assets and Commercial at Chepstow Plant International, shares his insight into how this will aid net zero efforts and the opportunities it will offer to existing and prospective employees.
In recent years automation has proved to be a revolutionary force. While other industries trailblaze, the quarrying and aggregates sector is, for the most part, in its early stages of embracing the technology. Yet, a widespread rollout of automation is certainly coming and for those companies that embrace the change, it will offer the opportunity to bolster net zero efforts.
Automation’s potential becomes clear when you look just outside the boundaries of our sector. From semi-automated bulldozers that can auto-grade for you, to excavators which will only let you dig so far down, this technology is already making real difference in areas like civil engineering preparation works. Yet, industry-wide developments predicted to appear over the coming years offer even greater excitement, particularly on the journey to net zero.
Take the possibility of self-driving vehicles on-site as an example. Steps are being taken to roll these vehicles out to the masses, and soon we may be in a situation where many of the vehicles on-site can be remotely controlled or even drive themselves by recognising changes in their environment.
These vehicles are dynamic and efficient by nature and offer the opportunity to reduce inefficiencies that are contributing to CO2 emissions. Idling, for example, leads to unnecessary fuel consumption and while it may seem marginal, when you consider this wastage across an entire fleet it can quickly add up.
Autonomous trucks would know exactly what is happening on site, where other vehicles are, and their speed can be regulated so they arrive exactly when they are needed. With this, they would always work to optimum conditions, consuming the most efficient volume of fuel and essentially eradicating idling time and the wastage that comes with it.
Without even accounting for the low emission solutions that are being built into many new vehicles, the sheer improvement in efficiency would help businesses to move closer to their net zero objectives as well as improving their overall output.
Of course, automation’s role in pushing towards net zero could be enhanced even further, if it were combined with Volvo’s award-winning TA15 hauler - which is both autonomous and electric. Tests across Europe are already delivering CO2 emission savings of up to 98 per cent.
That’s not to say that the role of humans will be any less important on sites in the near future. Aside from the fact it will take significant time for the technology to be affordable and for the necessary infrastructure to be installed on-site, if you don’t have the right people looking after the assets and the tech behind them, they won’t operate in the way we foresee.
It’s likely that automation will do a lot of the heavy lifting, but it’s vital that the tech works alongside highly skilled employees to ensure that sites run smoothly. This may lead to jobs in the sector adapting over time, taking the form of remote piloting or managing the fleet from a control centre or command screen. However, it will not eradicate the need for a human touch. After all, without the right people in the right places, we cannot move forwards.
It’s really a question of being willing to upskill and reskill your workforce to ensure you can make the most of automation. There’s also the opportunity to attract new talent with this shift, with additional opportunities in technical roles. A younger audience could be drawn to the sector – helping to offset concerns related to the aging workforce and widespread skills shortage.
The shift towards automation is already happening in other industries. For example,in its iron ore operations in Western Australia, mining firm Rio Tinto has deployed a fleet of more than 130 remotely controlled autonomous trucks to run on pre-defined paths, and the company has also developed a ‘zero-emission’ autonomous haul truck in collaboration with CAT. As its employees aren’t required to sit in the trucks, Rio Tinto has retrained many of its operators in electrical engineering to help maintain the trucks, and into control centres to ensure management of the site still has all-important human judgement. The challenge industry faces is scaling the technology from a cost and usability perspective from the vast mining pits to smaller aggregate and mineral quarries.
While automation, and particularly an entirely automation-enabled fleet, may feel out of reach for most sites at this stage, that picture is going to be very different a few years down the line. With the ever-growing importance of striving towards net zero, companies should be considering how automation could fit into that puzzle.
Embracing the change and the technologies that are heading our way will not only make life easier in a quarrying setting, but it will also offer huge efficiency savings that could help turn the tide on achieving net zero.
By Ross Hayward
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