German company Wirtgen’s surface miner could be a potential gamechanger, but the South African mining industry has been slow to accept new technology, writes Leon Louw.
The best industry technology typically had its origin in a totally different application. The diamond sector, for example, today uses colour sorting technology that was initially used in sorting grain in the agricultural sector. So too, many ideas originally developed for mobile equipment in the construction industry evolved into being used in the mining industry and vice versa.
German-headquartered equipment manufacturer Wirtgen’s impressive surface miner was developed based on their mobile road construction and milling equipment technology. These surface miners have become a great subject of debate amongst open cast mining operators in Africa. When watching the machine in action, it is hard to believe that the take-up, especially in a country like South Africa, has been so slow. But then, it is a new concept for an industry known to be rather sluggish to adapt to new technology and change. Furthermore, South Africans are geared towards deep, underground operations and bulk surface mining is not such a big part of the culture in the country. However, the expanding coal, iron ore and manganese sectors offer ample opportunity for equipment like the Wirtgen surface miner to make its mark, as does other bulk operations in the rest of Africa.
According to Calvin Fennell, business development manager at Wirtgen SA, surface miners are also being used at a salt harvesting operation in Botswana and at De Beers’ Orapa diamond mine in the same country, while a unit has been deployed in the Northern Cape of South Africa. The biggest demand for its machines, however, is in the West African country of Guinea, where 25+ machines are in operation, mostly on bauxite mines. The first Wirtgen surface miner was commissioned in Guinea way back in 2001, in a mine close to Kindia, a small town 120km from Conakry. According to Fennell, the most commonly used models for bauxite mining in Guinea are the 2200 SM and the 2500 SM.
But despite its proven success, and the obvious benefits attached to deploying the Wirtgen surface miner, the South African market has been resistant to using the machines. Nevertheless, there are several mining contractors that are proponents of the surface miner, and word has it that a few coal mining companies have shown real interest in the benefits of using such technology. But why the resistance in South Africa?
According to Fennell, conventional drill and blast operators in South Africa are not always that easy to convince or change. Moreover, the surface miner needs a relatively big surface area to start working. The longer the run the cheaper it becomes. The machine requires at least a 250m long by 400m wide strips to operate effectively, which means a lot of overburden stripping. This is of course not the traditional way of mining in South Africa, where companies normally operate in mining blocks. Fennell says that the initial capital outlay in equipment as well as overburden stripping is a prime deterrent.
For more about the surface miner, read the October issue of African Mining.