We promote a culture of innovation by driving and embracing technologies throughout our company. Our philosophy of developing long-life mines is helping to make Hecla a leader among companies our size in adopting new technologies that have a significant impact in improving the health and safety of our employees, improving environmental performance, and increasing mine-operating efficiency and productivity. In particular, we are looking to automate repetitive tasks and use remote control where feasible to get the miners “hands off the steel.”
The backbone for innovation began with fiber optic cable and establishing “hotspots” to bring wireless technology to more than a mile below the surface in solid rock and our workers regularly use tablets underground. From there, we have taken a step-by-step approach to implementing technologies that make sense for our innovation strategy. For example:
- Our early testing of battery-operated load, haul, and dump (LHD) equipment provided helpful feedback on safety and health benefits coming from zero-emission power, noise and heat reduction, and more responsive machine controls. Technology advances will bring improved battery life for more effective deployment of these machines as production workhorses.
- The early adoption of tele-remote-controlled LHD’s and advanced automated LHD’s, which are assigned transport missions to contribute to the underground mine plan, have improved worker safety by moving employees out of those work areas. They have also added to production output by utilizing previously unused standby time at the end of work shifts. This technology platform enables one operator to remotely oversee up to three machines from the same station in the mine office.
- Our autonomous 24-hour underground truck operation at the Casa Berardi Mine has increased safety, increased payloads by 8 percent and decreased energy use by 17 percent per vehicle. The expected cost savings from just two trucks totals around $3 M per year.
- Clean air quality underground is of utmost importance to the safety of our workers. For this reason, Hecla was an early adopter of Ventilation On Demand (VOD), an optimization-via-automation approach that targets the vital process of supplying fresh air to underground miners in their scattered workplaces while exhausting the used air that has acquired excess heat, noxious gases, and dust. Once all the VOD fans have been converted at our Greens Creek Mine, we expect $1 million in energy savings per year and about a 7 percent reduction in direct electricity usage. Learn more about Ventilation On Demand.
- The deployment of longhole stope drills and drill jumbos with next-generation automated control systems enable drilling across shift-change and provide improved drill accuracy vs. the engineer’s design, contributing to increased machine productivity and increased efficiency in advancing the mining cycle.
Hecla is preparing the Lucky Friday Mine for delivery of the Remote Vein Miner, which is currently being field-tested in Sweden in advance of its delivery to Idaho in 2020. This state-of-the-art technology will take the workers’ hands completely “off the steel” and place them in a less hazardous environment by using integrated mechanical rock cutting, muck handling and rock bolting. This innovation could revolutionize narrow vein mining by replacing a significant portion of excavation done by conventional drilling and blasting with continuous mechanical cutting. If successful, mines that adopt this technology will become even safer and more productive through improved, controlled release of rock stress, allowing mining at greater depths and moving miners farther away from the working face of the rock.
New technologies are reshaping the way underground mines operate. As we embrace these innovations, we are looking to use machines and automation – which can be programmed to perform repetitive tasks in a generally predictable environment – and people to utilize their problem-solving skills and their capacity for dealing with the unexpected.
As a result, workers will have a safer environment but will require new skills. Hecla is committed to providing the necessary training for our workforce to address the future of work that is here today.
For example, we are currently working with North Idaho College’s (NIC) Workforce Training Center to develop training programs to update worker skill sets to meet the changing work force dynamic at Lucky Friday. This currently includes developing curriculum on the maintenance career path; training the trainer programs; and coordinating on-site versus NIC facility course work.
Don’t just take our word for it, read more from some of the top trade publications for examples of how Hecla is implementing new technologies and our plans for the future.