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Jun 4, 2021

Reline your thinking (2/4): Incremental automation for mill relining

Jared Le Cras
Jared Le Cras
Director, Mill reline equipment, Metso Outotec
A new age is dawning in the continuous pursuit of improved mill reline safety and efficiency – the age of automation. However, there are multiple approaches to implementing automation and each has its own risk. Read on to understand why one approach stands above the others and how Metso Outotec is actively pursuing its development.

The ever-present push for more efficient relining has generated significant mechanical advances over the past few decades, resulting in tangible improvements to both relining speed and safety. However, the limits of these mechanical improvements are starting to become evident and a new frontier is emerging – Digitalization. Sensors, networks, remote connections, data analysis, process modelling and automation are the new opportunities for relining advancements.

Automation is perhaps the most attractive item on the digitalization list. The mill relining environment is infamous for being dangerous and fatiguing, so the desire to utilize automation to remove people from this environment is obvious. However, the strategy with which to approach automation is vitally important and lessons can be learned from other industries that have already blazed the automation trail.

There are three main options on the table:

  • Do nothing – Assume that current designs will not quickly lose relevance

  • Step change – Commit to a complete autonomous revolution

  • Incremental change – Search for incremental benefits with discrete value

The mining industry is constantly evolving, so each approach comes with significant risks. However, by exploring the options, it quickly becomes evident that one of the approaches is far more suited to mill relining than the others.




The ´Do nothing’ approach in mill relining automation

The ‘Do nothing’ approach

The superficially ‘safe’ approach to automation is to do nothing. Many sites, particularly junior miners, have little interest in the risk that comes with being an early adopter of new technologies. The market for a proven, reliable, mill relining solution is currently strong, so the obvious decision would be to avoid the financial and technical risk of pursuing automation and instead focus on delivering the same proven equipment. However, ‘playing it safe’ can be catastrophic if the industry moves forward and your equipment is not ready for the change.

This lesson was learned the hard way by most US vehicle manufacturers in the 1920s. The assembly line was introduced by the Ford Motor Company in 1913 and this approach was quickly adopted by several other manufacturers who could see the benefits. However, smaller manufacturers who could not justify the risk of investing in these early steps towards automation quickly became uncompetitive. As a result, the number of automotive manufacturers in the US dwindled from 253 in 1908 to just 44 in 1929[1].

“The industry had progressed well beyond the point when an individual with technical skill, a little capital, and some business acumen could set out to make cars with some prospect of succeeding."

The risk of becoming irrelevant in the mill relining industry is significant. Safety and efficiency are the key drivers for change, and they are gathering momentum with every passing year. The hazards that are considered ‘part of the job’ today will be completely unacceptable the instant that a safer alternative is demonstrated. And that safer alternative is right on the horizon.




The ‘Step-Change’ Approach in mill relining automation

The ‘Step-change’ approach

At the opposite end of the spectrum to the ‘do nothing’ approach is the ‘step change’ approach. This approach looks to revolutionise the industry by introducing drastic changes.

The two main motivations for the ‘step-change’ approach stem from completely opposite mindsets. The first is a knee-jerk reaction triggered by the fear of missing out on the next big industry shift. It’s the ‘innovate or die’ mentality taken to the extreme, where drastic product changes are made to maintain the appearance of relevance in a constantly evolving market.

The other mindset is one looking to be the catalyst that forces change, resulting in a new industry landscape with a dominant new player. This is the realm of disruptive tech, where opportunists look to push developments from one industry into another to gain a foothold in a new industry.

Unfortunately, the customer is the big loser in both cases as engineering takes a backseat to big promises and marketing hype. The frequent outcome of this approach is under-delivery which causes customers to lose faith and potentially miss out on the industry-changing opportunities that the developments once promised.

A classic example would be Elon Musk’s admission that Tesla’s attempt at step-change automation for the manufacture of the Model 3 electric vehicle had been a mistake.

“Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake. To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated."

This was yet another reoccurrence of an issue the automotive industry has faced since the eighties when the first attempts were made to fully automate production facilities. Joseph White made the following comments on General Motors’ automation efforts in his book ‘Comeback’ [4]: "Instead of easing robots onto the line a few at a time, providing for inevitable debugging problems with redundant equipment, GM bet the entire Hamtramck production system on the proposition that leading-edge automation would work instantaneously." Perhaps unsurprisingly, GM’s multi-billion dollar investment in automation produced no returns and became the go-to example for the dangers associated with attempting step-change automation.

Automation can, and will, be a game-changer for the mill relining industry. However, the challenge is immense, so prematurely rushing a solution to market for the sake of a marketing opportunity will only damage reputations and create a missed opportunity. To keep the industry engaged with the improvements that automation promises, a far less glamourous approach will be required.




The ‘Incremental Improvement’ Approac in mill relining automationh

The ‘Incremental improvement’ approach

The final option could be considered the ‘Goldilocks’ approach. When comparing it to the alternative two options, it is not surprising that most successful automation projects fall under this incremental improvement ideology.

“For us, a safe introduction of autonomy is a gradual introduction.”

There is no need to take an ‘all-or-nothing’ approach to mill relining automation. In fact, fully automated relining will most likely be financially unviable due to the relatively small market size and the vast complexity of the task to be automated. However, there are immense benefits available from the incremental improvements that are developed along the automation path.

By utilizing a staggered release, incremental improvements can be provided to customers to give tangible, short-term results with the added benefit of gaining early feedback on utilisation, robustness and functionality. Although not as glamourous as a once-off release of a full automation package, this approach is far more economical, delivering results to a broader number of customers and making relining safer and more efficient right now.



Auto-grapple – Incremental automation in action

To give a concrete example of the incremental improvement approach to automation, Metso Outotec have released the first in a series of incremental developments on our automation roadmap: Auto-Grapple.

Auto-Grapple is a control system update that enables the safety PLC to control the liner positioning unit’s yaw, roll and pitch functions to automatically orientate the grapple for liner pick up and placement. This patent-pending feature is available for all current-generation Metso Outotec mill reline machines, including those already in the field. For field applications, a technician can perform a simple software update to enable the feature.

Auto-Grapple is a great example of the benefits that customers can experience right now thanks to incremental automation. Automatically handling grapple orientation streamlines the pickup and placement of liners so operators can place more focus on their surroundings, improving safety.

By providing a steady release of automation related features, Metso Outotec will responsibly guide the mill relining industry into a future that is safer for everyone.




[1] John Bell Rae 1984 The American Automobile Industry, Twayne Publishers

[2] John Bell Rae 1965 The American Automobile a Brief History, University of Chicago Press

[3] https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/984882630947753984?s=20

[4] Paul Ingrassia and Joseph B. White 1995 Comeback. The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry, Simon & Schuster

[5] https://www.media.volvocars.com/global/en-gb/media/pressreleases/268323/next-generation-volvo-cars-to-be-powered-by-luminar-lidar-technology-for-safe-self-driving


This blog is part of a series. Did you miss them? Make sure to go back and read the full series!

1.) Appropriate and safe mill access

3.) Virtual reality operator training

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