Centuries Old Swedish Mine Boosts Productivity, Safety and More

Jan. 1, 2016
Working with ABB to incorporate highly integrated controls and automation, the oldest operating mine in existence—started in 1354—is now also the most technically advanced mining operation.

Having grown up in Oregon, where everything is relatively new and “history” starts around the mid-1800s, I enjoyed when my career moved me to Massachusetts, where I could experience a deeper, older, more ingrained history all around me—none of which involved covered wagons. And then I went to Europe for the first time…

Needless to say, it didn’t compare. Dining in restaurants built in the 1200s or exploring even older cathedrals reaching to the skies made it well worth venturing outside the New World. Now, my latest trip to Europe has given me an appreciation of historical sites deep below the earth’s surface—a Swedish mining industry that dates back more than 1,000 years.

And as it turns out, the oldest operating mine—started in 1354 in Garpenberg, in central Sweden, and in pretty much continuous operation since—is also arguably the most technically advanced mining operation in the world today.

When Boliden bought the Garpenberg mine in 1957, it was producing about 300,000 tons of ore a year. By 2013, production had been increased to 1.5 million tons, according to Hans Jönsson, general manager at Boliden Garpenberg, who guided industry press on a tour of the area around the mine earlier this year.

In 2011, Boliden undertook a $580 million project (the second largest in Boliden’s history, Jönsson says) to expand its Garpenberg mine, aiming to turn it into the world’s most integrated and advanced mine. The mining company enlisted ABB to help it bring the Internet of Things (IoT) deep underground, incorporating mobile and remote technologies to boost safety and productivity. ABB’s System 800xA automation platform controls the mine’s powerful mill drives, hoists and electricity, integrating operations that were previously autonomous systems.

“It’s a high level of automation,” says Lennart Evrell, Boliden’s president and CEO. “After the trucks tip into crushers in the mine, the ore is sent without touching human hands—into the skip, into the hoist, up to the surface and through the plant, 24 hours a day.”

Boliden and ABB completed the project in mid-2014, immediately boosting milled ore tonnage by almost 50 percent to 2.22 million tons, which was expected to reach 2.5 million tons by the end of this year. The cost per ton also plunged with decreased energy consumption and water usage, as did the noise level for the 500 residents who live nearby, almost all of whom are related to the mine in some way. This has not only strengthened Boliden’s stature in the community as a supplier of zinc, lead and silver, but also made Garpenberg the most profitable unit in the Boliden group, according to Evrell.

Boliden and ABB, which started working together some 90 years ago, have deployed high levels of automation and control below and above ground to optimize performance, tackling challenges such as volatile metal prices, rising energy costs, stricter rules, increased safety demands and workforce availability.

“Mines like Garpenberg face increased environmental regulations, labor and energy costs and heightened demand from the public and employees for safety,” Jönsson says. “Boliden is working with ABB to address these hurdles, deploying high levels of automation and integration to ensure that mining here continues for years to come.”

Boliden mines 500-1,200 meters down for zinc, lead, silver and a small amount of gold. In a concentrator, Boliden grinds the ore to fine sand to liberate the mineral particles, and dewaters it, Jönsson explains.

Workers are still involved in the drilling, blasting and loading of trucks below ground, and then trucks transport the ore to the primary crusher. “After the driver tips the load into the crusher, not a single person is involved in the process,” Evrell says. “It’s fully automated.”

Through ABB’s System 800xA, operators and engineers are stationed at 33 different workplaces, linked to tablet-equipped workers via a wired and wireless communication network installed in the mill and part of the mine. In one above-ground control room included on the press tour, four operators sit in front of 10 large screens mounted on the wall. Fourteen smaller screens sit on desks to provide more detailed information. “The operators have the opportunity to dive into details wherever they want,” explains Henrik Lindvall, process manager for Boliden Garpenberg.

“The real benefit is the organization. Everyone accesses the same data instantly,” Evrell adds. “Everyone has the same information. There’s only one version, and it’s always up. We can delete a whole bureaucracy here.”

Operators with mobile tablets have instant access to information to let them know if equipment a kilometer or more down requires attention. “The crew gave me an iPad, and I can see what’s going on minute by minute,” Evrell says. “I often have my pad with me, and I can demo the operations wherever I am in the world.”

ABB’s team of remote service engineers in another part of Europe can also access Garpenberg’s sensor-equipped comminution equipment if necessary for troubleshooting.

The system controls and collects data from the site’s 400+ electric motors, 280 variable-speed drives and two massive hoists that carry people and 416 tons of ore up and down the 1,200-meter shaft. It integrates all critical functions, including water management, crushers, conveyor belts, skip loading, concentrator and pumping stations.

Also integrated into the control system is ABB’s energy-saving SmartVentilation system, which uses variable-frequency drives (VFDs) to enable blowers to run at the precise speeds needed, depending on what trucks are present in the area or whether a blast has taken place. Ventilation is an important safety function to dilute hazardous substances (particularly sulfur), provide quicker evacuation of blast gases, and also deliver climate control in very deep mines (Galpenberg, for example, must be heated in the winter), explains Per Johansson of ABB.

SmartVentilation was first installed in Garpenberg in 2009 with about 70 fans. With an upgrade and expansion in 2013, there are now about 120 fans, all equipped with VFDs. Minimizing energy consumption is a big driver. Ventilation consumes close to half of the energy at a typical mine; at Garpenberg, it’s more like 30 percent, Johansson says.

Almost everything is integrated into the 800xA, except the PA system, video system and underground communications network, says Patrik Westerlund, product manager for underground mine automation at ABB.

With the integration of all the functions, says Lena Nyberg of ABB’s Process Automation division, the mine becomes more of an ore factory, working with one brain. “There’s more information than you can imagine already stored there, and that will only increase,” she says. “The challenge is to utilize the information—make sure it’s given to the correct person at the correct time, and that they are able to analyze the information to make a good decision.”

Commissioned in the second half of this year, a remote control rock breaking system includes two ABB remote control stations with remote control desks and process and safety controllers, all integrated with a real-time video system into the System 800xA platform. ABB also developed a 3D simulator to aid in training and to verify the functionality of the remote control system.

With the remote control rock breaker, Boliden crews on the surface can continue rock breaking a kilometer or more below ground without pausing for shift changes or waiting until blasting has been completed, which boosts productivity and all reduces potential for accidents.

“ABB’s remote control technology will make the operation of the rock breakers underground safer and more efficient by enabling operation in a remote station above the ground during blasting and shift changes,” Westerlund says. “The modularized design will also allow Boliden to add more rock breakers as the mine expands by simply adding another ABB remote control station to the network.”

Boliden continues to look for more ways to automate mining, including self-propelled vehicles. Taking people out of the equation below ground would enable the mining process to begin again more quickly after blasts, before the sulfur gases have been ventilated.

“Boliden is systematic about what they need,” Westerlund says. “They are taking controlled steps of improving.”

Evrell calls it Boliden’s “creep, walk, run strategy.” The important thing is to integrate the technology carefully. “We have very few accidents and low environmental impact,” he says. “But if we don’t have good control, that could have a big impact.”

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