TECHNOLOGY

Inco goes high tech

MARK NICHOLS May 25 1987
TECHNOLOGY

Inco goes high tech

MARK NICHOLS May 25 1987

Inco goes high tech

TECHNOLOGY

In the 1950s Inco Ltd. employed about 17,000 men at its sprawling Sudbury, Ont., mining operation and supplied fully 90 per cent of the nonCommunist world’s nickel. Since then, fundamental economic changes have steadily eroded the underpinnings of Inco’s onetime supremacy. Oversupply and sluggish economic growth in recent years have driven nickel prices down. As well, stiff competition from the Soviet Union, the Dominican Republic and other low-cost exporters has reduced Canadian nickel producers to a share of close to 30 per cent of the world market. The stringent new economic realities have forced Inco to enlist sophisticated technology in the pursuit of lower operating costs. Said Richard England, superintendent of mines equipment research for Inco’s Ontario division: “Mining in the past was like a couple of sumo wrestlers who sit in the ring and grunt and groan for hours. Finally, after all those years of grunt and groan, we’ve decided to go high tech.”

As a result, a growing number of high-tech machines are either at the

testing stage or in use at the company’s Sudbury-area mines. Among them: two versions of Inco-designed automated drilling machines and a self-propelled underground ore loader, designed for one-man operation and equipped with sensors that help it to

‘Mining in the past was like a couple of sumo wrestlers who sit in the ring and grunt and groan for hours'

feel its way along the mine floor.

Already, the high-tech drive has helped to increase ore production at Inco’s Sudbury-area mines. In 1982 each miner produced 7.2 tons during an eight-hour shift. Last year individual output had increased to 13.7 tons. Inco’s CD-90 and CD-360 automated drills have lowered operating costs by reducing the time that miners spend in the arduous

job of drilling holes for explosive charges. The drills even helped to prolong the life of Inco’s 73-year-old Levack mine, which was becoming uneconomical. But mining remains a hazardous occupation. Last month four Inco miners died when crushed rock poured down on them while they carried out a routine shaft inspection in the Levack mine.

Awareness that Inco would have to change its operating procedures dramatically emerged with the recession of the early 1980s. According to Eric Kossatz, vice-president of mining in Inco’s Ontario division, company officials realized in 1980 that the company’s “costprice relationship was beginning to deteriorate. Then, when the price of nickel collapsed in 1982, we had to find a solution right away or go out of business.” The company did so by shutting down marginal mining operations, accelerating retirements and carrying out layoffs. Those measures have reduced Inco’s labor force in the Sudbury area to about 8,500 from 13,400 in 1981. At the same time, the Toronto-headquartered company launched a campaign to develop more efficient mining methods. In one thrust, Inco began using a new system of so-called vertical retreat mining, which involves blasting ore loose between tunnels at two different depths— a far more efficient technique.

As well, in 1980 Inco set out to establish—for the first time—a research department at Sudbury with a mandate to develop high-tech solutions to the company’s problems. To a remarkable extent, the firm’s high-tech thrust has been based on homegrown talent. A case in point is England, a 50-year-old Sudbury native with a face that appears to be hewn from the local rock. Five years ago England began working in his spare time to develop a prototype automatic

drill, which became the basis for Inco’s automated blast-hole drills. Equipped with a computer-based Programmable Logic Controller, the machines can be instructed to drill holes to the required specifications while the operator stays safely out of the danger zone.

Now, England and a team of five young technologists are extending the drills’ intelligence by building in a microcomputer system that will enable the

machines to vary their speed according to drilling conditions and react to problems by referring to a computer memory for solutions. Meanwhile, aboveground tests were expected to begin this month on another impressive piece of Inco-designed machinery: a 70-ton underground ore hauler equipped with a secret guidance system that will enable the machine to be operated without a driver.

Inco’s entry into the field of equipment design has led to the formation of a subsidiary firm, Continuous Mining Systems Ltd., which last year sold $7 million worth of Inco-designed machinery to Inco’s Ontario and Manitoba divisions and to outside mining companies. In the meantime, England already has a number of future projects in mind, including an attempt to devise a reliable method of directional underground mining. Such a technique, by enabling miners to drill and blast accurately in irregularly shaped bodies of ore, would ultimately help to lower Inco’s operating costs further. That is the goal of almost all the research and development projects that England and his colleagues have under way. The reason is simple, according to England: “If we don’t do that, we’re not going to survive.”

MARK NICHOLS