Drilling & Blasting
Demand for drilling services and equipment is booming but human resources are scarce
The drilling sector experienced one of the sharpest rebounds as lockdown restrictions were eased in 2021. Surging metals prices stimulated investment into production drilling by majors looking to take advantage of high copper prices, and the junior sector reignited, looking to add value through the drill bit. However, ruptures to global supply chains, a scarcity of raw materials and a dearth of trained professionals to meet rising demand have presented challenges.
“We have seen an exponential rise in the demand for drill rods in the past 12 months,” observed Tomás Buttazzoni, general manager of Technosteel, a manufacturer of drill rods for exploration and large diameter rods and accessories for blasting. “In fact, it has been a demand that has been difficult to meet because of the lack of availability of raw materials. Steel suppliers have not given an appropriate importance to the mining industry because they give more importance to the oil and gas and automotive sectors.”
Buttazzoni mentioned that a lack of qualified labor has also been a challenge, as industrial operators that are qualified to the level required are increasingly scarce in Chile.
“Shortages of workforce is a global problem affecting most industries. It has been a challenge to train professional drillers and helpers, considering that it not something that you can study at high school or college,” said Cristián Correa, general manager – Chile for drilling contractor Geotec Boyles Bros, which has approximately 30% of the market share for drilling in Chile.
Correa noted that some technical degrees help to form prospects into drillers, but these are careers that are really formed in the field. He added: “To tackle this challenge, we have implemented a drilling platform training center, where we train field personnel, simulating day and night shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week just like in the field.”
“We have seen an exponential rise in the demand for drill rods in the past 12 months. After exploration virtually stopped during the lockdown in 2020, we saw a sudden bounce in every market in 2021, and demand has continued to be strong to this day. In fact, it has been a demand that has been difficult to meet because of the availability of raw materials.”
Tomás Buttazzoni, General Manager, Technosteel
Considering the robust outlook for metal demand moving forward, innovation is necessary to reduce the reliance on manual labor in the drilling and blasting space, as well as to remove workers from harm’s way so processes become safer. Buttazzoni mentioned that demand has been strong for Technosteel’s Safedrill rod manipulation technology, called rod handler: “Mining companies in Chile have adopted this as a standard, as they no longer want people to be in direct contact with moving rods and parts.”
To illustrate Geotec’s position as one of the main innovators when it comes to drilling technology and equipment, Correa gave the example of how the company introduced and improved rod handlers to be completely automatic, eliminating contact between man and machine by 100%. “This has prevented hand injuries, which used to be a real issue for companies in the drilling business.”
Correa added that Geotec has created treatment plants for tailings, including a centrifuge plant to separate solids from water to reuse the water, as well as pressurized cabins to protect personnel from machines and the elements.
Diamantina Christensen has over 50 years’ experience in the development, design and manufacturing of drilling products, and supplies Geotec (its sister company) with almost 90% of the drilling products, according to Ignacio Bello Marambio, general manager at Christensen Chile S.A. Discussing the importance of making drilling campaigns as productive as possible by reducing idle time during the changing of drill core bits, Christensen has focused on its manufacturing processes to achieve 25% better performance. “In our rod production line we have automated processes for heat treatment and threading units that require no direct intervention of people, after which we coat the threads. Finally, we have a process of shipping and distribution,” said Bello Marambio, adding that Christensen has the capacity to supply internal demand and export to the main countries in the region.
Drillco is another Chilean company in the drilling equipment space that has been active for over 50 years, and today has seven offices worldwide. Javier Varela, CEO, explained that the company differentiates itself by observing operating conditions and making modifications in collaboration with clients to achieve better performance. He elaborated: “This involved a lot of studies to understand variables such as the rocks, the conditions that the equipment works under, how they operate with compressors, etc.”
Trinidad Carmona, Drillco’s sales and marketing director, gave the example of an automatic replacement system for drilling components that the company developed with one of its mining partners: “The operator, with the press of a button, can go through the entire process of replacing the component, which reduces the replacement time from around 55 minutes to 3 minutes, as well as eliminating the risk to the personnel and reducing energy usage.”
“The companies that can add value are those that can incorporate technology such as big data, machine learning, process automation, and Integrated Operations Centers (IOC) that allow trucks and drilling rigs to be operated remotely.”
Oscar Castañeda, General Manager – Chile and Argentina, Orica
Innovation in the blasting space
Over the years, the blasting and explosives segment of the mining sector has evolved to become safer, more accurate, and less labor-intensive. Aristides Alvarez Velasco, Maxam’s regional manager for Latin America, spoke of the trend of obtaining more actionable data from each area of the blasting process. He cited Maxam’s X-energy innovation, a digitalization and control system for blasting and drilling. X-energy includes series of tools such as X-Rock and Smart Rioflex, that allow clients not only to know what kind of rock they have in a zone, but also what kind of rock they have within a borehole.
“Based on the data you get from drilling and the digitalization of the system you can modify our product for each section of a blast hole, which allows you to optimize the blast perfectly in a way that gives you savings further along the production process,” said Alvarez, adding: “The big mining and explosives companies are all focused on digitalization, data capture and analysis to make the art of blasting more of a science.”
Discussing robotics and automation in the blasting space, Marco Ruiz Hernández, robotics director at Enaex, commented that the benefits depend on the specific situation. “In some cases, technology can add productive hours to the chain, resulting in increased throughput of mines and thus more profitability,” he said, giving the example of when weather conditions such as fog or rain impact human productivity.
He also mentioned the safety aspect of removing humans from dangerous situations by conducting operations from a control room, adding: “The maximum potential of these technologies can be reached if you have all the processes interacting with each other in an autonomous way.”
Ruiz went on to reveal that Enaex has partnered with Codelco at El Teniente to deploy its autonomous solution for remote loading in an underground environment: “In April 2022, Enaex performed the first remote blast in an underground environment at El Teniente with our UG-iTruck, without any human interaction at the mine site – a huge milestone as it is non-precedented worldwide.”
Blasting specialist and technology company Orica has collaborated with Swedish OEM Epiroc to create Avatel, the first fully mechanized development charging system. The company is currently trying to implement Avatel at projects in Chile and expects this to materialize in 2022, according to Oscar Castaneda, Orica’s general manager for Chile and Argentina. “My experience at Codelco and BHP made me see that mining companies are thinking outside of the box, because nowadays, if you continue producing on deposits in the traditional way, you are going to hit a plateau, especially at some of the older mines in Chile,” observed Castaneda, who also emphasized the collaborative nature of innovation, giving the example Fundación Chile, a mechanism of rapprochement between mining companies and technology companies, and entrepreneurs and universities to connect and combine capacities. “It is a cultural change that has been taking place in recent years,” he added.
Image courtesy of Enaex