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Caterpillar: How to ensure the successful deployment of autonomous haulage

James D. Humphrey, a Senior Mining Market Professional for the Caterpillars Global Mining organization, deployed and managed the first autonomous haulag...

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|May 15|magazine31 min read

James D. Humphrey, a Senior Mining Market Professional for the Caterpillar’s Global Mining organization, deployed and managed the first autonomous haulage operation in North America. He has over 30 year of worldwide operational and technical experience in the mining industry.

There is a natural resistance to change in any form. When it comes to implementing a game-changing technology like autonomous haulage on an operating mine site, the resistance can at times appear insurmountable. Whether based on real information or misguided preconceptions, it’s essential that we don’t underestimate the effort it will take to overcome this resistance, while clearly recognizing when it’s worth the effort.

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These realizations did not happen overnight for sites where autonomous haulage has been implemented. Nor did they happen overnight for manufacturers of autonomous mining equipment. Caterpillar, for example, began building toward autonomy more than 30 years ago and had a truck operating in the mid-1990s. Lessons learned during those early years led to the realization that there was much more to be learned — not just about the machines themselves, but about the systems and knowledge that must be in place for a successful implementation.

Working closely with customers, initiating real-life demonstrations on mine sites, having discussions with regulatory agencies and other stakeholders — these and many other activities were necessary before autonomy could be fully and successfully launched. After decades of effort, Caterpillar’s first official commercial autonomous mine site went to work in 2011 in Farmington, New Mexico.

Ensuring autonomy is the right solution

While the early days of autonomy were exciting and mining companies and manufacturers were eager to see it come to life in the real world, we learned that implementing a technology for technology’s sake should never be a goal. We first need to identify a problem and then determine if a technology solution exists to address it. That technology may, or may not, be autonomous haulage. In fact, there are more sites that aren’t candidates for autonomy than there are sites that would benefit from the implementation of this technology.

There are five key characteristics to look for when determining which sites are the best candidates for autonomous haulage:

Safety: There are potential safety issues that could be alleviated with autonomy.

Utilization: There are significant delays such as shift changes, lunch breaks, meetings and training, etc., that would be eliminated if drivers were not operating the trucks.

Productivity: There are efficiencies to be gained with a higher degree of consistent and reliable performance of trucks, in addition to deployment velocity. Autonomy eliminates driver-influenced inefficiencies such as truck bunching behind an overly cautious driver or dilution caused by loads going to unassigned locations. Additionally, it offers the ability to add or remove trucks to a circuit and is not dependent of the number of operators who showed up for work that day.

Remote Regions: The logistics of bringing workers to a location where they must be housed, fed, entertained, etc., presents a challenge and is a significant expense. Autonomy reduces the infrastructure requirements by reducing the number of people required for operations.

People – Skilled Resources: It is often difficult to find skilled people who will be able and willing to handle the challenges and rigor of a mining lifestyle. Autonomy helps reduce the number of people that must be hired.

Managing the change

Once it is clear that autonomous haulage is the right technology solution, implementation can begin. And nothing is more important in this beginning phase than initiating a formal change management process to overcome the resistance that is likely to occur.

We have identified three areas that when combined can build a case for autonomy that is greater than the resistance to change:

1. Urgency / Burning Platform. We must provide a legitimate reason for the change. What is autonomy and why do we need it? How is it going to help our operation improve safety, increase productivity, overcome challenges?

2. Vision. What are we hoping to achieve by the implementation of autonomy? Where do we see our operation in the future?

3. First Steps. How are we going to get started? Autonomy appears to be a monumental undertaking. Can we take small steps and build up to the final outcome?

It’s important to understand that resistance to change comes in two forms: conscious resistance and sub-conscious resistance. Conscious resistance is based on real information that people have experienced first-hand or learned from sources they trust and respect. Sub-conscious resistance is more difficult to overcome and is rooted in deep beliefs that may not have a legitimate cause. We have to find ways to identify the causes in order to overcome these negative perceptions.

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Whether conscious or sub-conscious, there are several concerns that rise to the top when considering potential resistance to autonomous haulage:

• Socio-economic: One of the key benefits of autonomy is the ability to improve a site’s productivity with fewer people. A logical question follows: Will the implementation of autonomy put people out of work? If there are fewer people earning an income, how will that affect the local economy? Or does this technology provide opportunity for new or longer life operations, thereby ensuring more employment for the rest of the mine staff?

• Safety: While safety is a key reason for the implementation of autonomy — keeping workers out of harm’s way — there are concerns that driverless trucks will lead to increased danger on a mine site. It’s one of the most important concerns that employees will have and it’s essential to have the technologies in place and the answers ready to address these questions.

• Mining Processes: How will autonomy affect the processes currently in place on the mine site? Will we adopt existing processes, adapt the ones we currently follow, or create completely new ones? Will we replicate or innovate? People comfortable with the status quo may react unfavorably to a change in the way things are done.

• Regulatory: The implementation of autonomous haulage will fall under strict regulations, both internally at the corporate and site levels and through organizations such as the Mine Safety and Health Administration. How will we adapt to these challenges?

Adopting a multi-faceted strategy

While each site and its employees will have their own individual concerns and demonstrate their resistance to change in different ways, there are some things we can do to overcome the resistance and preconceptions that are a barrier to autonomy implementation.

Minimize change: First, the goal should be to minimize change whenever possible. Because brownfield mines are the most likely locations for autonomy, the implementation will have to take place within the standard roads and incorporate the different types of loading tools currently being used. Autonomous machines must be able to go into these sites and work with the current equipment and the existing road configuration.

Minimize risk of the investment: Autonomous machines must be designed for autonomy, but also work in a standard mining operation with typical load and dump scenarios. For example, a truck does not need an operator cab when it’s being operated autonomously. However, with the significant investment mining companies make when purchasing a truck, they may want to be able to use that truck with a driver in the future. Knowing that the machine is not a single-application-only vehicle will help alleviate this concern.

Introduce in stages: With a staged introduction, participants are brought into the discussion early and the building blocks of autonomy are implemented and successfully used before full autonomy is deployed.

Be disciplined in mine planning: While it’s important to be able to integrate autonomy into existing operations as seamlessly as possible, autonomy inherently requires more planning discipline than a traditional loading and hauling scenario. Autonomous trucks follow the plan you have developed, which is one of their greatest values; however, you have to make sure your plan is a good one. Regimen and discipline are essential in planning autonomy to ensure it is possible to meet production goals today and in the future.

Provide education, training and experience: Informational sessions and specialized training programs for both hands-on workers as well as those on the periphery of the operation are essential. There’s no such thing as too much information when there is resistance to change, which means communication is key. Personnel need a point of contact— a dedicated, focused resource for answers. Specialized training programs are also important. Caterpillar, for example, built the first simulator-training-based program to prepare people for autonomous operations.

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Ensure compliance with internal policies and agency regulations: It’s easier to meet these requirements from the beginning than it is to try to adapt to them later on or launch an effort to get the regulations changed. It’s very important to work with regulatory agencies well in advance to ensure a complete understanding and consensus on the interpretation of the requirements.

Adopt as many current processes as possible: In order to overcome resistance and get the support of personnel, it’s important to adopt as many of the site’s current processes as possible into the new operation. At the same time, be cautious that the current processes don’t artificially inhibit benefits of the technology. Once workers are comfortable with the changes, it will be easier to transition to new processes that will further improve operations. We should always look to the future, allowing the operation to evolve in order to get the complete benefit of the technology.

Getting the right people

At the heart of a successful autonomy implementation are the people involved. Change management isn’t for everyone, and champions for the project — who lead by example and reinforce the importance of the strategy — are essential. Change is fragile, and if there isn’t someone on site committed to maintaining forward progress, it’s easy for sites to take a step backward. Good champions bring people along through their leadership and continue to be involved. It’s important that these people remain in this role for a long time to ensure good continuity.

Operators, too, must be exceptional, with broad skills beyond those of a typical operator. In an autonomous operation, they will need the specialized skills to successfully use the autonomous technology while understanding and working toward the mine plan. Autonomous operations require a small team, which makes it even more important that personnel are capable of handling a variety of tasks.

We call these people “experienced innovators.” They have the knowledge and expertise to evaluate new situations — finding a way to do the right things and the safe things while at the same time being innovative enough to try new ideas and leverage the value of new technologies.

Ensuring success

Implementing a game-changing technology like autonomy on a mine site is a challenge worth tackling. The benefits in terms of productivity, safety and efficiency can be highly significant in the right application. Recognizing that there will be resistance to the changes required is essential to a successful implementation. Don’t underestimate the time and planning that will be required to overcome this resistance. Use the tools we’ve discussed here — such as minimizing change, introducing autonomy in stages, and providing education and training — to improve the results of your change management efforts. And perhaps most importantly, choose the right people to manage the change. You need strong, dedicated champions with the right balance of experience and an innovative attitude to successfully lead your autonomy efforts.

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