Innovation is associated with progress and is generally positively perceived, as it results, by definition, in an improvement of the existing state of affairs. However, innovation is in fact a change and is therefore subject to the same rules and conditions as other changes. In underground mining, this is all the more difficult as it depends on geological conditions, which can differ in individual mines.
From the point of view of FAMUR SA, innovation stands for:
- new equipment or machines, previously not applied,
- new, technologies in the production of mining machinery and equipment, previously not applied,
- the emergence or invention of new structural materials,
- exploration of a new market we have not previously operated in,
- development of new mining technologies for new or already produced equipment,
- a change implemented by us in the competitive environment (e.g. in the form of an acquisition of a competitor).
In the history of our company, all of the aforementioned areas of innovation have been actively explored. It was not easy, however, to implement changes. The mining machinery market is difficult by nature. Nevertheless, in historical terms, mining was the place where innovative technical solutions have emerged.
Revolution 1.0 and 2.0
Nowadays, when we frequently discuss innovation and Industry 4.0, we tend to forget that the previous industrial revolutions began... in underground mining. Water was a serious problem for mines with increasingly deeper seams, and so as early as the late 17th century, steam engines were used in England for dewatering. One might therefore say that the first steam-powered machines were invented for the mining industry.
On the European continent, an engine of that type, namely the so-called Newcomen's "fire engine", was first launched in the Fryderyk mine in Tarnowskie Góry. Today, the application of steam machinery is referred to as the first industrial revolution (Industry 1.0). The same machines were first used in transport and production a hundred years later.
The second industrial revolution (Industry 2.0) is the introduction of assembly line and electric drive in the second half of the 19th century. Longwalls, often presented as an analogy of a production line, were described on the example of English and Scottish hard coal mines as early as in the 17th century. The first electric motors also appeared slightly earlier in the mines compared to above-ground factories.
As always, the details are important - speaking about the subsequent industrial revolutions, we refer to factory production and the basic process which takes place in the factories and generates income. Steam machines, electric drives, automation were introduced in mining earlier than in manufacturing, although in auxiliary processes only, which are necessary for mining to take place. Main feature of auxiliary processes is that they incur costs and expenses only, however, without them it is impossible to earn money on the core business, i.e. on the basic process.
What about further development?
Why, despite the application of many innovative solutions at the time, underground mining has never reached the level of Industry 3.0 in terms of the mining processes (extraction of mineral resources and transport of the output material to the place where it is used or processed)? William A. Hustrulid and Richard L. Bullock provide the answer to that question in their book on methods of underground mining: "Everything in the underground mine is a compromise between what looks good on paper and what the deposit (rock mass) will allow us to do!". An old German miners’ saying: "It is dark in front of the pickaxe" is also worth quoting here.
In modern factories, everything is constant - machines and equipment are in fixed positions relative to each other in production halls or in systems where predetermined conditions (e.g. temperature, humidity or pressure) are maintained. Anyone who has ever been to an underground mine knows that the conditions of the mining process are variable and that machines and equipment move as they empty the "warehouse" that nature has built up for us. Therefore, what can be automated in factories on the ground is much more difficult to automate in a mine.
And yet... Today we have almost forgotten that it was in the Polish coal mining industry that an effort was made over 50 years ago to create an automatic mining longwall. A few years later the first "Jan" Automated Coal Mine was launched in Katowice, near the FAMUR plant. Initially, three different variants of automatic longwalls were tested in the mines:
- ASI-1 (Automatic Isotopic Wall 1) in the "Zabrze" mine,
- BESTA (i.e. without regular longwall service) in the "Bielszowice" mine
- ASI-2 (Automatic Isotopic Wall 2) in the "Jan" Automated Coal Mine.
At that time, with the available technology, these were great achievements, but in the mid-1970s, any works devoted to those solutions were discontinued. They have proven to be too challenging for those times. Some technical solutions, such as electro-hydraulic control system of the powered roof supports, have become part of the world's mining technology. The achievements of the Polish mining industry were noticed, but it took time and development of other technologies to return to the idea of the automated longwall. This happened only after entering the path leading to Industry 3.0 in coal mining. What changed then?
- the requirements for occupational health and safety in mines have increased,
- the demands on the productivity of coal walls have increased and people have been recognized as the most imperfect "element" of the mining process - a machine does not think about family problems and can be equally efficient both during the day and at night,
- more and more expensive longwall equipment left no room for human error,
- machines tend to break down, but they don't go on strike.
These are the main reasons why the automation of extraction processes in longwalls has been pursued.
We continue to dream of "white-collar mining," and, around the world, we are striving to eliminate the physical presence of humans in mining faces during coal cutting processes. Our diagnostics and machine monitoring tools have become precise and reliable. We have introduced extensive automation solutions in longwall systems, but even in mining and geological conditions, which are much better than those found in Polish mines, they have not yet been able to eliminate the human factor in longwall exploration, because... "it is dark in front of the pickaxe".