Advanced Surface Mining Technology

Continuous Bucketwheel excavator.

The Australian black coal industry at the time of this project faced a difficult medium-term challenge. Based on then current technology, costs and coal prices then, many of the established coalfields, had depleted reserves of flat dip, shallow depth, and surface-mineable coal.

Maintaining Australia’s competitive position in the export market in coming years would become significantly more difficult given the mandatory requirement to mine deeper and/or more geologically complex structures.   In addition to having deeper overburden, these mines may have increasing levels of groundwater flows and other associated geotechnical problems.

In the past as overburden deepened, the need to move increasing volumes was largely solved by increasing stripping equipment size to gain economies of scale, increasing efficiencies and hence productivity gains.  However, stripping equipment sizes reached a plateau in the early 1970’s, and efficiency improvements were only marginal when mines were operating near full capacity.


In association with industry, The Warren Centre determined there was a need to review current surface coal-mining practices and investigate the potential new alternatives that could meet the mining parameters likely to confront the industry within the next 20 years.

The objectives of the project were to rank the application of existing equipment and systems, and any future innovative systems, in relation to their suitability for operation in the mines of the future. A team of 29 Project Fellows and Associates working in five task groups and on four case studies completed the project.


Coal stacker. Images courtesy of ThyssenKrupp Engineering (Australia).

The recommendations arising from this project included:

  • Need for advanced mine planning and pre strip programming to ensure that economic coal production levels could be maintained into the future;
  • Mining industry should maximise equipment availability and labour productivity, if Australian coal was to remain profitable in world markets;
  • Mining companies should take advantage of surface mining equipment not typically used in the Australian black coal industry;
  • In order to meet future mining requirements, the industry should investigate the use of largertrucks, even up to 1000 tonnes;
  • Engineering education should adapt to cater better for future new technologies in surface mining Australia should develop a mining equipment manufacturing industry, to maintain the wealth creating activities from the industry.


Major changes in the Australian surface coal-mining industry were consistent with the project’s recommendations:

  • A fundamental culture shift in the management and workforce of the major mining companies resulted in significant productivity improvements to the original mining systems;
  • As an example, in 1984, 45m draglines were reasonably expected to handle a total of 12 million cubic metres of overburden a year. Nearly 20 years on, these same draglines are handling 15 million cubic metres a year;
  • Other impressive improvements have been extracted from shovel/truck operations, where both operational (actual working hours) and technical (truck capacity) improvements have lifted fleet productivity from 1984 levels of approximately 4.5 million tonnes per annum to current levels of 20 million tonnes per annum;
  • The coal-mining industry established its own successful research and development capabilities in 1992 through the Australian Coal Association Research Program (ACARP). The major benefit is that research funds are targeted at the specific needs of the coal industry.

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