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Article published by International Mining 

Today’s mining operations want maximum efficiency and durability for their conveyor systems, despite these installations becoming larger and more complex. But the technology and service providers are up to the challenge. 

Paul Moore spoke to David Landgren, Fenner Dunlop Executive Director, about the mining conveyor market and its role as a leading supplier of belting solutions.

Are you seeing the mining industry investing in larger and higher capacity conveyors as well as those incorporating steel uphill/downhill sections as well as curves? 

Yes. While the conveyor versus truck choice depends on mine specific conditions, we are seeing a trend with existing miners to expand near field developments and utilise existing infrastructure via long connecting overland conveyors. Iron ore expansion is a good example of this – we are the OEM for BHP’s South Flank overland conveyor. Longer conveyors mean logically more geographical challenges, so conveyors with inclines and declines are part of that challenge. The drive for increased production will always drive conveyors to have larger capacity. This is a trend seen over many decades.

As a leading global conveyor belt supplier to the mining industry what does that mean in terms of the design of belts and aspects such as durability? 

Longer conveyors mean increased energy requirements to drive larger loads over longer distances. Low rolling resistance rubber on the pulley side of the conveyor belt to reduce friction and therefore energy has been around for a long time in conveyors, as it has been in the tire industry. Fenner Dunlop with the support of Michelin has made great breakthroughs in this area in recent years and is one of the reasons we have been so successful in supplying so many energy efficient overland conveyors.

With many big open pits going underground, is there also increasing demand for conveyors that incorporate both surface and underground sections? 

Traditionally materials handling in above ground coal mining has been the domain of trucks and underground the domain of conveyors. When open cut mines go underground it is almost exclusively with conveyors. We are currently designing and supplying the whole conveyor system at Anglo American’s Aquila mine as they develop underground.      

Has the advent of gearless driven conveyors meant any changes to how belts are designed or maintained? 

In a similar line to the requirement of reducing power consumption for high capacity conveyors on the belting side the equipment providing the input power is also critical in the design. Gearless conveyors provide an improvement in efficiency, maintenance requirements and reliability with the removal of the gearbox. A combination of an engineered conveyor solution utilising technologies such as gearless driven conveyors, low rolling resistance belt, dynamic electrical control systems and condition monitoring will continually develop the improvement in belt selection, design and maintenance.  

Many companies are now looking at on-conveyor analysis and bulk sorting solutions; has this also meant any changes in the conveyor belt approach/strategy? 

As with the rest of the mining industry, the concepts of a smart conveyor is the clear future direction for the materials handling industry. We have invested in technologies focused on asset health and predicting life performance, such as our Online Thickness Tester which we see as key technology to assist mines in better planning conveyor shutdowns. The more information, the better the decisions to increase productivity and lower cost.     

What are mining operators asking you for today as a conveyor belt solutions supplier? 

The key message remains to increase the life of conveyor. Generally this means better abrasion and impact resistance on the carry cover and lower energy requirements, driven by specialised rubbers and belt constructions. None of this is new - the difference is now mining operators have better information to substantiate the value proposition. The recent trends we’ve seen is a move away from Steel Cord reinforced to High tension Fabric belts, such as our USFlex product, to improve impact resistance and tear resistance, seeing and a shift away from low cost country supply to consistent quality given increased performance information - this is consistent with our business model.

How closely do you work with the company that builds the conveyor installation itself? Or is the norm just to work mainly with the mining company/operator? Are you normally involved from the design phase?

Very closely! We design, construct and supply whole conveyors including electrical systems. We have been doing this since 2012 when we acquired Australian Conveyor Engineering and we are the only Conveyor Belting OEM in Australia that do this. We have three pillars to our business – engineering, services and belt supply. Currently we have a 20/40/40 split on sales and our goal is to have them as equal contributors in the near term. Our engineering business is our fastest growing business. When we design, manufacture, supply, service and condition monitor all the conveyor components, we have total accountability for the conveyor performance and that’s where our Engineered Conveyor Solutions outshine our competitors.

There has been a lot of industry consolidation to the point where there are now only a few major premium players like Contitech/Phoenix and Fenner Dunlop/Michelin. Has this meant that there is now more competition from lower tier players eg Indian and Chinese suppliers offering slightly lower quality but also a lower price? 

Lower prices from emerging economy suppliers have affected price over the last decade. The difference is now increases in product performance information mean customers can prove performance. We have just been through a tender process with a major miners where we were successful because the customer could prove we had the best product. The value proposition for the customer will always be performance over price because the economic cost of not having tonnes on a ship or train is so high. We are not seeing any real improvements in the quality of emerging economy belts because performance and cost is driven by the quality of inputs used and these countries generally use the cheapest. Customers are also under pressure to keep working capital and particularly inventory to a minimum and Fenner Dunlop’s strategy of having the most state of the art manufacturing as close to the end user as possible is a significant advantage for achieving those goals. It not only reduces lead times for our customers but guarantees customers have consistent quality engineered products every time, from a reliable local source that treats their business as a local priority.