"Robbins is known for taking on challenges – navigating through bad ground conditions and getting out of them – and that is what we are going to continue to do."
How does Robbins’ Mine Development Machine (MDM) 5000 underground mechanical excavation equipment work?
The Mine Development Machine (MDM) is specifically designed as a mechanical excavation machine, like a TBM, for mining applications. Historically, 99% of TBMs have made a round tunnel, which is not a good shape in the mining industry as miners use vehicles to extract the ore. Robbins’ aim was to give miners access tunnels using mechanical boring means, but with a flat floor and good ground support. We thus developed the MDM which is in effect a TBM designed to achieve a flat floor, and which can make a tunnel much faster than what can be accomplished with mechanical drill and blast.
What trends have you noticed as mines transition to underground operations?
Mines have to mechanize in the drive towards automation. Without mechanized boring you continue to drill and blast everything, which is a long hard chore. Mining companies are starting to realize that the only way to go to mechanized mining underground is to accept mechanical excavation. We are already seeing more demand coming from industry. We also foresee that in the next 10 years we will actually be mechanically excavating ore bodies. Although this trend might be slow to take off, we expect huge demand in the future. Environmental consciousness is also driving the trend towards underground mining and mechanical excavation as nobody wants to see big open pits and piles of tailings.
What are some of the standout mining projects Robbins has been involved in?
In my early days at Robbins, we introduced raise boring machines to mines around the world. More recently, the company worked with Stillwater Mining in Montana where we sent in four round TBM machines for advanced exploration. Approximately six years ago, we did a decline entry for a coal mine in Queensland where we started from surface, bored down to the coal seam, extracted the TBM from the first heading, and then moved it over into another heading.
Can you tell us about Robbins’ involvement at the Los Condores Hydroelectric Power Project in Chile?
The project did not go 100% as intended because the geological horizon of the power plant and tunnels was not defined enough and, when we brought in the machines to bore the tunnels, there were more geological difficulties encountered than expected. Robbins, Enel and the contractor worked well together to work through the more difficult conditions and the two machines we supplied worked well.
Robbins also worked on the Olmos Trans-Andean Tunnel. What are some of the main challenges when tunneling in the Andean region?
In high mountain tunneling you have significant high cover above you which means the rock stress changes – the deeper you go the more the stress. Rock stress changes usually end up in rock bursting and groundwater can also be a challenge. The fact that we had to finish the Olmos tunnel even when rock burst conditions were horrendous was quite challenging but the project was successful. I believe that today we are ready to take on any condition as we can address high stresses, heat, and water inflows.
What type of partnerships are you looking for with mining companies and contractors?
We are not just an equipment supplier and we are looking to take on a partner role with mining companies and contractors. Because the mining contractors are very used to drill and blast, part of the partnership has to involve bringing in the expertise of mechanical excavation to refine expertise and ensure success.
Robbins celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. What would you say have been the key factors behind the company’s longevity?
Robbins has always been at the forefront of innovation in the industry. On the civil side, we were the first to invent modern TBMs in 1952, and then we moved into innovating for mines with raise boring and non-circular excavation solutions. Innovation is critical. It involves risk, but you have to take on challenges to continue moving forward. Robbins is known for taking on challenges – navigating through bad ground conditions and getting out of them – and that is what we are going to continue to do. The idea of innovation is a collaborative thing, and we have the willingness to work with mines and contractors to develop solutions that are not yet in the marketplace.