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Thiess join forces with WesTrac and Caterpillar® to hit one million metre autonomous drilling milestone at Mt Arthur South

Leading Cat® dealer WesTrac has joined long-term customer and leading global mining services provider Thiess celebrating an autonomous drilling record set at Thiess’ Mt Arthur South operation in New South Wales.

The milestone of one million metres drilled autonomously was reached last month using a fleet of three Cat MD-series drills running with the Cat MineStar™ Command Autonomous Drill System (ADS).

WesTrac Technology Solutions Manager Nakia Brewer says the achievement not only reflects a highly successful deployment of Cat-built autonomous drills, but the strength of a technology-driven partnership that developed and rolled out the program in a cleverly phased approach.

“When implementing new technology, it is crucial that there is a clear understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve – in this case it was to reduce operating costs and increase consistency of drilling,” he says.

“The way in which Thiess approach technology, understanding the problem statement and how technology will ultimately solve that for them, is world leading.”

WesTrac, Caterpillar and Thiess began the program in 2019 and following a multi-phase three-year journey, enabled a remotely located operator to control the three drills, a Cat MD6250 and two MD6310s, simultaneously.

Thiess Head of Autonomy and Operations Technology Trent Smith says the program’s adoption of technology closely considered its integration with people and process, with a strong focus on change management.

“Achieving one million metres drilled autonomously is something we're very proud of,” Trent said.

“Working in partnership with WesTrac and Caterpillar we took a drill that didn't have any automation capability and went on the journey as a team to bring through what is now three drills running autonomously with a single controller.”

“We initially needed to select reliable technology that could deliver operationally and implement it in the right application. Then we addressed the change management around people and process to ensure we delivered the performance."

“It's been quite exciting to see a technology product from its very infancy all the way through to an autonomous operation, and the Mt Arthur South project realising value from it.”

Thiess Group Executive, Assets, Autonomy and Digital Ramesh Liyanage added that Thiess was proud to be a leader in automation and autonomy for mining services.

“Since introducing this technology at Mt Arthur South in 2021, we have recorded a 20 per cent improvement in drilling performance, up to eight per cent reduction in fuel use, more consistent drill hole quality, accuracy and depth, and drill utilisation of up to 23 hours per day,” he said.

"This year, we are also celebrating another momentous occasion; Thiess' 90th anniversary. Since our humble beginnings in 1934, our pioneering spirit has been the driving force behind our success.

"This milestone achieved, safely drilling more than one million metres autonomously at Thiess' Mt Arthur South, is a testament to this spirit, and we couldn't be prouder of the team."

Thiess upskilled more than 30 of its people at Mt Arthur South from traditional drill controllers to autonomous operators, and a range of other support functions during the million-metre journey. And more broadly, it has invested in autonomous mining systems training for more than 500 employees.

Thiess views an opportunity to grow automation capability across trucks, drills, and dozers not just in Australia, but at regional level across Asia and the Americas, as well as investigating rolling out future remote hub operations.

According to WesTrac NSW Mining Business Manager Craig Morris, demand for Cat-powered autonomous drilling solutions is on the rise and he agreed that much of the program’s success is owed to effective change management including the efficiency achieved through technology applied to Cat machines.

“A significant amount of effort went in at the start between all parties, in terms of being engaged and onboard. It was a rigorous change management process, and numerous learnings came from that, which is what made it successful,” he says.

“For WesTrac, it was fantastic to have a partner that wanted to prove out the concepts of the autonomous drill and ensure it resulted in a positive outcome.”

Thiess join forces with WesTrac and Caterpillar® to hit one million metre autonomous drilling milestone at Mt Arthur South