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Surface excavation machines offer solutions to
Technology alleviates drill and blast issues, can excavate
material that otherwise could be left behind
April 2016
If you ask people who run quarries what their biggest pain point is, they’re likely to say transporting their
product. It’s expensive, and the logistics involved can be challenging.
Because the products excavated from quarries are mostly used as building materials, the goal has
traditionally been to locate quarries near where road and other construction jobs are taking place. This is
typically in urban areas — and that is increasingly becoming an even bigger pain for mining companies.
That’s because one of the major trends in the mining industry is growing regulations on drilling and
blasting methods due to environmental and safety concerns. Compounding this is the fact that the world
is becoming more urban, with cities expanding into rural areas.
“The trend globally is drilling and blasting is becoming more restrictive,” says Chris Lynch, sales manager
for the mining and pipeline group at Vermeer, a U.S.-based equipment manufacturer. “I can’t think of
anywhere in the world where it’s not becoming more restrictive.”
More and more quarries are turning to surface excavation machines as a solution. These mobile units use
a cutting drum to mechanically excavate materials. Their advantages over drilling and blasting are
They can access areas in surface mines where drilling and blasting cannot either because of
physical or permitting limitations.
They are low in noise, dust and vibration compared with drill and blast.
They cut more precisely.
They produce a smaller, more consistent particle size.
They can take steps out of the mining process, such as the elimination of a primary crusher.
They can complement drill and blast and don’t necessarily need to replace that method.
They not only mine material, but they can be used for site preparation and haul road construction
and maintenance.
Lynch and Patrick Robinson, senior commercialization manager for mining at Vermeer, have seen these
benefits in action. There’s a customer using a Terrain Leveler® surface excavation machine (SEM) from
Vermeer who has chosen not to use a primary crusher because the Terrain Leveler SEM can consistently
produce a 6-inch minus particle size.
Another customer is a South American company that still has a million tons of mineable product, but it
can no longer drill and blast because of nearby pipelines, powerlines and roads.
“The surface excavation machine is getting that last remaining bit of aggregate,” Robinson says. “The site
is already permitted, but if not for the surface excavation machine, it would probably be abandoned
because drill and blast is no longer an option.”
Awareness of surface excavation machines is growing, but an explanation of the technology is still
helpful. Machines vary by manufacturer, but generally, as the unit moves on tracks, its cutting drum
rotates and the teeth on the drum cut the material into a consistent-sized product. An operator can control
product size by adjusting the depth of the cut and the speed of the machine.
To give an example, the Vermeer T1255 Terrain Leveler® surface excavation machine has a 600horsepower (447 kW) engine and can cut a swath up to 27 inches (68.6 cm) deep and 12 feet (3.7 m)
wide in a single pass. It can be equipped with an optional GPS for precision cutting, allowing an operator
to use the full length of the drum and minimize the overlap with each pass.
Additionally a survey can be taken of the quarry and a flitch plan can be created. That plan can be
uploaded into a computer on the machine, combining the GPS control and tilting cutter head, allowing for
straight-line tracking that cuts to the desired grade and depth. This control gives the operator the ability to
cut in layers, cut compound slopes, follow the ore body and remove the waste element from it. Drill and
blast advocates will say they can blast precisely, but they can’t be as precise as a surface excavation
Vermeer machines differ from competing models by using a top-down cutting motion, which allows the
cutter teeth to penetrate without using the machine’s tractive effort. As the Terrain Leveler machine
moves forward and the drum rotates, the teeth on top of the drum advance over the top of the unbroken
material surface. A patented tilting cutter drum offers two-direction leveling, which helps to keep the drum
on grade, whether cutting a smooth floor or compound curve, and aids production.
Surface excavation machines are making a name for themselves as regulations on drilling and blasting
“China and Brazil are rapidly becoming more restrictive on where miners can drill and blast,” Robinson
says. “The U.S. has always maintained high restrictions, but those are ever increasing. In fact, most
western countries, in particular Europe, are becoming very strict as well.”
Many of the reasons for this are environmental, including efforts to reduce noise, vibration and dust.
Surface excavation machines have advantages with all of these over drilling and blasting.
First, it may go without saying, but these machines are quieter and create less vibration than explosives.
And if transporting material is a quarry’s biggest pain point, Lynch says dust ranks right up there for all
surface mines and also site preparation, which is another application in which a surface excavation
machine can be used. Some companies are spending time and effort having trucks continually spraying
roads with water to help reduce dust. In certain minerals such as gypsum, water mixed with dust turns
into what is essentially a joint compound that becomes sloppy and hard to drive through, adding another
The Terrain Leveler surface excavation machine offers an optional traditional water spray bar for dust
suppression, as well as an optional dust-collection system that uses vacuum technology instead of
spraying to reduce the amount of dust that enters the environment while the machine is breaking rock.
Another issue quarries encounter is water tables. An example is when a quarry wants to lower its floor,
but drilling and blasting carries the risk of fracturing the layer between the floor and a water table, which
could flood the pit and render it useless. A surface excavation machine can more precisely undertake that
Many areas permitted for mining have oil and gas pipelines on them, and the pipeline companies don’t
allow drilling and blasting within certain distances of their pipelines.
“The pipelines are on permitted ground that still have a lot of aggregate that’s minable, but the mining
company cannot get to it with drilling and blasting techniques,” Robinson says. “That’s when a surface
excavation machine is a viable solution.”
Permitting is a huge issue in the mining industry.
“Getting a new surface mine opened, passing all of the government regulations and getting permitted, is
extremely hard and takes years and years,” Lynch says. “So the ability to go into these mines that already
have the permits and be able to mine there in a way that’s accepted environmentally is a big advantage of
a surface excavation machine.”
In some of these situations, a surface excavation machine is used to complement drilling and blasting.
Mining may start with that traditional technique, but if a quarry gets to a point where material cannot be
excavated by drilling and blasting, a surface excavation machine can be brought in to finish the job
instead of leaving valuable material left untouched.
“The Terrain Leveler allows our customers to excavate these reserves they couldn’t otherwise get to that
they’ve already spent time and money permitting,” Robinson says. “At Vermeer, we help customers
worldwide integrate our surface excavation technology with their drill and blast program, whether there
are caves, pipelines, water tables or whatever issue prevents them from using explosives.”
Not only can surface excavation machines help quarries mine material they otherwise could not reach,
there also are ancillary benefits with the technology.
A big one is the reduced need for, or even elimination of, primary crushers. The large material left after
drilling and blasting must be processed by a primary crusher. But a surface excavation machine creates
smaller particles that may not need to go to a primary crusher. This in turn lowers the need for large
loaders and haul trucks to transport the material to crushers, along with permits often required to
transport material.
“The lead time to get a primary crusher permitted and installed can often be two or three years,” Lynch
says. “It is often the most expensive piece of equipment for a mine to maintain. You may be alleviating
that cost when you use surface excavation technology.”
When hauling is needed, a surface excavation machine may allow for more material to be placed in
trucks and loaders because the smaller, consistently sized product wastes less space than the larger
materials from drilling and blasting, which tend to have lots of gaps between each other. Smaller loaders
and trucks typically have lower purchase prices and maintenance costs. They also put less wear and tear
on haul roads.
It’s not only about reducing the size of the material. A surface excavation machine’s ability to control
product size can lead to a reduction in fines compared with drill and blast. This could lead to an increased
life and reserves for a mine.
A surface excavation machine also offers the potential of allowing a quarry to get to market faster. The
infrastructure and planning needed for drill and blast — conveyer systems, purchasing and setting up
large pieces of equipment like primary crushers, permits — can take years.
There are several steps a quarry can take if it wants to explore the possibility of using a surface
excavation machine. First should be analyzing rock samples. Vermeer has its own rock lab. The test can
indicate whether a surface excavation machine is a good fit.
Next is a more in-depth analysis, with a specialist sent to the quarry to survey the site, do a point load test
and perform other inquiries to further determine if a surface excavation machine will fit the customer’s
needs. Information also is collected to help estimate production and the cost per ton.
Surface excavation machines work best in long pits because that minimizes turnaround. Lynch suggests
mining companies look for machines that can turn on their axis instead of taking long, dramatic turns.
Another thing to consider is whether a machine is capable of cutting along a highwall. If drilling and
blasting was used at a site, there probably is a highwall there. Not all surface excavation machines can
extract material close to a highwall.
Lynch and Robinson have seen a growing interest from mining companies and site prep contractors from
around the globe who are seeking alternatives to drilling and blasting. Surface excavation machines
provide a solution to help those customers improve their productivity and efficiency.
To learn how you can put Vermeer equipment to work in your operation, connect with your local Vermeer
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Company in the U.S. and/or other countries.
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