The mining industry is growing more competitive every day. Miners are looking for alternative ways to get the job done effectively and efficiently. Terrain leveler surface excavation machines (SEM) take a different approach to surface mining. They can help surface mine operators achieve optimum efficiency and productivity while shrinking the industry’s environmental footprint.

Relatively new to the surface mining industry, machines like the SEM turn a normally vertical process horizontal. They complement or can replace the vertical process of drilling and blasting by moving along the ground’s surface and crushing horizontal layers of rock, yielding material that can sometimes bypass a primary crusher. Though SEMs don’t always replace the primary crusher’s function, they do help streamline operations that are typically paced by the crusher’s volume capabilities.

“On a mine site where a primary crusher is used and the main method is drilling and blasting, oftentimes the capacity of that mine can be determined by the capacity of the primary crusher,” says Vermeer engineer Tyler Sikora. “If they need more capacity than the primary crusher, one option is to get an additional crusher. Another way is to add SEMs, which may produce product that can bypass the primary crusher, depending on how the operation is set up.”

Consistency is key

A terrain leveler SEM yields a consistently-sized end product. Since rock formations typically run horizontally in the ground, the ability to glean veins of material without blending in adjacent materials can lead to a higher-value end product.

“The terrain leveler SEM can yield a product that’s more convenient to handle.”

“This machine cuts the rock and leaves it right where it was within the cut. You are able to extract the high-grade product without having to blend it,” Sikora says. “At a limestone mine, if you encounter a clay seam in the rock, you have the ability to load the clay seam to waste without blending it in and having to send it through the plant. Being able to extract higher-value material can make you more efficient, because you may not have to process all that waste. You can take the low-grade or waste product straight to a waste pile.”

Output consistency can also contribute to the efficiency of operating a terrain leveler SEM at a surface mine. Drilling and blasting often yields inconsistently-sized rocks that must be crushed or broken down with a hammer on an excavator to attain the necessary level of output consistency. A terrain leveler SEM helps eliminate this step in the process.

“The terrain leveler SEM can produce consistently-sized product depending on how the formation is laid in the ground or weathered,” Sikora says. “Sometimes at drill-and-blast or ripping sites, you can have rocks the size of cars all the way to powder. The terrain leveler SEM can yield a product that’s more convenient to handle.”

New mining opportunities

A terrain leveler SEM’s compact and maneuverable footprint helps minimize noise and dust, allowing the machine to mine in areas off-limits to other mining methods. This is especially valuable in areas with rising populations, according to Sikora.

“Some just don’t want to deal with the risk of explosives anymore.”

“Surface excavation has been seriously looked at in terms of the benefits it provides by helping cut down on vibration and dust, especially when working around increasing populations and existing infrastructure. There are rules and guidelines depending on where you are working and how close you can work to things like highways, pipelines, rivers and power lines,” he says. “Having the ability to work closer to those things offers some additional efficiencies.”

Drill-and-blast methods require specific expertise and understanding of things like rock formations in order to effectively mine the highest-value materials. Terrain leveler SEMs do not require the use of explosives on jobsites.

Winning hearts and minds

“The handling and storage of explosives onsite is getting to be problematic in some areas of the world. And blasting is a real art. You have to know how to drill in certain patterns and load explosives correctly,” Sikora says. “Some just don’t want to deal with the risk of explosives anymore.”

Terrain leveler SEMs face headwinds to widespread adoption in the surface mining industry, but showcasing the features and benefits of the machines helps encourage people to keep an open mind.

“Drilling and blasting is kind of the old-school way of doing it, and sometimes people don’t want to change their processes. Others want to see what other efficiencies they can tap into, and showing our machines can help open up new possibilities,” Sikora says.