Customers in Action

SunHills Mining


September 10, 2015

Komatsu's mining equipment

SunHills Mining

TransAlta is one of the leading power-plant operators, not only in Canada, but also in the world. The century-old company, originally known as Calgary Power, operates plants in Canada, the United States and Australia. It is an award-winning firm frequently recognized for its efforts in sustainability. TransAlta facilities use a wide range of fuel sources including geothermal, wind, hydro, natural gas and coal.

SunHills Mining, a wholly owned subsidiary of TransAlta, operates the TransAlta-owned Highvale Coal Mine, which, at 12,600 hectares, is the largest surface mine in Canada. The peninsula-shaped mine is about 38 kilometres long, but only a couple of kilometres wide and is south of Lake Wabamun. Located about 70 kilometres west of Edmonton, the Highvale mine supplies coal to power three nearby TransAlta plants – Sundance, Keephills and Keephills 3.

“Except for a relatively small amount of outside sales, we deliver coal directly to the plants – mine-to-mouth,” said SunHills Operations Manager Mike Lydon. “We produce about 14-million tonnes annually, with about 8-million tonnes going to Sundance and 5-million tonnes to the Keephills plants. Another million tonnes or so gets sold externally.”

“Power from the plants is supplied through the Alberta Interconnected Electrical System,” said SunHills Maintenance Manager John Grayson.

To produce the 14-million tonnes of coal, SunHills Mining runs a major earthmoving operation at Highvale. To reach the coal, the company moves more than 100-million total cubic metres (TCMs) of overburden and interburden annually.

“Our strip ratio, on average, is about seven-to-one,” said Lydon. “We do about 35-million TCMs in pre-strip operations, about 60-million TCMs with draglines and about 6-million TCMs of interburden, which is the material between two coal seams. So when you total everything including the coal, we were in the neighbourhood of 120-million TCMs of material moved in 2014.”

Lydon, Grayson and Supply Chain Manager Jonathan Soper help General Manager Ryan Braden oversee operations at the Highvale mine.

Komatsu trucks and dozers

SunHills Mining

While most of the overburden at the Highvale mine is removed with draglines, including the largest dragline manufactured today, SunHills Mining also has a large fleet of mobile equipment for use in what it calls pre-strip operations.

“We might have 21 metres or more of overburden to remove to get to a coal seam,” Lydon explained. “Draglines are maximally effective only for the final 12 metres, so we pre-strip to get down to that 12-metre level where the draglines can take over.”

SunHills Mining uses “support equipment” to pre-strip and to remove interburden. That support equipment includes nine Komatsu 930E haul trucks (300-ton) and four Komatsu D475 dozers (664 kW), as well as a D375 dozer and a D275 dozer.

“We started running Komatsu 930E trucks in 2008, when four of the units were transferred here from a closed TransAlta mine in Washington, where I had worked prior to coming here,” said Lydon. “We added another 930E shortly after that, then brought on four more about two years ago. We primarily use them to haul overburden during pre-strip operations.”

“As for the large dozers, about a year or year-and-a-half ago, SMS invited us to take a look at some of the modifications they had done to the D475,” Grayson explained. “There were some things we thought were lacking in the original machine – maneuverability, control and access to repairs among them. They showed us what they had done to address the concerns we had – and we agreed, it looked like a much-improved dozer for our purposes. So, when the opportunity arose for us to freshen our large-dozer fleet last summer, we decided to go with the Komatsu D475.”

Lydon says dozer upgrades he suggested included cab mounts, a stabilizer and moving the bogies. The result?

“So far, so good,” Lydon said. “Feedback from operators is favourable. We use our D475s in pre-strip and to deal with interburden. They’re great at ripping, pushing and piling. Mechanical availability has been tremendous. Uptime is crucial for us because it’s how we keep production high.”

SMS “brings a lot to the table”

SunHills Mining

Both Lydon and Grayson say that type of commitment from SMS is a big reason why SunHills Mining has Komatsu trucks and dozers.

“Dealer support is very important to us, and SMS definitely delivers on that,” said Lydon. “Putting an extra D475 on-site shows their commitment to helping us succeed. We’re not in it alone. SMS is looking out for us and is always trying to come up with answers to our problems. We definitely appreciate that type of support.”

“The ‘swing dozer’ is just one example of how SMS works with us to help us do our jobs better and more efficiently,” added Grayson. “Another example is our 930E trucks. The new ones have worked well, but we were having some availability issues, especially with the older models. So, working hand-in-hand with SMS, we went through a substantial rebuild this year on a lot of the old trucks, and some of the newer ones. We checked everything from hoses to harnesses – items that SMS recommended – to improve machine availability. As a result, we expect significantly improved performance going forward.”

SunHills Mining employs 170 mechanics, welders, electricians and labour servicemen in its maintenance/service division, but the company also counts on SMS for service.

“SMS provides support on our rolling stock, mostly Komatsu trucks and dozers, but other brands too,” said Grayson. “SMS helps us with rebuilds, provides expertise on advanced electronics and helps us during peaks when all our employees are busy. We probably average having two SMS technicians here every day. In addition to our rolling stock, SMS has been able to provide a lot of expertise on our draglines and shovels. We’ve also used them for projects such as fabricating specialized dump bodies for some of our trucks.”

“Beyond the rolling stock, we’ve done plant work for them,” said SMS PSSR Rick Randall. “We’ve fabricated coal chutes, and done some hydraulic, gearbox and fluid-coupling repairs. We also help them maintain lube islands in the mine.”

“We try to be a source for SunHills, and all of our mining customers, beyond just supplying them with what we think is the best equipment,” added SMS Mining Sales Rep Darren Chvojka. “We have tradesmen with diverse backgrounds who can often come up with answers to problems – whether or not they have anything to do with Komatsu equipment.”

SunHills Mining and SMS have regularly scheduled “stewardship meetings” to discuss issues and overall operations.

“The idea is to be able to discuss solutions and directions that will help us be more efficient in our operations,” said Grayson. “The meetings are about continuous improvement in all phases of our business, and during them, SMS has often discovered opportunities to help us out. As an example, Rick Randall was instrumental in helping us clean up our fuel systems. We really didn’t even know we had a problem, but after hearing some of the issues we expressed during a stewardship meeting, he figured out we had a filtration issue.”

“One of the biggest benefits we get from SMS is outside of the normal day-to-day routine,” said Soper. “There are things we might be struggling with, and SMS can sometimes come in as an outsider, look at everything with a fresh set of eyes, and give us solutions. They have a lot of expertise that we can use to positively impact our bottom line.”

“The support we get from SMS goes well beyond fixing a truck or a dozer or bringing us a part,” added Grayson. “They help us be more proactive. We believe SMS brings a lot to the table for us and we like working with them.”

24/7 and 365

More than 700 people work for SunHills Mining at the Highvale mine, and that’s likely to grow. Production is 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week and 365-days-a-year.

“The Highvale mine has been operational since 1970, but there are reserves for another 40-plus years at current production levels,” said Lydon. “The Keephills 3 plant came online just a few years ago, and it’s a 50-year plant, the most technologically advanced in Canada, so clearly, TransAlta has plans for us to be here for a while. We have three active pits right now, but to meet expected demand, we’re planning to bring others into play in the years to come.”