by Jon M. Casey
For those who are not familiar, Luck Stone is the oldest division of Luck Companies, headquartered in Richmond, VA. Founded in 1923, the company has grown to become one of the largest family owned and operated producers of crushed stone, sand and gravel in the U.S. With 90 years of dedication to customer service coupled with the highest standards for quality and safety, it is no wonder that innovative ideas like the company’s unmanned pit loader, is making news in recent months. In a recent demonstration, hosted by company President, Bob Grauer, at Luck Stone’s Bull Run facility near Chantilly, VA, we were able to gain a better understanding of the importance of this creative way to load aggregate, especially since the idea came from a team of employees who meet regularly for just such brainstorming sessions.
“Innovation has been a very important part of our company for a long time,” said Grauer, as we discussed how the idea of the remote controlled loader came to fruition. “We were one of the first companies to go from steam to electric power in our quarry operations and in the 1970s, we were the leaders in fully automating crushing plants. More recently, we developed a load management and dispatch tool that we provide to the trucking companies that haul for us along with a customer app that is available at the Apple I-Store.
Grauer said that Luck Stone is a values based business focused on leadership, commitment, integrity and creativity. So, when innovative ideas like the loader are proposed, they are examined closely. Often, they are customer inspired so that when they process decisions like the loader, Luck has their customers in mind. It was with Luck Stone’s Fairfax, VA quarry customers that they were considering when they formed the group to consider ways to extend the life of that quarry, since its reserves are due to be exhausted within the next decade or so. Foremost, the Luck team was looking for ways to maximize the reserves of that quarry, efficiently and safely.
“We were thinking if we could mine the last two benches of material from that quarry (and do it safely and thoroughly), there were sufficient economic drivers for finding a solution to that problem,” he said. “As you mine at those lower levels, there is less operating room, with operators close to the high wall.”
Grauer explained that it was during this session that one of Luck’s associates, John Thompson, a regional operations manager with previous underground mining experience, suggested the idea of remote controlled equipment with another person asking, “what if there were no operator in the machine?”
“With that suggestion in mind, our company engineers sought out a technology partner who could write an interface program that would allow operators to run the machine remotely,” he said. “We had previous experience with the electronics over hydraulics applications but not with a machine of this kind.”
“We chose Anchises Technology Co., Ltd. out of Canada, to help us with that side of the system design,” he said. “Our group that oversaw the project included people from engineering, operations and a division we call innovation. They worked with Anchises. Beth Hildebrandt did the project management. John Thompson led the way to help maximize the reserves at Fairfax.”
“It probably took about eight months from concept to completion, to automate the machine so that we could run in full production mode. Now we are able to run the CAT loader from a remote control unit that is within sight of the loader. It’s not like drone technology where someone from miles away operates the unit. Perhaps the day will come where the operator may not be on site with the equipment, but for now, we operate line of sight,” he said.
He said the work was all done by Luck Stone mechanics. That included the hydraulic, electrical components. More importantly, it was designed so that with the flip of a switch, it could be operated remotely or in the conventional, manual mode; with an operator onboard, as desired. “We were looking for that kind of flexibility,” he said. “This is a special application machine and is currently in use here at Bull Run. This is a unique solution to a specific problem and what is so rewarding is that our people got together and challenged convention to solve the problem.”
He added that eventually, when it is time to have a remote loader like this one in service at the Fairfax quarry, they would duplicate the technology there. Currently, this machine is used regularly especially in conjunction with the installation of a new primary, gyratory crusher that will be recessed into a slot in a high wall with a tall face, part of a new plant — a work in progress. With the remote loader, they pulled material away from the wall and that eliminated the need for costly scaling as a matter of safety. They also use the loader in the pit for removing shot rock from the base of highwalls where loose material above poses an excessive hazard.
Grauer said that they do not plan to commercialize this technology however if there are others who would find this technology useful in their own capabilities, they would be free to contact Anchises Technology Co., Ltd. and Luck Stone would be happy to help make the contact if necessary. For more information visit www.luckstone.com .