Somewhere in the 1,500 miles of tunnels at the El Teniente mine in Chile’s central O’Higgins Region, a mammoth truck gets a flat tire. For decades, such a simple breakdown was cause for worry. Workers had to squeeze into the space between truck and tunnel wall. A wrong move in freeing the one-ton wheel could let it slip, potentially crushing a miner. And speed counts, as mines can’t leave tunnels blocked all day. Today, a wheel-hoisting robot made by Santiago-based FMA Industrial does much of the work, reducing risks.
“Our trick was to look for niches,” says CEO and co-owner Hernán Restini. “Big companies don’t provide solutions for these sorts of problems, because they are case-by-case. There’s no standard equipment.”
FMA, originally a maker of agricultural implements, is now entirely dedicated to the mining sector. The company aims to use its presence on the ground in one of the world’s top mining countries to help it keep growing at 10 to 15 percent per year, Restini says, noting that sales are expected to reach around US$11 million this year, 10 times more than a decade ago.
Growth has come from listening to customers, he says. The company employs eight full-time engineers in its staff of 110. It recently opened a workshop and yard in Antofagasta to be closer to the big mines, where it gets ideas. He says new designs often come from hearing mine managers describe what causes injuries.
“There are two mining problems that urgently need to be solved. One is worker safety,” he says. Some tasks have never been automated, while others leave workers exposed to peril. “The second is that there are operations that can be automated, mechanically or hydraulically, cutting the number of people who are working.”
In its 45,000-foot workshop on a 30-acre Santiago lot, worker safety and automated processes are apparent. A welder in nearly opaque goggles and steel-toed boots glances back and forth between a computer screen and the blazing light of a digitally controlled plasma cutting torch. The machine, when fitted with its most powerful torch, can slice steel plates as thick as battleship armor into smooth curves. Robotic drills and cutters take orders straight from engineers’ desks.
The company’s specialties are devices to help change tires on heavy mining vehicles and tools to handle the fat cables that feed electricity to mining scoops. It is also selling a new device that collects the used steel cables that often litter mine sites. Anglo American, one of the company’s many clients in Chile, just bought a unit for its Los Bronces mine near Santiago, Restini says. Cable and wheel-handling machines account for three quarters of the company’s receipts he adds.
FMA also makes attachments for loaders, excavators and forklifts made by bigger manufacturers.
“You can buy a piece of equipment from Caterpillar and it might come with an FMA attachment,” Restini says. Representatives of global brands sometimes buy made-to-order specialty tools from FMA to reduce delivery time, he says.
Each mine has its own needs, he says. An attachment to extract truck wheels will differ depending on what kind of forklift or earthmover it’s connected to, and there may be other differences between mines. Such bespoke work is easier for a smaller company, he says.
The company has three ISO certifications, for quality, safety and environment, which it renews annually. It got certified three years ago after about a year and a half of “relatively difficult” effort, Restini says.
FMA started working on mining equipment in a joint venture with Imac Design Group of Canada in the 1990s. That period gave the company more expertise in welding and how to fit attachments on a variety of heavy machinery. The Chilean owners bought out Imac in 2003, and have since focused on developing niche tools. It now exports 70 percent of its production, registering sales as far afield as Mongolia, Botswana and France.
In the United States, Asarco’s Ray Operations in Arizona, Luminant Mining in Dallas and Drummond Co. in Alabama have all bought FMA equipment, Restini says.
Working out of Chile is an advantage for an exporter, he says. Chile’s free trade agreement with China means that his customers there pay no import duties – an advantage over US manufacturers of mining equipment that are subject to Chinese duties.
FMA holds three patents, Restini says. But most of its work has been in adapting existing ideas for new demands. Adaptations may not qualify for patents, he says. Rather than relying on industrial property protection, FMA tries to use reliability, prompt delivery and innovative solutions in order to keep clients.
The company’s latest invention remains within its core areas of handling wheels and cables. FMA engineers heard that removing lug nuts from the wheels of mining vehicles can be dangerous. With the release of the final nut, a wheel that could weigh as much as three tons could roll free and injure or kill workers. The company developed a tool that unfastens nuts while holding the wheel in place. Restini plans to show the device at the MinExpo show in Las Vegas in September.
Customers’ need for immediate worldwide service can pose a challenge, Restini says. When an FMA machine has trouble, it is often the only one of its kind at a mine, and it needs to be fixed at once. A recent service trip to Mongolia took weeks as the technician had to get a visa and fly through a series of other countries in order to arrive.
All the same, he says service is the company’s hope for surviving the business cycle. If mineral prices decline and purchases of new equipment slow, Restini hopes service and support on the company’s installed stock will provide income through lean times.
Another growing risk is public opposition to big mines. FMA machinery has been selected for the Conga mine in Peru, for example. But mine development has been halted since November because of protests over possible impacts on agriculture. Barrick Gold’s Pascua Lama mine on the Chile-Argentina border, another FMA client, was delayed for years as the two countries decided whether to accept environmental impacts.
For now, the big mines keep buying. On the company’s lot is a flatbed fitted with a cable handling machine able to spool 900 meters of 2-inch cable. It’s about to ship to Botswana.
Steven Bodzin is a freelance journalist based in Santiago