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Hidden Costs of Operating Mining Equipment

Thu August 03, 2023 - National Edition
Fortis HD


The mining industry requires bigger pieces of heavy equipment than any other industry. For you to know how massive these machines are, we'll mention five of them, starting from the "smaller one":

  • Epiroc Pit Viper 291 drill rig, operating weight of 95 tons.
  • Komatsu D575A-3SD crawler tractor, operating weight of 126.3 tons.
  • Metso Lokotrack LT200E mobile jaw crusher plant, operating weight of 850 tons.
  • Caterpillar 6090 FS hydraulic shovel, operating weight of 1,102 tons.
  • Bagger 293 bucket wheel excavator, operating weight of 14,200 tons.

Aside from the impressive size, these machines have something in common: tracked undercarriages for support, stability and movement.

Within the undercarriage, track chains — links, pins, bushings and shoes — support the machine's weight while providing traction. In the mining industry, track chains must endure tremendous compressive forces throughout their lifespan.

To avoid failure, OEM engineers and manufacturers consider the anticipated compressive loads when designing and manufacturing track links.

Regardless of the risks, a common trend to reduce costs in the mining industry is to purchase aftermarket chains instead of OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer).

Despite the upfront savings, consider the hidden costs and implications of cheaper track chain alternatives. You are reducing costs because cheap manufacturers also reduce theirs by using inferior manufacturing techniques or shortcuts.

Low-quality manufacturing processes will compromise the integrity of the chains, making them more vulnerable to failures when exposed to excessive compressive forces.

Vital Role of Chains in Mining Equipment

The role of chains in tracked machines is to distribute the equipment's weight evenly on the ground and allow it to move. Let's dive deeper into it, focusing on their role in specific machines within the mining industry.

The mining job sites have uneven, steep and sometimes slippery terrains. Tracked undercarriage chains help machines to travel across such difficult terrains.

Track chains are flexible. Links connect by pins and bushings, so they can rotate and conform to the terrain for better ground contact, providing stability to dozers, drill rigs and excavators. Track chain flexibility also absorbs operating vibrations reducing stress on other machine's components.

For those huge machines to move, especially in slippery conditions or soft ground, the grousers of the track shoes — which are attached to the links — grip the ground while the links transmit traction to them from the sprockets.

Track chains also provide a stable platform for hydraulic shovels and bucket wheel excavators to handle heavy loads without tipping over or sinking. The bottom rollers rest on the links, transmitting the machine's weight to the track shoes. The track shoes spread the load on the ground reducing the pressure due to their greater contact area.

Allure of Aftermarket Chains

Businesses aim to increase revenue and manage expenses effectively to generate profits. Profits help sustain operations, invest in growth and provide returns to shareholders.

One way to generate profits in the mining industry is to manage maintenance costs effectively. On page 116 of his book: Mining Equipment Reliability, Maintainability and Safety, B.S. Dhillon said: "Equipment maintenance costs range from 20 percent to over 35 percent of total mine operating costs."

So, it's no wonder heavy equipment fleet managers or foremen opt for aftermarket chains.

Undercarriage components suffer a lot of wear and tear from harsh conditions, uneven terrain and heavy loads. If they need frequent parts replacement, what better way to reduce costs than to get cheaper parts to achieve the same outcome?

Apart from being an upfront cost-effective alternative, some aftermarket manufacturers produce replacement parts of equal or higher quality than OEM, which, combined with their wide variety, availability, customization, compatibility and fitment, make them an attractive choice. And, when topped with excellent customer service, it's the perfect formula for loyalty.

Hidden Costs

Although OEM parts should be the first option when replacing chains for mining equipment, a supplier with too-good-to-be-true prices is always tempting, which can tip the scales in their favor to save extra money and reduce expenses.

But, besides marketing factors like no brand recognition, shorter supply chains and competition between numerous supplier alternatives, there are other factors contributing to the low price that will toll the project budget in the long run:

  • Fewer investments in engineering, testing and certification.
  • Low-quality materials.
  • Manufacturing processes without quality control.
  • Limited or no warranty coverage.
Reduced Durability, Performance

While OEM chains meet specific requirements and standards set by the original equipment manufacturer using high-quality materials, cheap aftermarket chain manufacturers reduce production costs using lower-quality materials and techniques, reducing their chain's durability and performance.

Low-quality steel has more impurities impacting its mechanical properties and long-term durability. It may exhibit lower ductility and toughness, decreasing its ability to deform or absorb energy under stress and making it more susceptible to brittle failure (fracture). They also are less resistant to corrosion leading to a higher risk of rust, oxidation or degradation over time.

Some cheaper aftermarket chains won't fit specific machinery — improper fitment increases wear on other components and reduce overall performance.

Increased Downtime

The combination of a reduced bearing strength or performance from the links and the high magnitude operational loads in the mining industry will lead to frequent downtimes to repair or replace the cause of failure. Here are three possible scenarios:

First, installing the chain was impossible due to an unnoticeable fitment problem.

Second, the new aftermarket chains fit perfectly, but during operation, they constantly misalign, leading to frequent maintenance tasks.

Third, the chains fit perfectly and don't misalign during operation, but due to their low-quality steel composition, they'll bend, break or wear down prematurely.

Besides rescheduling deadlines and reallocating resources, you'll lose even more time looking for a new chain supplier.

No matter the scenario, some mining companies save time when replacing chains using a track pin press, a hydraulic tool designed to remove and install the master pin. If you don't have a track pin press at hand, no worries. Check out how to change excavator tracks without a hydraulic tool from Fortis HD.

Safety Risks

Cheap aftermarket chains with low-grade steel exhibit brittleness, so it breaks violently rather than bend. They can't absorb energy and redistribute stress, making them prone to fractures.

If a cheap aftermarket chain break suddenly, the operator won't be able to control the vehicle. The broken chain may cause one of the vehicle's tracks to become immobilized or lose traction, making it difficult to steer or maintain stability, resulting in a potential collision or rollover.

The abrupt release of tension also could cause flying debris or whip-like movements of the chain, endangering nearby operators or hitting other undercarriage components.

Shortened Equipment Lifespan

Cheap aftermarket chains can suddenly break, wear off quickly, and also could "freeze," affecting the other parts within the undercarriage.

Low-quality aftermarket chains may be more prone to improper or no lubrication and inadequate sealing. Without lubrication and sealing, moisture penetrates the track link components (pins and bushings), producing corrosion or freezing in severely cold weather. Both corrosion and ice cause frozen links — links unable to rotate.

A frozen link affects the smooth movement and alignment of the track chain. The neighboring links and associated undercarriage parts experience increased friction and wear due to abnormal rolling and movement patterns.

The equipment's engine must work harder to overcome the added resistance, increasing fuel consumption and premature wear.

A daily inspection helps you spot on-time and address issues like frozen links before they become a major problem affecting other components. Regular inspections, among other tasks, are part of preventative maintenance, the approach we recommend for maintaining mining equipment.

Examples

Experiences with aftermarket chains vary from customer to customer, whether in mining or any other industry that uses tracked heavy equipment. Still, there will always be a risk factor when using cheap aftermarket chains.

Take, for example, the following opposite experiences with foreign aftermarket chains of two heavy equipment owners/operators.

The first one, from a user on the www.jdcrawlers.com forum, had a good experience with aftermarket chains. He posted, "When I lived in Sandpoint, Idaho, I bought three sets of track rails, two for my 450s and one for my Komatsu excavator, from 'Trackman' in Spokane.

"They also got rollers, bearings, cylinder seals, sprockets, etc., for me, all at reasonable prices with very friendly personal service. They even delivered some parts — 90 miles one way — and helped me troubleshoot some hydraulic control issues for the Komatsu, finding a very simple adjustment when the local tractor shop couldn't figure it out. They were my 'go-to' guys for 10 years.

"I used cheaper or whatever rails and swapped my own grouser pads to them. Maybe eight years ago, I paid about $2,800 per pair of track chains for the 450s."

The second one is from a user on the www.skidsteerforum.com forum. He had such a terrible experience with foreign aftermarket tracks that he even warned other people about buying them. He posted, "Buyers beware of the aftermarket tracks coming out of [some areas] as they are really junk and fall apart in less than 200 hours of operation."

Conclusion

Regarding chains for mining heavy equipment, we recommend OEM. You'll get a 100 percent compatible product designed and produced to withstand the heavy loads of the mining industry.

If aftermarket chains are the management's cost-reducing strategy, remember the high cost associated with cheap aftermarket chains. Besides marketing factors, their lower costs come at the expense of low-grade steel, inefficient manufacturing processes and a lack of warranties.

You'll likely experience fitment issues and sudden failures, leading to multiple downtimes, higher maintenance costs and possibly accidents.

In the end, an apparent cost-effective alternative will reduce the primary goal of your business, the profits.




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