The mining industry continues to be a hotbed of innovation, with activity driven by the need for greater productivity as well as safety. Related to this, miners are using tunnel boring machines (TBMs) in place of traditional drilling and blasting methods. Deployment of TBMs reduces disturbances to the surrounding conditions thereby increasing safety. In the last three years alone, there have been over 48,000 patents filed and granted in the mining industry, according to GlobalData’s report on Internet Of Things in Mining: Tunnel Boring Machines.

However, not all innovations are equal and nor do they follow a constant upward trend. Instead, their evolution takes the form of an S-shaped curve that reflects their typical lifecycle from early emergence to accelerating adoption, before finally stabilising and reaching maturity.

Identifying where a particular innovation is on this journey, especially those that are in the emerging and accelerating stages, is essential for understanding their current level of adoption and the likely future trajectory and impact they will have.

150+ innovations will shape the mining industry

According to GlobalData’s Technology Foresights, which plots the S-curve for the mining industry using innovation intensity models built on over 350,000 patents, there are 150+ innovation areas that will shape the future of the industry.

Within the emerging innovation stage, magnetic-field based vehicle positioning, tunnel safety optimisation, and smart mining alarms are disruptive technologies that are in the early stages of application and should be tracked closely. Tunnel lining construction devices, tunnel boring machines, and mine sensor network are some of the accelerating innovation areas, where adoption has been steadily increasing. Among maturing innovation areas are LiDAR-guided navigation and location-sensitive alarms, which are now well established in the industry.

Innovation S-curve for Internet of Things in the mining industry

Tunnel boring machines is a key innovation area in Internet of Things

TBMs are used instead of drilling and blasting through rock and conventional mechanical excavation in soft ground. TBMs used in mining projects differ from those used in typical civil engineering applications. TBMs have been used for a variety of purposes as part of new and expanding mining projects, including new access, ore and waste conveyance, drainage, exploration, and water diversion.

Some of the benefits of using TBMs include higher and more sustainable progress rates in generally good quality hard rock conditions. Lower ventilation is required, allowing for the construction of smaller tunnels and improved health conditions for workers who are not exposed to blast smoke and fumes. They also produce a smooth tunnel wall, which lowers the final lining cost. TBMs significantly reduce the total excavation time of long tunnels when compared to conventional excavation methods.

GlobalData’s analysis also uncovers the companies at the forefront of each innovation area and assesses the potential reach and impact of their patenting activity across different applications and geographies.  According to GlobalData, there are 10+ companies, spanning technology vendors, established mining companies, and up-and-coming start-ups engaged in the development and application of tunnel boring machines.

Key players in tunnel boring machines – a disruptive innovation in the mining industry

‘Application diversity’ measures the number of different applications identified for each relevant patent and broadly splits companies into either ‘niche’ or ‘diversified’ innovators.

‘Geographic reach’ refers to the number of different countries each relevant patent is registered in and reflects the breadth of geographic application intended, ranging from ‘global’ to ‘local’.

Patent volumes related to tunnel boring machines

Company Total patents (2010 - 2021) Premium intelligence on the world's largest companies
Sandvik 192 Unlock company profile
Komatsu 180 Unlock company profile
Joy MM Delaware 47 Unlock company profile
Caterpillar 35 Unlock company profile
Atlas Copco 29 Unlock company profile
China Railway Group 21 Unlock company profile
Epiroc 20 Unlock company profile
Herrenknecht 19 Unlock company profile
State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council 12 Unlock company profile
China Railway Construction 11 Unlock company profile
Bouygues 8 Unlock company profile
China National Building Material Group 6 Unlock company profile
China Railway First Group 5 Unlock company profile

Source: GlobalData Patent Analytics

Leaders in tunnel boring machines include Komatsu. Komatsu, a Japanese machinery manufacturer, and Codelco, a , is the first boring machine to cut rectangular tunnels. Unlike other machines that have been developed for cutting soft material, the MDM5000 is the first to be successful in rectangular hard-rock tunnelling. Furthermore, driving a tunnel with a circular full-face TBM necessitates secondary operations to create a flat roadway, which takes time and money.

To further understand how Internet of Things is disrupting the mining industry, access GlobalData’s latest thematic research report on Internet of Things in Mining, 2021.


GlobalData, the leading provider of industry intelligence, provided the underlying data, research, and analysis used to produce this article. 

GlobalData’s Patent Analytics tracks patent filings and grants from official offices around the world. Textual analysis and official patent classifications are used to group patents into key thematic areas and link them to specific companies across the world’s largest industries.