The mining industry continues to be a hotbed of patent innovation. Activity is driven by the need for greater productivity as well as safety. Accordingly, miners are using tunnelling machines in place of traditional drilling and blasting methods. Deployment of these potentially reduces disturbances to the geographic conditions thereby increasing safety. In the last three years alone, there have been over 62,000 patents filed and granted in the mining industry, according to GlobalData’s report on Innovation in mining: tunnel boring machines. Buy the report here.

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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 stabilizing 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.

40+ 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 70,000 patents, there are 40+ innovation areas that will shape the future of the industry.

Within the emerging innovation stage, tunnel ventilation systems, mine drainage systems, and tunnel lining construction are disruptive technologies that are in the early stages of application and should be tracked closely. Battery metal recycling, precision milling and virtual industrial monitoring are some of the accelerating innovation areas, where adoption has been steadily increasing. Among maturing innovation areas are high performance drill bits and hybrid industrial vehicles, which are now well established in the industry.

Innovation S-curve for the mining industry

Tunnel boring machines is a key innovation area in mining

Tunnel boring machines (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 70+ 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 applications identified for each patent. It broadly splits companies into either ‘niche’ or ‘diversified’ innovators.   

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

Patent volumes related to tunnel boring machines

Company Total patents (2010 - 2022) Premium intelligence on the world's largest companies
Komatsu 226 Unlock Company Profile
Sandvik 198 Unlock Company Profile
China Railway Group 39 Unlock Company Profile
Atlas Copco 31 Unlock Company Profile
Caterpillar 30 Unlock Company Profile
Herrenknecht 23 Unlock Company Profile
Epiroc 18 Unlock Company Profile
State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council 17 Unlock Company Profile
Sinoma International Engineering 9 Unlock Company Profile
Bouygues 8 Unlock Company Profile
Sanyhe International 7 Unlock Company Profile
Shanxi Tiandi Coal Mining Machinery 7 Unlock Company Profile
China Railway First Group 6 Unlock Company Profile
Taisei 6 Unlock Company Profile
HyperSciences 5 Unlock Company Profile
Shijiazhuang Zhongmei Coal Mine Equipment Manufacture 5 Unlock Company Profile
Shanghai Tunnel Engineering 4 Unlock Company Profile
China State Construction Engineering 4 Unlock Company Profile
Xiangyang Zhongliang Engineering Machinery 4 Unlock Company Profile
China Communications Construction Group 4 Unlock Company Profile
Hongrun 3 Unlock Company Profile
Obayashi 3 Unlock Company Profile
Shanghai Construction Group 3 Unlock Company Profile
XCMG Construction Machinery 3 Unlock Company Profile
ChampionX 3 Unlock Company Profile
China Railway First Bureau Group Macau Branch 3 Unlock Company Profile
Kajima 3 Unlock Company Profile
Inner Mongolia Shanghaimiao Mining Industry 2 Unlock Company Profile
Shandong Hi-Speed Group 2 Unlock Company Profile
Tian Di Science & Technology 2 Unlock Company Profile
Zoomlion Heavy Industry Science and Technology 2 Unlock Company Profile
Zhejiang Communications Construction Group 2 Unlock Company Profile
Lubelska Polt 1 Unlock Company Profile
Shanghai Chuangli Group 1 Unlock Company Profile
Poly Changda Engineering 1 Unlock Company Profile
The 5th Construction of China 15th 1 Unlock Company Profile
China Railway 16th Bureau Group Road & Bridge Engineering 1 Unlock Company Profile
China Railway Engineering Group 1 Unlock Company Profile
China Railway 14Th Bureau Group Shield Engineering 1 Unlock Company Profile
China Railway 24Th Bureau Group Anhui Engineering 1 Unlock Company Profile
Corum Group 1 Unlock Company Profile
4Th Engineering Ctce Group 1 Unlock Company Profile
China Railway 14 Bureau Group 1 Unlock Company Profile
Sinohydro Bureau 10 1 Unlock Company Profile
Sany Heavy Equipment Investments 1 Unlock Company Profile
China Railway 18th Bureau Group Tunnel Engineering 1 Unlock Company Profile
Yunnan Highway and Bridge 1 Unlock Company Profile
China Railway Construction 1 Unlock Company Profile
Jinan Rail Transit Group 1 Unlock Company Profile
Zhengzhou Rail Transit 1 Unlock Company Profile

Source: GlobalData Patent Analytics

Komatsu and Sandvik are among the leading patent filers in in tunnel machines. Amongst the innovations, Komatsu has partnered with Codelco to test a new tunnel excavation method using Komatsu's newly developed mining TBM. The mining TBM is equipped with new technologies that allow it to adapt to small curves, reverse direction, and pass-through intersections in hard rock tunnel excavation. This new technology increases equipment flexibility and allows tunnels to be excavated in accordance with the more unique designs of each mine. The trial, which will begin in 2024 at Codelco's Chuquicamata mine in Chile, aims to accelerate the potential implementation of the new technology.

Similarly, Sandvik's tunnelling jumbos provide high productivity and dependability using face drilling, mechanized longhole drilling and bolting. The company’s tunnelling machines include DT1232i, DT923i (fully automated), DT1231, DT1131 (three-boom, electro-hydraulic), and DT912D (self-contained, air-mist flushing, diesel-hydraulic high reach single boom).

Some other key patent filers in tunnel boring machines include China Railway Group, Atlas Copco, and Caterpillar.

In terms of application diversity, ChampionX leads the pack, while Bouygues and Komatsu stood in the second and third positions, respectively. By means of geographic reach, Komatsu held the top position, followed by Sandvik and Bouygues.

To further understand the key themes and technologies disrupting the mining industry, access GlobalData’s latest thematic research report on Mining.

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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.