The overall truck market increased to nearly 5 000 unit shipments in 2012, with the Ultra-class far exceeding those recorded by its smaller counterparts.

IntierraRMG MD, Peter Rossdeutscher explains: “The 640 Ultra-class haulers delivered in 2012 accounted for more than 25% of delivered capacity, and the 3 004 units in service at the end of December last year accounted for more than 16% of the total truck payload in operation worldwide. Looked another way; of the additional 3.6 Mt of truck payload in operation at the end of last year, more than 22% was accounted for by trucks in the 290t+ range.”

The generally higher metals prices of the past decade have tended to lower the economic cut-off grade for most metals. While this has contributed to an overall decline in mined ore grades the trend has been augmented by the introduction of larger equipment, which has lower unit operating costs. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the evolution of the Ultra truck.

In 1996, Komatsu delivered the first of a class of mining trucks that became emblematic of the seemingly relentless drive to capture economies of large-scale production at the world’s biggest surface mines. The company’s model 930E (with a 290t payload capacity) remains a favourite for many of these large mines, but has been superseded, at least in size, by haulers with payloads of 327 to 363t.

According to a Special Report on Trends in Mining Methods, Technology and Equipment by IntierraRMG, until 1996 the largest capacity mining trucks in use had rated payloads of approximately 218t (units in this class have since been upgraded to around 231t). That changed with the delivery of four of Komatsu 930Es to copper mines in the south-western US.

While Komatsu had gained a clear early advantage on its competition, first Liebherr (1998) and then Caterpillar (1999) not only introduced their own Ultra-class trucks but extended the size to 327t. In 2003, Liebherr extended the capacity envelope to 363t. By the end of 2012, there were more than 3 000 of these Ultra-class trucks (payloads of over 290t) operating at 100 mines worldwide. This largest truck category now represents the fastest growing segment of the large-scale truck market (defined as those trucks having payloads of 90t+).

As Rossdeutscher explains; “Shipments of these Ultra-class trucks achieved early acceptance, growing from just the four prototypes delivered in 1996 to more than 100 units in each of 2000 and 2001 (the latter coming while the market was turning down sharply). As a result, shipments (measured in payload term) grew to 24% of the global market in 2000 before demand succumbed to the protracted 1999-2002 cyclical depression.”

By the end of 2002, the total population of Ultra-class trucks approached 500 units but at only 37 different locations, and they still accounted for just six per cent of the global truck population (this more than six years after the first 930E was commissioned). At that time there were five major suppliers offering at least one model of over 290t: Komatsu (from 1996), Liebherr (1998), Caterpillar (1999), Unit Rig (2000) and Hitachi (2002).

The commodities boom and mining super-cycle that commenced circa 2003 brought with it a near decade-long growth in demand for large mining trucks (interrupted only briefly in 2009). Global shipments of 90t+ trucks increased from less than an annual 1 000 to nearly 3 000 in 2007. The demand for the largest offerings increased as well, with the 282 units shipped bringing the Ultra-class population to more than 1 100. But, at that point (more than 10 years after its introduction), these largest haulers represented just over 10% of installed payload worldwide.

Comparing their growth during the first five years of the mining and equipment super cycle (2003-2007) to the five previous years (1998-2002) indicates a slower growth rate for the Ultra-class than for any of the more mature classes (from 90 to 231t). This situation changed over the past five years.

NOTE: Information taken from the IntierraRMG Special Report: Trends in Mining Methods, Technology and Equipment, available in the latest edition of the State of the Market: Mining and Finance Report.

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