HITACHI excavators battle the elements at the largest gold mine in central asia

Hitachi at Kumtor mine

At an altitude of 4,000m above sea level, reaching the glaciers of south-eastern Kyrgyzstan, hides one of the key pillars of the country’s economy—the unique Kumtor gold mine. Operated by the Canadian mining company, Centerra Gold Inc., the open-pit mine’s output currently accounts for more than one-third of the national export of goods and services.

Kumtor is the largest gold mine in Central Asia and one of the highest gold deposits in the world. It is the most important operation in the Kyrgyz mining sector, situated in the Tien Shan mountain region, 350km from the capital Bishkek. The region is known for the Issyk-Kul Lake—the largest in Kyrgyzstan and the second largest mountain lake in the world—and having rich and unique biodiversity, including a number of rare and endangered species.


Centerra is focused on operating, developing, exploring and acquiring gold properties, primarily in Asia, the CIS and other emerging markets worldwide. It is a leading North American-based gold producer and is the largest Western-based gold producer in Central Asia, where it also owns the Boroo mine in Mongolia.

The Kyrgyz Republic – via Kyrgyzaltyn JSC – Is Centerra’s largest shareholder at 33%. In 2012, Kumtor’s contributions made within the country exceeded $298million, bringing the total figure since 1994 to $2.15billion.

“As a major contributor to the economy of Kyrgyzstan and a main employer in the Issyk-Kul region, we understand that we play a large role in the economic development of the country,” says Rodney Stuparyk, Kumtor Operating Company’s Vice President of Operations. “In addition, we go beyond this and work in partnership with our host community to further the socioeconomic development through specific projects, direct contributions and support for the construction of the infrastructure.”

In June 2013, the Kumtor Operating Company provided jobs for 2,723 full-time staff. Ninety-five per cent (2,628) of these were Kyrgyz citizens, and this proportion is ever growing as the result of international managerial personnel being gradually replaced by national employees. The others (95) were ex-pat staff and a further 468 contractors were involved in the mine’s operations. In addition, Kumtor provides jobs for thousands of Kyrgyz citizens engaged in related sectors.

In 2011, the mine produced 583,156 ounces (18.1 tonnes) of gold,  bringing the total gold production during the commercial period between 1997 and 2011 to approximately 8.4million ounces  (260.7 tonnes). The deposit is being developed by open-pit mining techniques, utilising typical drill, blast and truck/excavator operations.

The ore is delivered to the crusher and further to the mill, where the gold is extracted using carbon-in-leach technology. The mill’s rated throughput is 16,000 tonnes of ore per day. After the ore treatment is complete, the gold is poured to form doré bars.

Kyrgyzaltyn purchases these bars – containing up to 85% of gold as well as admixtures of non-ferrous metals such as silver, iron, zinc and nickel – on site for processing at its refinery in Kara-Balta. It has the exclusive right to sell the refined gold and silver originating from Kumtor in the Kyrgyz Republic and abroad.


The primary excavators used at Kumtor include a fleet of five Hitachi EX3600-6s that were delivered to the site on an ongoing basis from May 2012. “We purchased these excavators, because Hitachi has a reputation for reliability, performance and service in the mining industry,” adds Rodney, who has been working at the mine since 1998 and is responsible for maintaining a safe and efficient operation to achieve the annual production targets.

“This is especially the case in Canada, where many EX-series excavators have been working for years. These machines have always been on the top of our wanted list. However, up until 2010, we had been unable to secure a production slot to suit our specific requirements. On this occasion, we were happy to confirm the order for five EX3600-6s with an ideal delivery time.”

The EX3600-6s were individually transported by sea from Japan to Vladivostok on the east coast of Russia. Once on dry land, the components were loaded on to a train for the long journey to the village of Balykchy in Kyrgyzstan.

Then, a fleet of 14 trucks carried each EX3600-6 on the final 210km leg of the epic journey to the mine site. Once all of the parts had been delivered, the assembly of each excavator took between 10 and 14 days. This process was managed by a team of eight engineers from Turkuaz Machinery, the Hitachi dealer for Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

The finished products were then tested and checked extensively to ensure that they were able to operate effectively at high altitude and in the extremely challenging weather conditions. Each EX3600-6 had been fitted with a cold weather package, which includes an engine heater—to ensure that it starts in the coldest temperatures—and various covers to prevent the heated air from escaping, and the freezing air from entering the machine’s systems. The factory had also decreased the engine output by 30%, so that it could handle working on a site with reduced levels of oxygen.

“Although it depends on the mine plan, it is unusual to find five EX3600-6s working so close together on the same site,” says Greg Smith, Hitachi Construction Machinery (Australia) Pty Ltd’s International Operations Group Manager, who was instrumental in supplying the machines to Kumtor. “In this case, it is the preferred operating model, as the machines share the same parts and the operators only need to familiarise themselves with one make and model.”

By June 2013, the machines had amassed 7,698, 6,312, 5,357, 4,806 and 1,857 working hours respectively and were already regarded as the key part of the production cycle. “Kumtor is a 24/7, 365-day operation that mines ice, moraine and rock, and the five Hitachi excavators are working well to help us reach the gold veins,” continues Rodney.

“The commitment of our employees, service providers and equipment has to be 110%, and Hitachi is supporting our work processes and dedication to be a world-class operation. The EX3600-6s’ production capabilities also match those of our rigid dump trucks perfectly. The 21m3 bucket size means that one of the 105m3 payload trucks can be filled in four or five passes and we consider this to be the optimum level of productivity.

“In addition, we have found that they deliver a favourable cost of ownership in comparison to the other excavators. Production is still our biggest priority and the Hitachi excavators need to run like clockwork—it’s all about ounces in a gold mine!

“The biggest challenge we face in reaching our targets is the glacier, which grows into the mine at an average of 1.5 to 2.5 metres per day. However, the Hitachi machines are allocated to the hard rock, so that they can move more tonnes of materials.”


After Turkuaz Machinery and Hitachi had completed its testing procedure on the first machine, it embarked on a ten-day training program for Kumtor’s most experienced operators and a five-day course for its technical staff. This approach matches the emphasis placed on training by the mine, with a specialist department dedicated to developing the skills of all operators, from new starters to the most experienced personnel.

Maksat Kulubaev is the Mine Training Coordinator and he has been working at Kumtor since 1995. He started out as a truck operator and then moved on to other equipment, such as the bulldozer, grader, wheel loader and four different types of mining excavators. He moved to the training department in 2000, where he worked as a field trainer and foreman, before being promoted to Coordinator three years ago.

The department comprises of two foremen, 18 field trainers and two translators/administrators. The instructors are Kyrgyz and started their careers as equipment operators at least 15 years ago. They have a close association with the ex-pats and carry out their training courses with the flexibility to cover four main languages: Kyrgyz, Russian, Turkish and English.

“Our team of trainers are the first operators to try out the new equipment, such as the EX3600-6s,” says Maksat. “They undergo a training program and have to pass written and practical tests to obtain the necessary paperwork that is required before they can start to instruct their colleagues.

“Our best and most experienced operators have been carefully selected and professionally trained to work with the Hitachi excavators. It takes about 10 years of driving experience for them to progress through the ranks, i.e. by moving from one piece of equipment to another. The training course for the EX3600-6 includes checking and inspecting various systems  and components, as well as enhancing the efficiency of operating techniques, routine maintenance procedures and stringent safety standards.”


There are two operating crews, one for the day and one for the nightshift. They work for one week on each shift from 7am/pm until 7pm/am, and then have two weeks off.

Of the 153 operators in each crew, 14 are excavator operators, with another eight personnel available to act as cover in case of absence. Up to 10 of these operators are qualified to operate the EX3600-6.

“I think that the Hitachi is suitable for our pit conditions,” adds Maksat. “The cab is large and spacious, and the windows provide an excellent view of the site. It is modern on the inside and I like the air conditioning, the comfortable operating position and there’s even an extra seat for the trainer.

“You can access the side window from the outside for cleaning purposes, and the various systems and components are easy to inspect and reach for preventative maintenance. The best thing about the Hitachi excavators is the hydraulic system, which makes it powerful and effortless to perform each loading cycle.”

Kumtor’s most experienced operator is Turat Kemelov, who has been working in the mine for 18 years. “As the mine’s longest serving operator,” he says, “I believe that you have to be at one with your equipment and I work extremely well with the EX3600-6.

“It was easy to adapt to the Hitachi in training, especially with the comfortable seat and the quality of the working environment.

“I love the power of this machine and how well it stops when turning with a load. It also has large, easy-to-access compartments for routine maintenance checks.
The hydraulic system is very precise, which means it moves quickly and easily with the slightest touch of the joysticks.

“If the blast has gone well and there is a constant flow of trucks, then the EX3600-6 can handle the heavy workload with ease. The excavator and I work together as a team, and therefore I like to look after it well. If the Hitachi could speak, it would probably say that ‘he treats me in the way that he would like to be treated himself’.”


In order to ensure the excellent availability of the EX3600-6s, the technical team from Turkuaz Machinery provides a professional and specialist level of support in the form of a service contract. The agreement covered 5,000 working hours (or one year of operation) and so the fourth machine was coming to the end of its initial period in June.
While a new contract was being negotiated, the original was extended to the end of 2013 to cover the first three (and subsequent) machines.

The Hitachi dealer has 10 full-time employees based at the mine, with two supervisors, six mechanics and two electricians covering both shifts. They liaise with each crew from the Mine Maintenance Department, which consists of one foreman, one assistant foreman and six mechanics per shift.

Ruslan Kochetov is Turkuaz Machinery’s Project Supervisor at Kumtor and says, “The Hitachi EX3600-6 mining excavators are working like fine Swiss watches, supported by our 24/7 routine maintenance program. This incorporates a planned check every 250 hours and a daily inspection, depending on availability.

“We check everything thoroughly and leave nothing to chance. If we find a small technical issue, then it can usually be dealt with straightaway. However, if it’s more time-consuming, then this can be routinely booked into the maintenance schedule. Our aim is to always carry out a high-quality job and then do everything we can to prevent future issues from occurring.”

Kumtor’s Mine Maintenance Superintendent, Tursunbek Dautov, says, “I have been very impressed with the five Hitachi excavators and their 94% availability is excellent. They are powerful and durable machines, and during the assembly process I noted how well designed they were for this purpose. That gave me a good feeling from the outset and we are enjoying our work with such excellent mining equipment.

“During the first year, there have been no big technical issues, mechanical breakdowns or reports of significant damage. It’s easy to access the different parts of this model and so I’m hoping that there might be less manpower required in the future. We work closely with the Operations Department and they are also delighted with its performance.

“We have formed a good working relationship with Turkuaz Machinery, and if we request any support then we know that the work will be done on time and to our satisfaction. It is also advantageous that the preventative maintenance is carried out in-pit and we are very happy with the quality of the EX3600-6s.”

The unique characteristics of the Kumtor gold mine demand highly durable and reliable products, matched by the expertise and dedication of the support team. Hitachi and its authorised dealer, Turkuaz Machinery, work in partnership with the mine’s management, training and maintenance departments to ensure that the EX3600-6s continue to work relentlessly and productively towards the annual production targets and meet the gold standard of a world-class mining operation.

Category: Global News

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