As many industries have experienced, technology can increase productivity and operational efficiency. But the enormity of the mining industry has led to a slower, and often fragmented, digital transformation. While companies are focusing on smart machines, AI, and robots, they’re often overlooking the piece of the technology puzzle that can tie it all together—digital communication.
According to Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development’s 2019 annual mining report, “The mining sector is in the early stages of a technology revolution that will fundamentally change the face of mining, just as it has already done in sectors such as manufacturing, finance, and communications.”
On the precipice of the digital divide, mining companies need to integrate existing systems through a secure, cloud-based platform. Doing so ultimately leads to better internal alignment and a more connected, resilient value-chain.
This move towards a more intelligent industry can:
- Improve efficiency at every level of a company’s operations
- Eliminate waste, consolidate supply chains, and reduce costs
- Reduce incidents and improve jobsite safety
- Streamline communications for greater collaboration and boost productivity from 9 per cent to 23 per cent
- Create more self-sufficient field locations
- Enable companies to apply data and analytics to strategic business moves
- Create more agile organizations in an industry rooted in traditional methods
As the mining sector catches up and moves into its own fourth industrial revolution, digitizing communication can create a safer environment for workers on the front lines and optimize workflows for greater operational efficiency.
Real-Time Communication Leads to Faster Response Times
Canada’s mining industry directly and indirectly employs 620,000 people, many of them frontline workers. With teams dispersed across vast locations and the inherent dangers of the work, building safer environments is paramount.
As mining companies begin their digital journey, they often start with machines. Without the digital tools for workers to tap into that automation language, there is a gap in communication within the digital ecosystem which leads to sluggish workflows. While new equipment has rapid-fire communication capabilities, workers need the same tools to keep pace and stay safe.
With a mobile-first, digital platform, information can be communicated in real time. Every worker receives updates on their own mobile device, reducing communication delays due to messages that trickle down through a hierarchy of command or static walkie talkies. Potential hazards can be red flagged to an entire team at once and emergency response can be deployed immediately.
For instance, if ground penetrating radar locates an area of instability in the earth, the operator can connect directly with everyone onsite so personnel can remove themselves from a potential collapse.
In the not-too-distant past, underground communication was limited. Now, subterranean technology is paving the way for faster, more reliable communication. For example, in Labrador, Tacora Resources’ iron ore mine rolled out 5G LTE in January 2020 across their 15 kilometer site.
Sky Climber Renewables is a utility company that needed to find a communication solution in the opposite direction—300 feet above ground. The company specializes in wind turbine repair and maintenance and needed a digital solution that could connect their 350-person workforce and reinforce safety procedures.
Through Beekeeper’s mobile communication tool, employees can access safety information 24/7. The company also distributes training videos on proper harness use. The two-way capability has also opened a channel for employees to report safety risks and tips to their managers and peers.
A Digitally Connected Mine Is Smarter and Safer
Creating a completely connected network where humans and machines are communicating and recording data creates a leaner operation through streamlined communication, reduced waste, and fewer costs. But a smart mine is also safer.
Isolated technologies can only improve narrow segments of a mining operation. But a digital communication tool can complete the circuit. It can eliminate silos and integrate data coming from various entry points, whether it’s a robot, a sensor, or a worker. This gives leaders a full, 360-degree view of what’s happening to make essential safety decisions.
Cobots (collaborative robots), AI, driverless vehicles, and automated machines are already making headway in the mining industry. But complementing these emerging technologies with mobile communication facilitates the shift away from subterranean work, allowing frontline workers to operate equipment from above ground.
A connected network also enables predictive maintenance—monitoring equipment to avoid breakdowns and costly downtime. Predictive maintenance often includes smart machines that send alerts when they need attention. This capability ensures all equipment is functioning safely.
Other safety benefits of a digitally-connected workforce include:
- Safety documents, like equipment training and incident protocols, can be stored on the mobile platform for everyone to access.
- A mobile communication tool can align workers with government and company-mandated safety protocols to ensure compliance.
- A digitally-enabled worker is more autonomous and proactive, able to make in-the-moment decisions.
Analytics Optimize Site Safety
As mines become more connected, data collection becomes a powerful tool. Mining operators can collect exact information from their various technologies in real time. A digital communication platform can compile and organize those analytics so leaders can easily recognize weak spots and make strategic decisions that will reduce risks and prevent accidents.
A mobile communication platform allows for a deeper level of insight than mines have previously had. Frontline workers can use their digital access for immediate incident reporting from the ground. In the past, safety risks were often not reported unless they resulted in an injury or death. Now, all incidents can be easily reported to build predictive models and a more accurate risk management framework.
A mobile tool can provide leaders with employee insights as well. With an analytics dashboard, companies can track productivity and engagement, valuable information when it comes to knowing when workers are focused. A disengaged equipment operator might be overworked and tired, which can lead to a loss of focus in a critical environment. Employee insights can assist shift scheduling to ensure every onsite employee is prepared for the tasks at hand.
Data is not just for the mining C-Suite. Leaders need to share their insights across the organization through their digital network so every worker is aligned and understands operational strategies constructed from the data that are designed to mitigate risk. Looping in frontline mine workers to safety analytics and strategies builds their trust, gets their buy-in, and contributes to a safety culture — the most important aspect of creating a safer mining operation.