Mines’ technology push means new approaches to digitization
As mining companies increasingly look to new technologies to improve their productivity, they are starting to think differently about how they approach digitisation and automation.
Before the current uptick in the minerals sector, the prolonged slump in commodity prices was accompanied by a lack of significant improvements in productivity. These factors led to mines re-calibrating their cost structures in order to remain sustainable – and technology is now becoming a key driver in this process. The development of new technologies and related software are increasingly crucial in optimising equipment efficiency, as well as process and system streamlining of material flow. They will also be vital in containing costs on mines.
These costs are frequently rising due to the growing complexity in a mine’s deposits. Digital technologies can provide well-informed response mechanisms with regard to an ore body’s structural variability, and can do it quickly.1
As a mine ages, the distances between the mine face and processing facilities will also generally increase; automation of equipment – combined with better digital communication – will allow more work to be conducted remotely, thus reducing unproductive travelling time and related logistics.
Significant advances have been made in automation across continents. In Australia, for example, a mining company is using driverless trucks to haul ore 24 hours a day – ‘manned’ by employees who are based 750 miles away. In the U.S., WiFi sensors allow a mine to track the output of every miner – as the owner leverages this and other technology to lower production costs. In Africa, robotic loaders are employed 800 metres underground to improve both safety and output.2
Assisted-control equipment is becoming more common, and deployment of fully autonomous equipment is rapidly gaining ground in haulage, drilling and other processes. More advanced techniques for monitoring, assessing and controlling processes has also led to improved anticipation of potential failure – saving significantly on unscheduled stoppages and costly downtime.
Monitoring and control
Great strides have been taken in mines’ ability to monitor performance in real-time, allowing better and quicker decision-making based on the data being received. More sensors are being added to mining equipment to provide critical data for daily operational decision-making. High-accuracy global positioning system (GPS) technology brings much greater precision to mining operations – assisting with various tasks from precision drilling and blast hole identification to truck navigation.
Analytics and machine learning
For the growing volumes of data to be usefully harnessed, mining companies have to transition into data ecosystems that cater for data velocity, variety, volume, and veracity (data quality). This has led to continuous development in the field of ‘big data’, upon which advanced analytical algorithms can be built – including machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms to predict future outcomes. These systems are capable of bringing historical and real-time data together, again facilitating better data-driven decision-making.
The imperative to keep commercially sensitive information inside the business initially led many mining companies to develop technology systems in-house. The pace of development in technology, however, makes it difficult to keep up – so partnering with skilled suppliers under non-disclosure agreements makes more sense. There is also a growing expectation from mines that these platforms should be a ‘vendor-agnostic’ to avoid being tied to one service provider. Ideally, solutions should allow systems to talk to each other, thus facilitating choice in the marketplace.
From better to different
The emerging consensus is that the real value to be gained from new technology will not be through sporadic application but through its incorporation into the thinking of leadership. This will result in new ways of making decisions, and indeed in new ways of working. It is really about moving from doing things better, to doing things differently – in order to raise the improvement potential within organisations.
It is estimated, for example, that using digital technology to manage more effectively allows the same work to be done better – delivering an improvement potential of 10-20 per cent. This can be improved to 20-30 per cent by integrating information for better system-wide decisions. The real goal, though, is redesigning integrated systems across a mine, which can achieve 50 per cent or more improvement potential.3
As the mining sector enters the Fourth Industrial Age through these technologies, it is also experiencing changes to the traditional ways that mines and suppliers relate. Gone are the days when the customer tells the service provider exactly how they want their solution to be delivered. The breadth and depth of the challenges and opportunities presented by the digital age now require more intensive collaboration.
The more likely scenario is that a mining company will have to outline their needs and challenges upfront – so that a software provider can explore a range of solutions before reporting back. As a result, many mines are starting to look for longer-term partnerships to solve their digital and automation challenges. Moreover, due to the relative complexity of fields like software development, mines may find that a single service provider is not sufficient to address all their needs. Here, mines could expect to work with multiple software providers or contractors – all working together to deliver a solution.
The growing sophistication of mining software – and the need for strategic decisions at a corporate level – means that mining companies will no longer be looking for solutions that serve only one mining site. Rather, they will want solutions that can be implemented across their portfolio of mining operations – irrespective of where these sites are geographically located. Digital communication and internet linkages makes all of this possible, placing further expectation on technology and software developers to generate wide-ranging and integrated solutions.
The sheer scale and complexity of these systems puts technological collaboration at the top of the mining agenda. To be successful, however, this process means the building of closer relationships, not just between mines and their suppliers, but between the various suppliers who must now work together to deliver these digital solutions to mines. Greater trust and mutual confidence between all these parties is going to be vital going forward.
About this Author
Christiaan Liebenberg is a Software Product Manager at BME and has notable experience in the media and mining industries. Liebenberg has strong technical and management capabilities and has a Bachelor of Commerce Degree in Informatics, as well as a Diploma in Marketing and Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO). He holds in-depth knowledge of African market dynamics and has a solid record of focusing product alignment across multiple technologies, devices, and countries.