The pace of digital technology implementation and innovation is quickening throughout the industry. Here’s a quick scan of what leading producers, suppliers and service providers are doing.
By Russell A. Carter, Contributing Editor
Mining’s march to a digital future began decades ago as a leisurely stroll down the networking path, watching with wary interest as other core industries such as telecom, chemicals, oil and gas, and even agriculture adopted emerging technology at a much faster pace. Although digital data generation and management have been used to some degree in various mining applications for decades, it wasn’t long ago that operational information was commonly gathered for review and analysis by painstakingly transcribing it to PC spreadsheets from clipboard forms and other paper- based sources — or in the next phase of digital evolution, stored on memory cards that had to be physically retrieved from the field and, yes, plugged into PCs for spreadsheet entry and analysis.
That has changed. As a recent report by EY (formerly Ernst & Young)* pointed out, the mining sector has embraced the introduction of mainframe and personal computing, processing plant control systems, computer-assisted dispatch, Global Positioning Systems, mobile broadband, affordable and available sensors and data storage, and cloud computing, to name just a few. And mining robots are now on the horizon — electromechanical workers that will subsist entirely on a diet of bits, bytes and binary code.
Mining has claimed special circumstances for its you-first approach, citing cultural differences, the difficulty of dealing with data from remote locations and the uniqueness of each operation — and this has resulted in what the EY report called a “digital disconnect” regarding the industry’s technology uptake rate compared with other industrial sectors. This disconnect is defined as the gap between the potential from digital transformation and the poor track record of successful implementations. It exists, the report stated, not because of a lack of engagement from the sector, but because of a range of practical issues that continue to challenge the industry.
These issues have been, and remain, formidable (see sidebar), but the world’s leading mineral producers have largely stopped using them as excuses for technological tardiness. Companies such as Barrick Gold, Rio Tinto and Vale, for example, have determined that just because they excel at their job of finding and extracting value from the Earth, they’re still not immune from the fate of famous but now-extinct brands such as Kodak, Enron or any number of former airlines that also were once considered to be sector leaders. These mining majors, along with a number of intermediate producers, have committed their future to the digital realm, adopting new thought and action patterns and applying both established and emerging technological tools to ensure that the data needed to conduct their business in an efficient manner is available quickly, widely and in usable form.
The industry is reaching out to other industrial sectors for assistance. For example, Atlas Copco just signed a letter of intent with the defense and security company Saab and its subsidiary, the technology consultancy Combitech. The collaboration, said Atlas Copco, goes “hand in hand” with its aggressive investment in secure digitalized mining operations. The effort will draw on Atlas Copco’s knowledge of the mining industry, as well as Combitech’s experience from digitalization of aeronautics, defense and telecommunications operations.
The new collaboration includes digitalization efforts related to autonomous mining control tower, cyber security and ecosystem solutions. The collaboration will build upon Saab’s technical platforms and on the working methods and experience that Combitech gained in the course of digitalizing the Gripen E fighter aircraft — an effort that reportedly cut development time in half while radically reducing costs.
And, somewhat surprisingly, other sectors are starting to reach out to mining for insight. A case in point: Hitachi Group recently merged three digitally oriented companies — Hitachi Data Systems, Pentaho and Hitachi Insight Group — into a single entity named Vantara, which in September announced the release of Lumada 2.0, Hitachi’s newest commercial internet of things (IoT) platform offering. The Lumada IoT platform has been updated with a portable architecture that enables it to run both on-premises or in the cloud and to support industrial IoT deployments both at the edge and in the core.
Wenco, a subsidiary of Hitachi Construction Machinery and a well-known developer of fleet management systems for mining, participated in Hitachi’s NEXT users conference, held in September, to develop and promote the interoperability benefits that could be exploited in the Lumada platform by Wenco’s Readyline real-time equipment health solution. However, a Wenco product manager mentioned in the company’s blog that Wenco’s industry experience also drew interest from organizations throughout the parent company, stating that “…a lot of the other Hitachi Group companies are looking into developing mining solutions, but they need some guidance on the mining side of things. There are data scientists looking to build things, but they’re not sure about mining. There are other analysts trying to create solutions, but they don’t know how the industry works. That’s where we come in.”
Underlying the industry’s critical need to “get it right the first time” by applying useful analysis to timely information is the development of increasingly sophisticated and flexible data network solutions. The latest generation of data networks, as illustrated by Innovative Wireless Technologies’ (IWT) HDRMesh solution, include wireless packages that reliably carry real-time data from working areas to enable effective management and improvement of production operations.
IWT said HDRMesh was specifically designed for underground use and solves data retrieval issues facing that type of operation. Traditional Wi-Fi-based solutions do not reliably transmit in non-line-of-sight conditions, and lack the range for continuous coverage. Traditional wired data solutions are difficult to maintain, difficult to advance and often do not survive the mining process. IWT’s data solution comprises a series of rugged High Data Rate (HDR) wireless nodes that “hop” data from mine equipment to the mine’s fiber backbone. Each node contains a proprietary high data rate mesh component and a Wi-Fi Client Access Point.
Eric Hansen, IWT’s CEO, spoke with E&MJ earlier this year at a trade show just prior to the commercial rollout of HDRMesh. Hansen said the system had been tested in three different mining environments and the first operational installation would occur before the end of 2017.
Hansen traced the evolution of HDRMesh from the success of the company’s existing underground communications solutions. “Our legacy systems introduced prior to HDRMesh were designed to meet the requirements of the 2006 MINER (Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act) in the U.S., which focused mainly on communications and miner safety. However, we started getting comments from our customers on how much of an impact just having those communications capabilities available had on overall productivity — they were able to talk with underground workers they could never reach before, and respond to underground problems and bottlenecks much quicker.”
HDRMesh is designed to accommodate the growing need for data transmission beyond the basic needs of communications, Hansen explained, as mines ramp up data collection from video sources, machine-mounted sensors and other information nodes. It was also designed to be easier on the checkbook: “It is available in two configurations — a standalone version for customers who do not have one of our legacy systems installed; and a retrofittable version for those that do,” said Hansen. “It doesn’t require fiber optic, Ethernet or leaky feeder cabling and thus doesn’t have the maintenance requirements associated with those systems, but still works with traditional communications client devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops.”
IWT’s Vice President of Engineering Steve Harrison added that the freedom from cabling is a distinct cost advantage in hard rock applications. “You can take our equipment into a mining area, use it and remove it for blasting or when mining is completed — you don’t have the cost of traditional cabling that’s been installed and then damaged or abandoned from mining activities.”
Other data-management software solution suppliers are plotting their future avenues for product development and engaging their clients in the process. Maptek Chief Technology Officer Simon Ratcliffe recently noted in the company’s Forge newsletter that offering a technology roadmap allows its customers to have confidence in working with Maptek to meet their own goals.
“Core technology common to all Maptek products enables an environment where customers can create integrated technical operating models across a range of systems and data sources — in a way that reflects the reality of their mine,” he explained. Basic areas include data sharing and management, workflow modeling and business process management. The roadmap guides the integration of all the company’s desktop applications into the Maptek Workbench to provide a platform for these processes. The Workbench, introduced in 2016, also improves license management and flexibility, according to the company.
“The inputs to various pieces of software will no longer be constrained to that software — you’ll be able to open multiple pieces of software and have the data flow from one to the next,” Ratcliffe said.
“Another project involves creating a new spatial platform. This is going to allow the kind of data that we deal with in our software, such as large block models, triangulated data structures, grids and big laser scans, to be efficiently stored and communicated between machines.
“Once you put those two concepts together, you can start getting data from different disciplines, or different machines, onto the one machine and into a range of software,” he explained. This enterprise connectivity allows multiple users to share data for multiple functions across multiple applications, which enhances collaboration, efficiency and accuracy.”
It’s not uncommon for producers, particularly larger companies with dedicated resources, to develop specialized data management apps in-house, generally using corporate IT personnel; however, even nontechnical workers with talent, basic programming skills and an interest in improving productivity have made important contributions. Rio Tinto has benefitted from both sources: For example, Bold Baatar, chief executive–energy and minerals for Rio Tinto, told an audience at the Natural Resources Forum held in London in July that “…one of our haul truck drivers with a passion for computer development used his self-taught skills to develop an integrated real-time digital monitoring system for the entire pit. This brought together all the existing streams of data in a highly useable, 3-D touchpoint, visual platform — integrating drill, dig, load and haul data, equipment performance and availability as well as safety management all in one place.
This kind of employee and management initiative, he added, was “central to our plan to deliver an extra $5 billion of value through productivity over the next five years. Productivity is about sweating our assets — bringing them to peak performance. We can only do this if we understand where our performance is best in class so we can replicate it.”
Earlier in the year, Chris Salisbury, Rio Tinto’s chief executive–iron ore, described to an audience at the Austmine 2017 conference the scope and rate of advance the company needs to maintain to develop digital solutions for its Western Australia iron ore operations. The scope is massive: “It has cost us $40 billion to build our iron ore export machine — a flexible set of 15, soon to be 16 mines, an integrated privately owned rail and port network and a cutting edge operations center in Perth that controls our operations. And, at the next level, 370 haul trucks, 50 production drills, 200 locomotives, 450 kilometers of conveyors and 1,700 kilometers of rail — the list goes on.”
Conceding that “Rio Tinto is a big organization, and at times we have been slow to move,” Salisbury said that, nevertheless, the corporate culture is changing: “What if I told you that I’ve got a mine site in the Pilbara with a crusher that is now capable of calling trucks to maximize throughput? What if I told you a team of six people delivered this capability within two weeks? You might be surprised. But, having a crusher calling trucks to improve productivity is exactly what we achieved last month at Hope Downs.
“This new system analyzes real-time data being captured at the crusher such as bin levels and run-rate, and overlaid real-time truck data such as location, payload and grade. The end result is continuous optimization of equipment utilization,” he said.
“We now plan to replicate the crusher capability at Hope Downs across our business. As you can imagine, there are many thousands of points within the operational footprint where some type of improvement could be made. And, each day, I want my 11,000 employees to think about how improvements can be made to their area of the business.
“Operators and tradespeople have the opportunity to say, ‘look, we’re wasting money on this,’ or ‘this particular bit of gear doesn’t run well,’ or ‘if I could have a bit of money or time to fix this, I could improve our productivity.’ We have 2,000 of these new ideas in the pipeline and recently I was briefed on the top 50. I have a live dashboard on the status of each.”
Driving Digital Initiatives
On the other side of the globe, Barrick Gold essentially committed itself to a digital future in 2016, when John Thornton, the company’s executive chairman, announced that Barrick would partner with networking giant Cisco for the “digital reinvention” of Barrick’s business. The first step of that collaboration is development of a flagship digital operation at its Nevada, USA, operations. During a June investor tour of the Nevada facilities, Barrick pointed to the complexity of decision- making required to run those facilities efficiently after combining the Cortez and Goldstrike mines. The need for decision- making speed and clarity to manage processes and assets across the expanded site was an important driver in the company’s move toward a digital-first philosophy.
Leading the list of Barrick’s digital initiatives for the Cortez complex are: • Underground short interval control, • Underground automation, • Digital maintenance work management, • Digital processing, • Predictive maintenance, • Consolidated data platform, • Analytics and unified operations center and • Integrated planning.
The estimated productivity boost of just the top two or three items on the list, according to the company, is significant — Short Interval Control in the underground operation is expected to add roughly 260 t/d in 2018, and Automated Process Control another 280 t/d. Mill uptime improvements were anticipated to add another 2.8 hours of operation per month as well.
Barrick also said its Goldrush underground project, scheduled for completion by the end of 2017, presents many opportunities for automation of stationary equipment such as rail haulage, automated chute delivery, engineered bin systems, automated hoisting, smart conveyors, auger feed systems and ore pass delivery as well as ‘in motion’ activities that include autonomous drilling and mucking.
He noted that Barrick recently implemented a digital work management tool, developed in-house, at Cortez. The tool lets technicians check what maintenance work is scheduled for the day, its status and any issues or delays — all in real time.
In addition, it lets technicians quickly order replacement parts via a tablet, reducing the time it would have normally taken them. Meanwhile, supervisors can track the progress of maintenance tasks on both mobile and stationary equipment, to better manage their workflow and staff. “The best part” of Barrick’s digital initiative, said Humphries, “is our absolute focus on user-centered design. Our people are building our solutions and testing them at a speed that none of the traditional mining vendors can compete with.”
The Digital Contractor
Digital awareness now extends beyond producers and equipment providers. Mining contractors are also getting into the game. Pybar Mining Services, for example, is the third largest mining contractor in Australia, specializing in underground hard rock projects. It also owns subsidiaries that perform specialist underground core drilling programs, surface exploration, and electrical design and construction. Current projects are under way at Auctus Minerals’ Mungana zinc/copper/ gold/silver mine, Red River Resources’ Thalanga zinc mine, New Gold’s Peak gold mine, and OZ Minerals’ Carrapateena copper/gold mine, among others.
Having determined that improved data collection and analysis is key to future business success, the company’s Business Systems group has been testing a number of solutions. These include:
QLIK — Qlik is a commercial data-
visualization dashboard reporting tool
accessed from within a web browser. It
provides an easy to use interface and allows
users to drill down and filter data to
quickly identify trends for benchmarking
and continuous improvement. Pybar said
it is currently in the process of installing
this tool on its servers.
WebBAR — WebBAR is a custom-built production database intended to provide a user-friendly means of capturing valid, useful production statistics from Pybar sites (e.g., tons hauled, meters drilled, equipment downtime for availability calculations, delays, etc. Recently it has been expanded to include functionality to post consumable usage into the company’s inventory system, as well as quantities required for invoicing, and hours for employees.
Pybar said it will be implementing a number of major improvements in a phased upgrade to WebBAR, such as offline capability for data entry; iPLOD — electronic PLOD (production data); processing prestarts from different sources (iPLOD, machine data, paper PLODs); shift planning module; and shift summary reporting.
The company’s iPLOD initiative enables operators to input their PLOD data directly into a tablet, from which it is then uploaded to the production database. Supervisors will be given the ability to validate this data before it is posted to the main database and PDF copies can be printed out. The app can be tailored to different machines, allowing capture of just the machine specific data needed; e.g., tons and TKMs for trucking, drill meters, holes, bolts and mesh for jumbos, etc. The system will also allow operators to input their prestart and daily safety checklists directly to the tablet where work flows can be organized, if necessary.
Pybar reported that it has trialed devices at most of its sites and is now ironing out remaining bugs and making changes to site specific processes ahead of an official roll out.
Machine Data Capture — Pybar is working toward implementation of automatic data capture from every machine in its fleet, from basic production data (such as engine hours and payload), to mechanical alerts. The data will flow automatically back to the head office, where the company said it is “close” to implementing dashboard reporting for key statistics.
The latest market data shows a strong and growing interest in digital innovation among mineral producers. Four out of five mining and metals companies expect to increase their spending on digital technologies over the next three years, with more than one-quarter (28%) planning significant investments and almost half (46%) citing digital as the biggest contributor to innovation, according to new research from Accenture.
Based on a survey of about 200 mining and metals executives and functional leaders worldwide, the Digital Technology in Mining report showed the convergence of information and operational technologies and adoption of cloud computing are advancing the digital agenda.
Mining and metals executives said their companies have applied and will continue to apply digital technology over the next three to five years predominantly in mine operations, but also in exploration, mine development and other areas. Most of the investments in mining operations target robotics and automation, named by 54% as a top spending area, along with remote operating centers, drones and wearable technologies, each at 41%.
Mining and metals companies are also continuing to adopt cloud computing technologies broadly. Four in five respondents (81%) said their companies have implemented some form of public, private or hybrid cloud, and another 17% said their company is exploring the use of cloud technology.
Accenture’s research results underscore a trend for miners looking to sophisticated analytics to help them improve operations and make data-driven decisions. For example, one-third or more of the respondents said the most widely used digital technologies in mine operations involved some type of analytics. When looking at organization-wide digital technologies, 31% of respondents said they are making significant investments in real-time data visualization, and 58% are piloting or in the strategy stage with that technology. About one-third said they are conducting pilots with predictive/machine learning analytics; artificial intelligence and cognitive computing; virtual simulation of physical environments; or video analytics.
“As miners continue to face weak global demand, excess capacity and increasingly limited access to resources, the desire to innovate through digital technologies emerged as a key finding of our research,” said Rachael Bartels, global managing director for Accenture’s Chemicals and Natural Resources practice. “Cost reduction is still on the agenda for miners, but the focus is squarely on better performing operations. Digital technologies enable operations to adjust to changing geology and market conditions, while still delivering returns.”
Avoiding Digital Difficulties
One of the basic premises of a recent study** on digital progress — or lack of it — in the mining industry is that even though “digital mining” has, in various forms, been around for several decades, there is a perceived, and often real concern that technological implementations haven’t always delivered their money’s worth. Here are some of the common pitfalls that can lead to project failure or shortcomings:
• Lack of detail on the implementation pathway: There is consensus between stakeholders on the digital vision but little discussion on how to practically and effectively move from current state to this vision.
• Perception of high costs: There is a valid perception from decision-makers that projects linked with IT systems often over-promise and under-deliver, often with a significant budget overrun. This perception delays decisions to commence a digital initiative.
• Unclear accountability and disconnect with the current operating model: Owners of digital transformation are often unclear, and silo organizational structures are mismatched with a fundamentally different way of operating.
• Ill-defined business model and business case: There is a degree of skepticism from leadership as to the robustness of the business case for digital and a lack of clarity on what the new business model will look like.
• Lack of digital education and understanding: This can result in behaviors such as: o An aversion to change or the implementation of something not fully understood. o A naïve rush to implement something on promise often through a misguided desire to appear progressive.
• Remote decision-making creates dissonance with local leadership: o Cultural difficulties of new remote operating models are not fully recognized. o Operating site leadership is reluctant to concede critical process ownership to external teams, and the external teams often fail to deliver positive outcomes due to a lack of deep understanding of the site issues. o Resourcing requirements to support a global business from a single location are under-estimated, as are the difficulties in gaining access to accurate data.
• Data systems lack maturity to support the future vision: Perhaps one of the biggest disconnects with the vision of the digital future is the quality of the data available for decision-making. While in some areas there are massive amounts of new data, there are other parts of the value chain with gaps in data quality and issues in gaining access to required information.
• Systems and processes are already in place but are not being optimized: Business cases often do not recognize that there may be a significant digital footprint already in place. Leaders must understand why this footprint is not fully utilized before implementing new approaches.