Updated: Jan 24
The mining industry is under constant pressure to find new ways to improve production efficiency. Miners aim to achieve operational excellence, while optimising the safety of their people and utilisation of resources. With the fourth industrial revolution on our doorstep, advancements in technology have finally reached the stage where operational excellence can be achieved.
Modern technology allows businesses to lower their costs through the elimination of inefficiencies, increased productivity, and improved visibility of operational information via reporting, allowing for real-time decision making. Digital systems and platforms offer an advantage to operators via a new level of connectivity and production visibility throughout the mine.
Wi-Fi was invented and first released for consumers in 1997. In the mining industry, the steady uptake of this technology allows computers, mobile devices, and other smart mining equipment to interface with the internet through a wireless mesh. Wireless mesh optimises the rich interconnections between devices or nodes underground, providing reliability and offering the necessary redundancy in the network chain.
As competition in the mining sector increases, organisations are looking for ways to be more efficient than their rivals. The potential to achieve a competitive edge is now within reach through connected technologies, and digital and software innovations, to transform key aspects of mining. In this article we evaluate a number of advancements that have long been in development and are now accessible at a scale to be operational across the mining industry.
Real Time Data Systems The Internet of Things (IoT) is not new, the concept has been in existence for over 20 years. More recently IoT characterises connected technology via sensors and appliances that connect devices to the Internet. The mining industry has been slow to adopt the technology, however around 40% of the mining executives suggest IoT will increase process automation and could be used to identify ongoing cost savings.
An example of these systems can be seen in the Production Control environment, where there are two key components of mining operations: the ability to record data in a near real-time mode using a mobile device connected to a wireless network, and the flexibility to store data when outside of the connected area, are made possible with IoT technology.
Accessing data online from a mobile device, such as a tablet, has become the de-facto standard within the online shopping industry. Introducing devices to mine site personnel comes with significantly more challenges than online shopping. Many more complex factors need to be taken into consideration including machine and personnel safety when using mobile devices, vibration, dust, and most importantly, change management to gain buy-in.
Digital data capture is a major step-change in acquiring operational data and is a valuable data source to track operational metrics, including development advances, drill meters and tonnes tipped captured through online entry. This improved acquisition of data sets facilitates near real-time reporting with summary dashboards which can be complemented by algorithms, trends and charts for improved planning and decision making.
As information, ideally available in real-time, is a key driver for success, another core aspect of the modern mining industry is asset performance. The reliability of an asset is the key factor to increasing output while improving safety and cost-efficiency. In the past era of slow data acquisition and processing, most asset reliability activities were focused on reactive maintenance. At that time operations were already suffering a loss due to downtime caused by asset breakdown. The availability of real-time asset data provides the ability for miners to pro-actively manage their assets to avoid breakdowns.
According to industry analysts, mining companies are struggling to make productivity improvements due to ongoing substantial maintenance costs.
With 30-50% of mining operational costs spent on maintaining plant, fleet, and equipment, the magnitude of potential improvements on bottom-line profitability is significant. Industry analysis suggests that improved maintenance through real time equipment monitoring can deliver over 16% of savings in maintenance costs.
There is a 3-5x cost factor for urgent repairs and corrective work requests versus planned maintenance, often made evident by tracking the percentage of work orders managed through the planning office. This does not include the loss of productivity from having assets unavailable.
Mining equipment manufacturers are enabling the acquisition of asset performance parameters/data by digital platforms. The ability to receive and perform analysis on asset parameters lead to the emergence of Condition Monitoring systems, which aggregate the captured information and provide insights into the current and historical asset condition through Business Intelligence reporting. These Condition Monitoring systems enable real-time asset operational threshold monitoring, informing when thresholds have been exceeded.
This technology provides an advantage to the maintenance personnel when dealing with asset failures, alerting them to potential condition changes prior to the actual failures occurring. The ability to react before a breakdown leads to better preventative maintenance, reducing maintenance costs, downtime and improves safety.
Adoption of asset condition monitoring solutions is a critical element required for the introduction of Prediction Failure models, that can lead to further reductions in asset downtime.
The coordination of the daily, weekly, and monthly production schedules, and production execution and output, are some of the top mining challenges, which can impact on operational efficiency and business costs.
Short Interval Control systems and processes, support the day-to-day scheduling of resources, people, and activities in anticipation of daily changes, connects workforce and equipment in real-time, with the goal of optimising resources. It provides the ability to model shift plans, track execution and review timely progress that can be replanned if unforeseeable events happen.
The intention of data mining is to provide information to enable and improve decision making. Modern technology solutions facilitate data collection to monitor performance indicators, trends, and deviations. Integration of these solutions supports the daily mining operations with accurate and near real-time data, ensuring the investment of machinery and the performance of resources is monitored.
Virtual and Augmented Reality
One of the most popular uses for Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) in the mining industry is for education and training. This is most often used to educate workers on machine operation, emergency responses and safety. The benefits of being able to train workers offsite without the need for transport or accommodation has been adopted by many leaders in the industry already, but there are other uses for this technology, including personal safety, remote control of devices and the design process, all of which benefit from the use of Virtual and Augmented Reality technology.
VR can be used to simulate machinery operation during the design and development stage. It is inefficient to spend time and money designing and building machinery that ticks all the boxes from a functional perspective but causes issues for the operations team. Being able to simulate the machinery operation in VR/AR allows engineers and designers to collaborate more closely with the end-users to ensure that designs fulfil the technical and human requirements to be used effectively and efficiently prior to physical fabrication.
Where safety is concerned, VR/AR is often used as a training tool to educate workers on which situations are safe and which are not. AR can do much more in this regard; cameras mounted on headsets can be paired with AI technology to provide information to workers that may not be observable to a human. This can include assisted vision in low light, real-time hazard detection, or even map overlays that display nearby operations and people.
As technology develops, many types of machinery are becoming capable of being controlled remotely, keeping operators isolated from sources of danger. Workers may be offsite or even in a far-off city. The reduction in costs for accommodation and transport are significant, however it is not the only benefit to be found in simulated control systems.
The common approach to remote-controlled machinery is to construct simulators that mimic the appearance and functionality of the traditional controls for the relevant machinery. These physical stand-ins take up space and can only be used for the machinery that it is designed to imitate. Recreating the controls in a virtual space allows users to move between duties quickly and easily and does not require the construction or maintenance of these simulation platforms. Getting to work really is as simple as putting on a headset.
When adopting these technologies independently, each opens a lot of untapped potential. Adopting them together, can create a whole new way of thinking in your mining operation, that will provide potential safety improvements and significant cost savings. In years gone by, better technology in the mining industry may have been seen as a sharper shovel, more efficient trucks, or mechanical automation of manual tasks. With the evolution of ‘connected systems’ through the use of computerised and IoT platforms, the advancement of operational efficiency, safety and improvement on the organisations bottom line, these new ways of working are not only here to stay but will continue to increase, in line with advances in the technologies themselves.