The benefits of implementing technology to help support mining practices are well documented and very compelling. It’s not surprising 74% of mining executives say digitalisation has the biggest impact in improving productivity (1), There are however significant barriers that mining companies will need to overcome if they are to be successful in realising those benefits. This article discusses 5 common challenges and how to address them.
The introduction of technology has been a key to increase mining productivity and safety. However, technology solutions often entail a high capital expense and the budget for such implementations can seem hard to justify when following the traditional capital investment process or in some cases, is completely out of reach. When considering upgrading to technology solutions, mining companies often face the challenge of navigating cost structures that are highly variable depending on specific details.
The uncertainty not only revolves around the high upfront costs that drive financial concerns; there are a lot more costs involved in implementing technology at a mine site than expected. When implementing efficient and advanced technology solutions, the costs quickly add up, and include:
Hardware procurement costs;
Training expenses (Including the loss of normal productive time for the employees and the cost of training itself);
Software and licencing costs (Which can often be re-occurring/subscription-based);
Downtime and disruption to short-term production income when transitioning to a new technology solution. For example, switching to automation;
Runtime and utility costs (Including electricity and internet connectivity); and
Maintenance and support costs.
When the upfront costs are paired with the recurring costs of running and maintaining the hardware, software and utility services, it can seem a large a financial burden for mining companies to further pursue technological solutions. The initial and recurring expenses can influence mining companies to seek cheaper alternatives, or not consider upgrading their existing processes at all.
The long-term benefits of incorporating technology as a standard practice in any mine often far outweigh the steep budget required. With the right planning and research, technology adoption will create a plethora of long-term cost-saving and increased productivity opportunities.
The challenge is to articulate a business case for the technology adoption process that will naturally overcome the up-front costs while still delivering a significant and tangible realised benefit to the mining stakeholders.
2. Data Management
Data plays a significant role in the decision-making process at an organisational and operational level. The data collected by mining companies is used to generate analytics and forecasts to support business and operational processes. Data must be managed, collected, shared, and analysed properly to avoid miscalculations, the mishandling of assets, the exposing of sensitive information from unauthorised access and other security threats.
The challenge of data management is that data is not collected consistently and there is poor operational support to dedicate resources to ensure that the data is correct. This lack of focus on data quality and sensor health hampers the progress that could be made by implementing data science and predictive analytics. To succeed we need to integrate IT professionals that have expertise in infrastructure, security data science, analysis, and other modern digital skills in to the organisation to drive the acceptance.
Another inhibitor in many critical deployments is a silo mentality whereby many stakeholders withhold information within their organisation for various reasons such as stovepipe culture, competition, new regulations, privacy or in some cases, a lack of understanding of the value of data. This causes distrust between the different key stakeholders, and different data formats in line of business applications or shared platforms.
One approach to address data quality issues is to import data from all source systems into a central location for data integration and processing. From a technology view a solution is to create a data lake in the cloud taking advantage of a low initial capital investment and ongoing costs that grow predictably based on data volume, allowing incremental investments with simpler and more specific business cases. The effect of a centralised, cloud-based data store is to encourage specialised companies, universities, and other experts across the globe to collaborate as a team, building trust, promoting awareness to cybersecurity threats, and improving current industry frameworks.
3. Change Management
Company culture is an inherent part of any organisation. Technology implementations must consider the effect of the company culture. Often, change management is required not only to train people, but also to motivate others to proactively maintain the level of quality of the data required. Through successful change management practices, implementing technology can be seen as a positive change, however delivering technology solutions into an unprepared workforce can lead to resentment and poor returns of the technology investment.
Mining presents another challenge to change managers given the complexities that apply in introducing change management on remote site with 24/7 operations and FIFO workforces. Aside from the logistical challenges to deliver change management initiatives to remote sites, there is also the challenge of ensuring that personnel from each shift and each swing are engaged in the change management program. For some larger sites, this could span over 6 separate “crews” that need to be engaged.
Following a structured approach to change management can help the workforce adjust to new technology. Whether it’s John Kotter's 8-Step Process for Leading Change or the Prosci ADKAR Model, they all follow similar principles:
Communicate the reason behind the change;
Build a plan and identify risks and issues;
Identify what resources are required to deliver the change;
Communicate the why, what, when and where;
Identify change leaders and generate positivity by short term wins;
Build sustainable new working practices; and
Review and refine.
One of the key factors any change management process must address is the tendency and desire to keep doing what is familiar. People are naturally resistant to change because it can be uncomfortable and uncertain. Managing that change is often one of the most unpredictable and challenging aspects to implementing technology and the effort to do so can quite often be under-estimated. Many technology projects have not succeeded simply because the organisation did not spend time managing the transition and bringing their staff along on the change journey.
4. Technology Skillsets
Digital mining transformation is being implemented across the globe with 69% of mining companies looking at remote operation and monitoring centres (2), and roles such as Data Engineer and Data Analyst are becoming more commonplace in Mining Companies. So how can mining companies transform their work force and re-skill them for the future?
There are a number of approaches – the best of which can be identified by a good change management strategy. Identifying the roles that will change with the introduction of technology is key. Pinpointing this early in the transition will mean that a large proportion of the workforce who will be affected can be retrained with sufficient skills to take on the changing roles if they are willing and able. For technology roles that are needed which require experience where a short amount of training will not suffice, a good recruitment strategy is required.
Mining companies must follow regulations and legislation with the burden of compliance growing steadily over the past few decades. New laws to regulate mining are introduced continuously to increase the health and safety of mine workers and protect the environment. Advances in modern technology offer new ways to enhance the quality of health and safety solutions applied within mining as long as these new solutions also adhere to strict industry regulations.
Regulatory compliance is vital for mining operations and unfamiliarity with new technologies can introduce risk in relation to compliance as poor data quality also has the potential to trigger a negative reaction from regulatory bodies. This makes integration with health and safety systems extremely challenging in some cases.
With such strict regulations, and technology adoption in mining only just starting to become relatively common on a global scale, it is understandable that this is a key concern to companies considering implementing these solutions. To be successful, it is critical that the correct measures are put in place to ensure adherence to health and safety legislations. Technology in mining can provide essential early-warning systems and communications, both of which are invaluable safety and security benefits.
Rapidly adopting new technologies in mines without proper change management may introduce risk when used incorrectly (3). It is important that the technologies being adopted have the appropriate contingencies in place to ensure there is a safety net that will always meet stringent safety & regulatory requirements.
1 - Accenture Global Mining Survey, Accenture (2014)
2 - The Digital Revolution- Mining starts to reinvent the future, Deloitte (2017)
3 - New Tech, New Deal: Technology Impacts Review, The International Institute for Sustainable Development (2019)