The technology company has answers to one of the biggest challenges in mining at the moment: how to effectively use data. Ben Creagh writes.
The benefits of digital projects or initiatives in the mining industry are already well known.
Digital technology, most importantly, helps drive the health and safety of workers at mine sites. It also improves operational efficiency, the utilisation of assets, lowers costs and enables integration of supply chains.
These benefits have pushed companies to investigate and then launch technology projects that aim to transform the industry into the digital age.
With technologies like sensors, for example, mining companies are generating more data than ever before. But herein lies one of the greatest challenges in modern-day mining: how do companies take advantage of this data?
A McKinsey study found that mining companies currently use less than one per cent of the data they create.
According to Barry Elliott, vice president, enterprise accounts: heavy industries at Rockwell Automation, this is due to a disconnect between collecting data and then efficiently using it to inform operations.
“Data been around a long time, but actually doing something meaningful or forming it into something meaningful is the challenge,” Elliott says.
“Less than one per cent of data is being used today. There is a significant upside to this, but again, it becomes intimidating because there is a tonne of this data, so what do you actually do with it?”
Rockwell Automation approaches taming data in four key ways, starting with a focus on having analysis of it in the right place.
A technology like cloud computing has grown in popularity in not only the mining sector, but all major industries that are developing with digital technology.
Despite the potential to use the cloud to store data, Elliott warns against focussing on it as the single source for storage across an enterprise.
“Make sure you put some careful attention around this,” Elliott advises mining companies. “What are you looking to achieve? What data are you going to collect? Then provide that to the right people in a manner that is intuitive for them to interact with.”
Rockwell Automation suggests mining companies consider implementing a scalable approach for the management of analytics at an enterprise, system and device level.
This will allow companies to produce, analyse and react to information as close to the source as possible.
Elliott says companies will be significantly more agile by having scalable analytics, giving them faster decision making, improved network speed and performance, the ability to solve problems when they occur, and less risk and cost.
“(The data then) doesn’t have to move up to the cloud and back again depending on where your operations are, and most mining companies have operations all over the globe in remote places,” he says.
“Issues like latency become a problem there where you simply cannot have the same level of performance in one location to another.”
The second approach of Rockwell Automation for taming big data is to help ensure it is given to the right people, for example, mine managers will get the information they need separately from what a maintenance technician receives.
Elliott says there is now a lot of technology available that enables mining companies to transfer the right data to their people in a simple and intuitive way.
“It is really no surprise that someone running a mining operation uses different data to someone in maintenance. However, it is the same data that they look at, but it is just put together in a different way for their specific needs,” Elliott says.
For the mine manager, the information may be presented on a high-level operations data platform, whereas the maintenance technician will receive specific data covering the status of operating assets.
The third approach of Rockwell Automation is to provide the data in the right context so it is used in an efficient way to benefit operations.
Elliott says legacy systems at organisations often create a data “scavenger hunt” where hours are wasted and there is unnecessary equipment downtime because the right information can’t be found when it is needed.
He urges companies to develop systems that work together, something that is also increasingly possible with advances in technology.
“Today’s technology can help you pull together data from completely disparate sources in a simplistic way and give it to people as they need it,” Elliott says.
“You can drastically reduce downtime when a failure occurs or when a maintenance activity takes place have the information required to perform that activity.
“Instead of having your equipment down for multiple hours you are potentially reducing that to a single hour period depending on what the nature of it is.”
The final approach of Rockwell Automation is to develop a data management system that creates meaningful interactions between people.
Elliott says technology should not be viewed as a panacea in this regard and organisations often need to address a multitude of other areas first.
Rockwell Automation, however, points to a technology like virtual reality (VR) as an initiative that has the ability to create these interactions.
For example, VR can enable a virtual walk-through and flyby assessment of conveyor systems on mine sites without requiring a field person to personally inspect the equipment.
Elliott is convinced these approaches will work for mining companies navigating a digital transformation, but reinforces that they should not approach them alone.
He says forming partnerships with industry and technology groups will help guide companies through the process.
“Create meaningful partnerships with your suppliers and industry peers where you have aligned outcomes and accountabilities that really enable you to step-change the speed at which you implement technologies and pursue initiatives,” Elliott concludes.
This article also appears in the September edition of Australian Mining.