ABB banks on tech partnerships to benefit mining

Technology company ABB is a leading advocate of the value that forming partnerships can create when developing and optimising digital mining operations.

Mining has historically been a slow mover when it comes to collaborating with industry partners. However, ABB group mining vice president Max Luedtke thinks this mentality is gradually changing.

Luedtke has observed mining companies collaborating with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), technology companies, mining services groups and suppliers to develop operations into digital mines more than ever over the past 18 months.

For ABB, no project has set a stronger benchmark in this regard than its partnership with Boliden AB at the Garpenberg lead-silver-zinc mine in central Sweden.

ABB helped Boliden transform an ageing mine, which first produced in the 13th century, into a standout example of a 21st century digital operation.

Sweden-based Luedtke believes many global miners are investigating what their mine of the future looks like, but they continue to be challenged by how they should update their internal processes to support this.

“In the past mining has been very isolated, it has had many different islands, so one thing we are seeing is companies starting to look at the total solution. Mining needs connectivity on all levels,” Luedtke told Australian Mining at the ABB Customer World event in Melbourne.

“We developed a mining library (of our solutions), which is actually more like building blocks, so that when companies are building plants, or even upscaling them from smaller plants, they are able to add this kind of functionality. They don’t have to make every decision at the start.

“Normally mines start small and then have to grow, but when they are already using our enabled technology they can grow with the technology so they don’t go into decisions they are locked into. That is one thing that we are pushing a lot, this library.”

Luedtke said it was important for mining companies to adapt their internal processes to support a transformation like this.

ABB, as a company itself, has also been through this challenging culture transformation to adjust to a changing market environment, he added.

“Mining is normally a conservative industry,” he said. “A lot of the mines have to rethink how they are operating and how they are changing their internal processes. That is one area where we are challenging them more and more.

“We normally take customers to Sweden to different mines and set up this connection so they can see there is a different way to do it. In many areas the technology is there, it is just about being open to use it.”

At Garpenberg, ABB worked with Boliden to ensure the operation would remain profitable in the 21st century by transforming it into an advanced mine.

In 2011, Boliden decided to invest $US580 million ($757 million) to expand Garpenberg, with the aim of strengthening the company’s growth plans in the following years by reducing long-term operational costs.

As part of the expansion, Boliden engaged ABB to deploy the Industrial Internet of Things concept to deliver productivity improvements in an underground environment.

The project, which was completed in mid-2014, has turned Garpenberg into one of the world’s most integrated and advanced mines.

Garpenberg’s milled ore tonnage rose by around 60 per cent to 2.22Mt. Costs per tonne also fell significantly, with less energy consumption, water use and noise for local residents.

ABB’s System 800xA control solution is considered the “brain” behind Garpenberg’s automated environment. It is operated at more than 30 different workplaces, all linked to tablet-equipped workers via a wired and wireless communication network installed in the mill and part of the mine.

It has been almost four years since the Boliden project was completed and the industry has continued to evolve significantly from a technology perspective since.

ABB South-East Asia regional manager Max Tschurtschenthaler believes the mining industry has now discovered the difference that can be achieved through the partnership approach.

“Something we have realised over the last 24 months or so is that at the mining companies, the innovation teams have become the stronger voice internally in the companies. This enables this kind of partnership approach,” Tschurtschenthaler said.

From the perspective of ABB mining solution account executive Richard Marsh, the commodities downturn earlier this decade provided time for companies to contemplate, and then make decisions, on how to launch their digital projects.

“What we saw was a real production mentality when all of the commodity prices were high. Then when the market went into a slump they didn’t want to spend anything, but there was a lot more listening,” Marsh explained.

“They are turning around now to say they are no longer in the production mindset, but instead they are in the efficiency and effectiveness mindset — that’s what we are seeing now.”

Marsh said the emerging mindset had mostly been led by automation projects to this point as companies targeted lower human-related costs.

“They are trying to reduce the human cost, and after they achieve that the next cost to lower is usually power or energy,” Marsh said.

“I think that is where we are trying to lead them, so we will see where the next compression is for where they can make money. This is not just about getting rid of people, it is also about optimisation.”

ABB’s mining group focuses on several disciplines, producing a range of products and solutions for open pit, underground, minerals processing, crushing and grinding activities.

Despite its broad expertise, ABB has focused on developing a culture where each mining area consistently works together, instead of in a siloed way — something it also urges mining companies to do when developing digital operations.

ABB global product manager – underground mining and hoisting, Oswald Deuchar, said the mining team had seamlessly integrated because the same platforms and libraries were being used across the group.

“We are using the same digital platforms when we are working together on projects,” Deuchar said.

In the underground space, Deuchar said ABB was commonly focused on how energy consumption at mine sites could be reduced, for example, through the Ventilation on Demand solution.

“It is all focused on using modern scheduling systems to improve the availability of machines,” Deuchar said.

“The underground mining environment has become very mechanised but it is also very inefficient.

“By having proper scheduling systems we will be able to schedule maintenance and how we use both people and the equipment.”

Deuchar said ABB would continue to focus on developing solutions that remove people from dangerous environments, with new automation projects and the introduction of more robotics planned.

With these developments expected to sweep through mining in the coming years, ABB has already demonstrated how industry partnerships can deliver an effective result.

This article also appears in the May edition of Australian Mining.