Accenture industry Q&A: Autonomous operations in mining

Austmine speaks with Accenture about the approach mining companies should take in evaluating the needs and benefits of automation in their projects.

Autonomous operations in mining have the potential to significantly improve efficiency and productivity, while increasing safety and sustainability.

Today, a number of companies have fleets of autonomous trucks, trains and loaders at mine sites, or are piloting the use of these vehicles.

These efforts are a great leap forward from traditional practices, but they are just scratching the surface of how autonomous systems can be used in mining.

In Accenture’s view, autonomous mine operations can and will go much further. As Austmine’s industry leader for digital transformation in mining, Accenture is working closely with Austmine to develop the understanding of the impacts of emerging technologies on the mining industry.

Austmine sat down with Accenture applied intelligence mining lead, Liv Carroll, and Accenture mining industry lead for Australia and New Zealand, Dean Felton to explore the business case and driving forces of automation for mining.

The key message from Carroll and Felton in this interview is that organisations must take a broader view of autonomy, creating a clear and concise roadmap to harness future opportunities of the technology to take full advantage of the autonomous evolution.

Autonomy journey

Before embarking on the autonomous journey, we must first assess where the industry stands.

If you think autonomous operations just mean driverless trucks and unmanned drills – think again.

“The development of autonomous application and systems in mining is varied, but overall mining is not where – for example – manufacturing is already,” Carroll states.

“As an industry, mining has traditionally focussed on equipment, rather than process, so is not reaping the benefits. However, the opportunities are becoming more real and substantial as time goes on.”

Felton adds, “There’s been a significant change in the past 12–24 months in terms of attitudes to data, shifting from capturing all the data and creating a data lake, to asking, what is it in our operations that we need to address in terms of efficiencies, delays, risk and capturing lost value – and what can be automated.”

In Felton’s view, there are point solutions happening, but businesses are still working in silos – sometimes with different data lakes and analytics teams working independently.

“We need to be more integrated and focus on the two to three areas across the business that represent the biggest opportunity in terms of risk and value,” he says.

Critical success factors

Accenture places this risk and value opportunity at the forefront of the critical success factors for automation.

There is a view from the industry that organisations must digitise and capture the opportunities presented by the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

However, without a documented and measurable outcome in mind, the intended benefits of the automation journey can be quickly lost in business complexity. 

When assessing the needs and benefits of automation, Accenture urges companies to begin with the critical success factors of triple zero, meaning zero harm, zero loss, zero waste.

Carroll deliberates on what these concepts mean for mining businesses.

“Safeguarding human health and wellbeing must be central to the automation journey. But zero harm runs well beyond this as well,” she says.

“The project environment must also be considered, including the protection of machines, assets and critical infrastructure, especially with the intensifying challenge of cyberattacks.

“Furthermore, zero harm should be considered through the lens of your operations’ community. Digital transformation can also be central to sustaining community and social trust.”

Of course, the benefits of automation in mining are often viewed through a productivity and efficiency lens. But Accenture reiterates that true value from automation comes from taking a holistic view of the organisation.

“Success can be measured when mining business (has) end-to-end visualisation of losses and optimisation. Return on investment from capital projects and digital investment can then be measured and a continuous improvement process put in place to drive value,” Carroll says.

Finally, zero waste must be a focus for any strategic initiatives moving forward.

“We are moving towards a future of circular economies and marketplaces where users actively participate,” Carroll says.

“Mining must assess technology implementation against its benefits for climate, sustainability and energy and water efficiency, along with the opportunity to re-use waste for productive purposes.”

The best approach to automation

With success factors in place, the best approach for autonomy implementation within the mining system must be found.

Felton believes mines should be designed with a balanced approach to maximum productivity and profitability. In his view, the mining industry must embrace a manufacturing mindset.

“Manufacturers operate on wafer-thin margins and spend time finding losses and delays in their systems and processes, then continuously work to remove them,” he says.

“Mining companies should be searching for their biggest and most costly losses and then work to push them out, which will help the move to maximum profitability.”

Carroll adds that these organisational processes must be reviewed and rethought before automation takes place.   

“If you simply automate what you have now, you’re just doing the same thing faster,” she says.

“There are degrees of autonomous operations, and you don’t need end-to-end automation across the entire operation to realise value. Start by understanding your process framework. Identify where automating a process can delay downtime or accelerate access to insights.

“Autonomous operations don’t have to be all or nothing. It can start with one process, then another, and so on – with each step adding value along the way to support your broader performance goals.”

The future face of automation

There is still a fear that surrounds automation. But the next generation of leaders who are graduating from our universities and developing technology skills will embed digitisation in the mining system.

Carroll notes, “The new skills that are making their way into mining include data science, machine learning, artificial intelligence and robotics.

“But there is also an anticipated increase in the need for those skills that machines cannot provide, such as leadership, creativity, innovation, complex problem solving, critical thinking, communication and emotional intelligence.”

According to Felton, to accelerate this pace of change, mining must change the narrative.

“To win interest and enthusiasm from young people – and those from other industries – miners will need to rebrand as modern, digital and responsible businesses,” he says.

Embracing the autonomous evolution represents a giant leap to achieving this outcome.

Find more information about Accenture’s Future of Autonomous mining at https://www.accenture.com/au-en/insights/natural-resources/autonomous-operations-mining

This article also appears in the October issue of Australian Mining.

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