Connectivity: Enabling mining’s digital transformation

The digital mine concept continues to come into effect at Australian mines.

Austmine talks to its collaborative partners and members about how the Australian mining industry is becoming a digital environment.

The mining industry is picking up pace on digital transformation.

Spurred on by a range of technologies and innovations, such as remote operating centres, data analytics, drones, powerful geological tools, advanced mine planning software and automation, the mining industry is changing at a faster pace than ever before.

However, the integration and utilisation of these game-changing technologies remains a challenge to optimising the mining system and realising the industry’s vision of a “connected mine.”

The key enabler in this pursuit of the connected mine is the network infrastructure and communications systems deployed on site. Data generated from the vast array of sensors on intelligent equipment must be communicated to operating centres and other departments to inform processes.

Monitoring of people and equipment to enhance safety needs to be in real-time to avoid catastrophe. An unforeseen shut down on a mine site due to an autonomous truck disconnecting from the Wi-Fi network can cost operations millions of dollars.

These are just some examples of why a powerful and reliable network is a necessity at modern mine sites.

However, the unique operating environment of the mining industry creates a range of challenges in this space, including access to telecommunications infrastructure, distance from the nearest towns, the landscape and terrain and access to private land.   

Dean Felton, a managing director within Accenture’s mining practice, has worked with a range of mining companies to implement and evolve their digital transformation. He comments on the keys to connectivity on mine sites.

“The requirement has to be for a network infrastructure that can accommodate all data and voice requirements of the site, which can also include mobile and in-mine mesh networks. This does not mean that terrestrial, wireless and mobile technologies are not available to mine operators, but that they should be placed within an integrated or hybrid network infrastructure,” Felton says.

“The glue, however, to the integrated Wide Area Network (WAN) will continue to be the satellite infrastructure as it allows for highly available and cost-effective bandwidth between sites, in-country offices and the corporate headquarters. Choosing the right provider who can deliver an end to end communications experience will be critical.”

However, Felton also provides a message that the mining industry must consider their business fundamentals to enjoy the fruits of technological change.

“In Accenture’s experience the technology has rapidly advanced to enable a connected mine, yet the business models and deployment methodologies that focus on people changing processes are severely lagging,” he says.

“The result of this is that there are numerous proof of concepts, yet no one miner is driving the double digit value they should be from these transformational projects. Miners need to change the core of how the business supports the operations because 100 per cent of the financial value of a mining company is lying in the ground.”

Accenture is currently undertaking a program with FreePort McMoRan to implement a connected mine solution focused on digital technologies to enhance their mining operations.

Specifically, this provides context and actionable information for the field teams across all of their mines and a framework for measuring improvement. This innovation leadership will be important for the next phases of growth for mining companies.

Stephen Simpson is the operations supervisor – Americas at MST Global and he leads an Australian METS company renowned globally for unique communications technologies.

He echoes Felton’s sentiments on the technology being in place to create significant value from digital transformation, especially for mine communications systems.

“A fully automated mine communications system needs a few key components. Firstly, the system needs to be robust and reliable. To achieve this, the system needs to be built to withstand the mining environment and be designed with redundancy in mind,” Simpson says.

“Secondly, the system needs the bandwidth and latency required to operate and make decisions in real-time. Thirdly, client devices must support the intended applications used for the mining operation.

“These systems and technologies exist today. With correct design and implementation, a connected mine can be a reality. It is the implementation and deployment that mining companies must get correct.”

Looking at the global mining environment and the numerous projects MST Global undertake, Simpson singles out Hecla Mining’s Greens Creek mine in Alaska as a leading operation for digital transformation.

“Hecla’s Greens Creek mine in Alaska has been making strides towards a connected mine. MST’s IMPACT digital communications infrastructure has been installed on site since 2013, providing the wireless network and backbone for applications such as location and event tracking, VoIP, control systems data, video, proximity detection and ventilation on demand (VOD),” Simpson says.

“Most recently, it has supported their introduction of Sandvik’s AutoMine autonomous system to achieve safety and productivity goals. With MST’s IMPACT infrastructure being deployed at all working levels for wireless communications, the site has successful connected from control rooms to where machines are operated.”

As Australian METS companies continue to develop the ground-breaking solutions they are renowned for, their deployment and integration on sites will be critical to successful operational outcomes.

Austmine will continue to drive conversations about the connected mine in the lead up to the Austmine 2019 Conference and Exhibition in Brisbane, which is themed on “Mining Innovation: The Next Horizon.”  At the event, taking place from May 21–23 2019, discussion will culminate in sessions on “Integration and connectivity: A breath of fresh air,” led by innovative METS companies and miners aiming to revolutionise their operations.

To get involved and keep updated on the latest discussions on the connected mine in the Australian METS sector, contact sheldon.varcoe@austmine.com.au.

This article originally appeared in the Australian Mining September edition.

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