Many mine sites around Australia are working on implementing automated machinery and the necessary communications infrastructure which goes along with this.
But for automation to run smoothly a myriad of programs need to be able to talk to one another, to pull and push, and share data amongst themselves, without friction.
This form of software integration is by no means a new idea; it has been implemented almost seamlessly in the manufacturing and e-commerce sectors.
Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) cloud integration firm OneSaas allows companies to integrate their various applications so data is entered once, saving time and creating consistency across business centres.
The company’s chief executive Jeff Perlman said integration has been pushed to the forefront of businesses’ minds in the last five to six years.
“It really took off when cloud devices started, because it went from being incredibly expensive, custom development for big organisations to being something that normal people could do and afford.”
Enterprise software company RungePincockMinarco’s [RPM] CEO Richard Matthews said when it comes to software integration and process automation the mining industry is behind the eight ball.
“When you compare mining with telecommunications, manufacturing or retail it has historically been quite disjointed or fragmented,” he said.
“In the past everyone has stuck to what they’re good at, because they’ve been doing it for a number of years.”
Mathews said for further efficiency increases to be realised in the mining sector data needs to transfer smoothly between applications.
“What’s happened is the big tier one miners like Rio, BHP, Peabody and Newmount have said we have a bunch of different applications running on our machines, we can live with that as long as they’re integrated, they need to interact.
“The logic is the big miners have all this data and now they can optimise it, so its really all about optimising the value chain and optimising the cost drivers,” he said.
“The information is taken, intelligence is worked through it and you get this continuous improvement cycle between the applications.”
Mathews explained that although the mining industry has been “slow in comparison to other industries there is a big drive now” to integrate and simplify the software solutions used.
“There’s a significant drive because everyone understands it’s all about driving the costs down,” he said.
Currently some companies have their maintenance data in one system and their production data in another, this means when a mine manager is planning production they aren’t using consistent information; by integrating those two applications you can eliminate the risk of for example planning to use a digger when actually it is down on maintenance.
Integration also assists with safety, especially as the industry moves towards increasing automation like driverless trucks and trains.
“You’ve got issues with automation where having driverless trucks is a reality and you cannot have that operating safely unless the data going into it is highly accurate,” Mathews stated.
Communication between technologies is the crucial wiring that supports autonomous vehicles.
“A lot of the technological advances which are there can only be taken up once there is integration and interaction between systems.”
Speaking at a conference in Perth recently, Sandvik director Andrew Philpott said a common platform needs to be developed so mine sites can move safely into the future.
“For us we need to develop a common platform so that all the equipment can communicate with each other and we can envelop all the equipment under the existing automation technology,” Philpott said.
And as offsite operators increasingly depend on automated technology to plan and operate mines the technology employed needs to be highly accurate and reliable.
“BHP and Rio are already building applications so they can run their pits and operations remotely,” Mathews stated.
“You can only do that if the data flows between the applications.”
Mathews said miners are pushing for higher levels of software integration across their systems in an effort to reduce costs.
“The values of commodities aren’t what they used to be, it’s about being as efficient as you possibly can be, getting the best out of every truck, out of every shovel or dragline.
“You can only do that when your data is consistent, meaning people are making core business decisions with the same information. It’s all about building a plan and then working out how you are going to deliver on that plan day in, day out.”
Integrating and automating the mining process is not an easy feat as mining is so variable in comparison to the manufacturing sector, Mathews explains.
“You don’t quite know exactly what’s in the ground; you don’t quite know exactly what the grade is or where it stops,” he said.
“Whereas you look at the manufacturing process and you’re making baked beans, the tins are the same, the baked beans are the same, and the recipe is the same. You can have consistency through the system.
“Mining is very, very variable, the geologist thinks he knows, the mining engineer hopes he knows, but you just don’t know.”
Streamlining software in mining
The coal sector is the focus of mining software company RPM’s new software package, developed exclusively for underground coal operations.
Officially launched at this year’s Mining Indaba in Cape Town event the Underground Coal XPAC Solution is designed to accelerate the delivery of practical mine plans.
The software suite was purpose built to focus on the planning intricacies of underground coal mines for more accurate, practical and relevant results when it comes to mine scheduling, financial modeling and visualisation applications.
“Traditionally, mining software solutions have been engineering-focused stand-alone applications, but our clients are increasingly pointing out that integration of the software into their back office and other systems is important,” Mike Evans RPM regional GM for Europe, Middle East, India and Africa said.
Underground Coal standardises the mine planning process so that users may quickly explore scenarios in order to formulate informed decisions.
RPM says the simpler Underground Coal software will open up mine planning processes to a wider employee base, addressing issues skills shortages within the industry.
“Our clients face risks from the traditionally complex mine planning solutions available until now, which means reliance on retaining niche technical skills,” Evans said.
“With a skills shortage continuing to affect the industry, we’ve addressed these concerns by launching Underground Coal with in-built mining intelligence that removes the need to have these niche skills, opening up mine planning to a wider audience.”
Evans explained that Underground Coal eliminates the need to learn scripting “meaning less time getting the hang of the software and more time planning the mine”.
Mathews agrees, adding that technology and automation within the mining sector has come a long way, and with a skills shortage hitting the industry now is the time to increase investment in automation.
“Twenty years ago everyone was putting in HR systems in across their enterprises, and then financial systems, and procurement systems,” he said.
“This [Underground Coal] system means you only put the data in once.
“In the past a customer would buy our application and say it’s very big, it’s very complex…It was tough to implement because we considered a thousand variables.”
The downside of having so many variables in a system is that it is very hard to configure, so the customer would in the past have to hire a consultant because every mine is different.
“The reality however is that most of the mining processes are similar if you are in the same commodity”,” Mathews stated.
Working with BHP Energy and Coal in South Africa, the largest energy producer in the country, RPM managed to create this “preconfigured system” specifically for underground coal mining.
“It’s taken all the best practices from all the underground coal mines we have worked with around the world and put them into a single preconfigured solution,” he said.
Mathews said the reason miners both like and want a preconfigured solution is that it significantly reduces costs by between 70 and 80 per cent.
The new system also aims to reduce training times as it eliminates the need for scripting.
“You don’t have to have the same level of training because you aren’t learning about the tools, you’re learning about the actual model and how you run your mine.”
Training takes time and money and there are high attrition rates in the industry, so to up-skill staff can be a risk.
“Once you‘ve got the underground coal mine up and running with the system, customers won’t need the same level of skills or same level of consultants to implement that.
“We need to provide our customers with a quicker and easier way to get operational.
“It does address miners’ key issue with skills and gives them the ability to both attain them and move them around the place.”
This new software aims to deliver a clear understanding to a mine manager of what to expect in terms of production forecasts in the medium to long term was the goal of the new system, RPM’s head of marketing George McCullough said.
“The whole purpose of the solution is to really help mine planning superintendents and mine managers to understand a forecast of production,” he said.
“It enables people to understand what the equipment is doing on a shift by shift basis, so you get that really fine granular level of detail and that is really important for underground coal mines.”
Although preconfigured the system still allows users to adapt to changing conditions, accounting to differences in each mine as no geology deposit is the same.
“By selecting the commodity type it eliminates a whole lot of unrelated options are eliminated,” Mathews said.
Heavily prevalent skills shortages in the Southern African mining industry has forced companies to “desperately” search for simpler applications which still provide reliable results, McCullough said.
A global coal miner in South Africa have been using the first version of the Underground Coal XPAC solution for almost a year, successfully implementing the system, undergoing user experience testing (UAT) and have delivered a five year mine plan using the software.
“This product is all about making sure you are following the plan. You never actually know what is in the ground so the best thing you can do in operations is follow the plan,” McCullough said.
“What this solution is going to enable you to do is do that very simply and effectively, because it is pre-configured, is wizard driven, and is standard, meaning if you’re a mining company with a number of mines this solution has the same look and feel, it has a standardised way of using the data, naming the geology so you can basically compare apples with apples.”
McCullough said the difference with RPM’s Underground Coal software is that “it’s not about taking brilliant technology and throwing it at the problem which is what has been done in the past. There have been a lot of complex, technologically advanced solutions”.
“This is about taking technology and making it very simple to use, focused at the problem so people can follow the plan that has been set up. If you follow the plan you will know exactly where your equipment will be, where your men are going to be,” he said.
Somewhere in the last ten years, between the GFC and the drop in commodity prices there was a period of agglomeration where mining companies acquired other mining companies and there was an emergence of global juggernauts like Rio and BHP.
McCullough said that at the same time exploration has become more expensive, and so as a consequence competition between mining companies has increased.
“Competition is fuelled by access to people and access to good quality resources, and that is why we’re seeing the adoption of a lot of technology like automation that is not new.
“There is a lot of drive to bring this technology into the mining industry and ultimately they’re looking for a competitive advantage,” McCullough said.
“It’s about bringing standardisation and control to a mine site, which enhances their competitiveness and ultimately brings them value.”
The decision to hone in on underground coal was made mid-way through last year when the sector was looking a lot rosier, before the extensive job losses, the softening of coal prices and the increased American competition on the global coal market.
Mathews said that if the company known then what he knows now they probably would’ve developed an ion ore solution first, which is now due to hit the market in a couple of months once.
But with a system that promises to streamline operations, eliminate the overhead of scripting and significantly reduce operation costs for customers it almost doesn’t matter which order the tailored products are released.
“It’s all about driving [mining companies] margins and driving efficiency out of the equipment,” Mathews said.