Globalisation, competition, material and resource pricings, aging workforces and regulatory pressures are just some of the challenges facing Australian mining companies. Some of these challenges grow more daunting by the day. But Australia has always been an innovative force in making the best of difficult situations, particularly in the mining sector.
The external factors that affect mining are so volatile that it is difficult to pin down with absolute certainty what the industry will look like in a year – let alone five years or a decade. To combat these unknowns mining companies are using Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technologies to more effectively control their own assets and in-turn, creating future-proof mining plants with modern process automation at its core.
The Future-Proof Plant helps mining organisations in three ways: keeping pace with accelerating business and operational requirements; evolving with changing technologies; and attracting the right people, then supporting them with the required knowledge.
- The Speed Challenge
Over the last decade, critical business variables associated with industrial production has fluctuated. For example, today the price of the electricity that a mining operation consumes might change every 15 minutes. This increase in speed has also impacted the frequency in variation of the production value and material costs of an operation.
Now, the speed of business is so fast that industrial operations must be able to respond to market changes in real time, including many traditional functions that industrial operations have performed in transactional business systems. Real time business functions such as performance measures, activity-based accounting and profitable safety and asset performance management, will need to operate succinctly in process automation systems.
These systems must be designed right from inception to be extremely agile, adapting to process changes quickly and easily. As these process changes are implemented, object-based industrial service-oriented architecture (SOA) can help industrial companies to adapt flexibly. This future-proofs the operation while maintaining the operational integrity of the mining plant.
Tightly integrated, resource-to-market, data-driven businesses allow advanced Supply Demand Optimisation (SDO) systems to be implemented. These systems provide real-time visibility and predictive capability, allowing businesses to overcome the challenge of complex interlocked operations. In turn, this enables ‘lean’ production that meets market demands whilst mitigating bottlenecks.
- The Technology Challenge
As well as helping companies meet business challenges by future-proofing operations, modern process automation systems embody all the characteristics essential to keeping ahead of ever-evolving technological developments by future-proofing their technology as well.
Control room components such as operator consoles and engineering tools have much shorter lifecycles than process-connected components such as transmitters and control hardware. There is also an increased use of mobile technology, with two out of three businesses in a recent Schneider Electric IoT survey planning to implement the Internet of Things via mobile applications in 2016. No single computing architecture will monopolise these systems. Instead, IoT will flourish across systems, both at the edge and on premise.
This in-part reflects ongoing security concerns, with cybersecurity threats related to IoT a critical challenge for future business. Making information available across heterogeneous computing environments will help end users adopt IoT solutions in the way that best suits their security and mission-critical needs while also offering those with legacy technology infrastructures a logical and manageable path forward.
Industrial businesses can protect their engineering investments and in many cases, use emerging technology to drive more value from their automation solutions. From an architectural perspective the key features of such an automation system are threefold: providing a distributed software architecture that operates in standard operating system environments, utilising open industry standards and building a distributed object-based communication infrastructure.
In recent years, the concept of continuously-current technology has been taken to a new level by extending the basic system design to become an industrial service oriented architecture (SOA).
Looking at Schneider Electric technology as an example, clients found they could continually evolve to the latest state-of-the-art technology – while preserving existing hardware, software and applications. This enabled clients to protect their engineering investments and in many cases to use emerging technology to drive more value from their automation solutions.
This approach means Process manufacturers have the flexibility to continuously upgrade smaller components to meet emerging business needs, without having to upgrade everything at once, thereby minimising downtime.
Increased use of open standards, with a transparent data-driven approach is based on the desire among industrial companies to have common approaches, allowing systems to integrate and interoperate. Better integration enables the flow of data to information, knowledge and offers operational insight, encouraging efficient collaboration across mining plant operations.
- The People Challenge
A final important issue facing industrial companies over the next few decades will be the changing workforce; retirements of the older workforce and training the next data-driven and more transitory generation. The processes of a Future-Proof Plant helps reduce the impact of these changes, primarily by using automation technology such as virtual reality to embed expertise into systems rather than people.
Properly designed automation software can help capture the intellectual property of engineers and operators before they depart, safeguarding important information and valuable processes. Software workflow engines at the system layer allow intellectual property to be embedded into the system environment. Therefore, critical information and knowledge can be passed on to new employees in the most succinct and efficient way. With these assets available on demand, operators and maintenance workers can be guided through unexpected and perhaps unsafe events via intellectual property embedded in automatically triggered workflows.
Automation systems with sophisticated design are also able to help facilities improve both safety and efficiency standards. Operator training simulators used in conjunction with contextualised virtual reality training systems can help new mining operators achieve certification levels in less than half the time of traditional methods. With the challenge often lying in training new operators how to respond to infrequent or unexpected events, simulation and augmented reality software can be programmed to effectively teach this.
Embedding lifetime training capability into the online environment through performance feedback mechanisms and performance prediction software ensures continuous worker development after certification. Since people learn by feedback control, providing the capabilities of the Future-Proof Plant’s operational insight environment drives workers to even higher levels of performance than that of their predecessors.
The future – tomorrow and beyond
IIoT automation system technologies cannot address every challenge faced by Australian mining. But creating Future-Proof Plants ensures that a company’s assets are used at their maximum capacity and efficiency and will continue to do so effectively in the coming years.
Protecting the operational integrity of plants, enhancing the operational insight of people and enabling plants to adapt easily and affordably to change are just some of the benefits local companies are already experiencing today. These benefits will help them remain competitive tomorrow and beyond.