Is digitalisation delivering value for mining companies?

RPMGlobal regional general manager Michael Baldwin at the International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC) in Melbourne. Image: RPMGlobal

RPMGlobal regional general manager Michael Baldwin zooms in on problems that come with digital uptake, and whether the promises of digitalisation are real. Australian Mining reports.

Technology, digitalisation and data planning are three modern buzzwords in the mining industry.

Tech companies are investing in the next digital solutions. In response, mining companies are creating new roles as they embark on a journey of digitalisation, while training institutions are making sure the industry has a skilled workforce for the future.

Despite the efforts to ensure a smooth and productive transition into the digital environment, are mining companies equipped to create value from digitalisation?

There has been significant investments already made in “digital” yet we still see mine planning mayhem is stealing the headlines, budgets are blowing out and operational decisions that can end up destroying value, according to RPMGlobal regional general manager Asia, Russia and Australasia Michael Baldwin.

Baldwin, speaking at a Technology – Mine Optimisation session at the International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC) in Melbourne, boldly challenges the audience with the following questions.

“Is digital actually delivering? Is it making our operations better? Is it delivering value to the industry for the amount of money that we’ve put in?” Baldwin asks.

“The first thing I’ll say upfront is, technology, as in all areas of life, doesn’t always make things better.”

Mining companies today are dealing with an unprecedented amount of data. While it should give planners more context and benefit their decision making process, it’s quickly becoming a double-edged sword, Baldwin adds.

Planners are spending so much time managing the data into modern systems that they often lose sight of the outputs.

Worse still, they shift their focus to data management rather than focussing on getting an executable plan, according to Baldwin.

“Mine operations are becoming more complex, and the task of planning them isn’t getting any simpler,” he says.

“The more data we have is often seeing planners focusing on programming applications to visualise an outcome rather than use the tools to enhance the engineering decision making itself. Much like learning how to program the autopilot but not understanding how to fly the plane.”

“And to throw on top of that is our need for speed. There is a real balance between speed and accuracy. We often put systems and processes in place that trade off the latter for the former.”

One example of this is when production planning doesn’t accurately schedule the equipment required as a single process. We end up seeing not enough resources involved in the plan to be able to execute it, or worse, too many.

“And this is because still today the production plan is more often than not done in isolation,” Baldwin says.

“It’s delivered, someone takes it, puts it in their old, trustworthy spreadsheet for one area, then someone else for another, and more data is added with cut-and-paste integration, creating a final plan which is shared using combination of honesty and memory system for version control across the operation.”

“And then of course, between the planning horizons, the actual interchange between applications is often the biggest hurdle of communication and execution. That’s one of my personal favourites.”

Undoubtedly, there are ways out of this digital chaos. The first is to prioritise true robust integration of systems. Users shouldn’t be doing the heavy lifting integrating data. It takes away time where they can be really adding value.

Integrating production, maintenance, cost, haulage and product optimiser (PO) doesn’t just give a lot more context and accuracy, hence better plans, it enables everyone to be working from the same plan.

Take as an example a North American gold mine which has introduced this system, covering not just the production and final processing facility plans, but also its offtakes from 16 other sources. Or the various coal miners in Africa who not only plan the mine production but the fill flow of material through domestic and export streams.

The beauty of this is everyone is singing from the same “song sheet”, according to Baldwin.

And it’s not just production, maintenance is another area we see big potential from digital due to the high proportion of cost asset management is at any operation.

Yet again, often the digital projects and systems employed focus on single capability. “A lot of the times we look at data in isolation and don’t look at the full picture. This means you don’t get to see that the predictive data that enable an engine change saving money now, has actually cost you enormously later in the equipment’s life,” Baldwin says.

“All of these technologies delivering value have a part to play and when you bring all the pieces of the puzzle together, you see more value, you see the real step change we all speak about.

“Having a live lifecyle forecast of every component for every piece of equipment allows companies to focus their reliability centred maintenance (RCM), predictive and overall maintenance efforts as well as giving then an accurate indication of what each and every decisions impact will truly be.”

Baldwin advises mining companies to plan a digital evolution within a mine site according to the tech maturity uptake within the business, while relearning the lessons concerning digital uptake that the industry has learned.

Most importantly, mining companies should never underestimate the people factor, Baldwin says.

“Like any other project, there’s a people component. And sadly, it gets the least amount of focus and funding, yet is the most critical path of making the digital equation work,” he says.

Training is a good example where often not enough is spent, and there is a reliance on one person training the next who trains the next and so on.

This is just like a game of Chinese whispers where it’s not the message that gets lost along the way but the value to the organisation.

“Perhaps the better narrative is, digital is certainly delivering, but at times the industry may not deliver the digital,” Baldwin says.

“In summary, digital is certainly delivering in pockets. However, as part of a wider industry we still have a lot more we can do in order for digital to deliver far more value which it is certainly capable of.”

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