Maintenance: 30 years of METS sector transformation

The days of running assets into the ground are long gone.

The management of mining machinery has become a data-driven field with an expectation that potential disruptions or failures will be predicted, prevented and controlled.

In this article Austmine and members Dingo, Techenomics, AssetOn, HE Parts and Polymathian, explore what has propelled the transformation of mining maintenance, and what lies ahead.

Mining maintenance: 30 years ago

Rigid workflows. Little predictability. Reactive processes. That was the world of mining maintenance three decades ago.

According to Paul Higgins, executive chairman of Dingo, it’s a stark contrast to today’s predictive maintenance procedures.

“There were no proactive maintenance strategies. Work was completed according to a schedule and workflows were designed around breakdowns,” he says.

“Mines used manual methods to process and analyse operational data because the volumes were manageable. Paper reporting was the predominant method for sharing information.

“This proved to be effective in the past, but it doesn’t scale to meet the needs of the modern digital mine.”

Louis Okada, marketing manager at Polymathian, describes the difficulties that these reactive maintenance strategies created for workforce planning.

“With limited computer power and data availability, the workforce needed to be highly experienced and knowledgeable to effectively maintain equipment. If there were problems that couldn’t be solved, workers needed to seek expert advice. Meanwhile, the manual nature of planning and scheduling meant under or over resourcing was common,” Okada says.

What has changed for mining maintenance?

The impact of the Information Age

Technology has disrupted our daily lives, and maintenance is no different.

Okada lists the key innovations that have caused a fundamental shift in maintenance procedures.

“Sensors are now more sophisticated, cheaper, smaller and internet enabled. Software tools do a lot of the heavy lifting, automating a large portion of manual tasks.

Gigabytes of data are collected daily and are made easily accessible with micro-services (APIs),” Okada says.

“Advanced scheduling and planning tools assist with mobilising workforces for maintenance tasks.”

Dingo’s Higgins agrees and says the value proposition for miners has fundamentally shifted from how well a mine extracts resources to how well a company acts on information to optimise production, reduce costs and improve safety.

“In short, data is rapidly becoming a competitive differentiator in both maintenance and overall mine operations,” Higgins says.

For maintenance, this paradigm shift means a dramatic movement from reactive practices to preventative and predictive maintenance.

Techenomics chief executive Chris Adsett says new technologies and data analysis are transforming the industry.

“In our space, we have seen the evolution of more reliable equipment to measure condition monitoring variables and the use of IT to maintain and analyse fluid data,” Adsett says.

“These systems can easily identify similarities between what is running correctly and what is not, and when driven by powerful online systems, the diagnosis is more systematic, faster and allows for real-time decision making.”

Focus on safety

While technological change has led to data-driven maintenance, a crucial focus on safety has also shifted the landscape.

Andrew Murray, WA sales manager at H-E Parts International, says the utilisation of a hierarchy of controls in jobs and across sites has led to significant improvements in safety outcomes.

“Changes in planning, engineering and design have not only reduced downtime, but limited exposure to risk for organisations and their people,” Murray says.

Stuart Burckhardt, director of AssetOn, also highlights the safety benefits for optimised maintenance practices.

“Improvements to machine design which have been brought about through competition, legislation and continuous improvement have led to vast improvements in safety,” Burckhardt says.

“Large mining assets today are inherently safer and easier to maintain and operate while delivering higher productivity than equivalent assets from 30 years ago.”

What challenges lie ahead for mining maintenance?

Digging through the data

Mining organisations are facing mountains of data. Many of them don’t know what to do with it.

As Dingo’s Higgins puts it: “In the absence of the systems, processes and people to unlock the value contained in these huge volumes of data, Big Data can quickly become counterproductive, creating noise, confusion and unnecessary work.”

Burckhardt from AssetOn agrees, saying: “Vast quantities of maintenance information held by individuals, or in disparate systems, need to be codified into a standardised digital format. Without this standardised content, data cannot flow easily between systems and the broad benefits of digital technologies cannot be realised.”

Culture is the key

Managing and influencing culture is emerging as a key issue for mining leaders.

As Burckhardt describes, “we see a major inflection point for maintenance in the mining industry. While the business fundamentals have not changed, the capacity to leverage technology to reduce the requirement for human capital is greater than at any previous time in history.

“As digital transformation sweeps across maintenance organisations, the very real fear of job losses or significant changes to established work patterns comes with it. This mindset puts up barriers to adoption of new technologies as workers fear the change that comes with digitisation.

“Ensuring mining maintenance personnel have a positive mindset towards change, by understanding their medium and long-term opportunities and risks, will benefit both them and the industry and will be key to remaining competitive.”

What’s next for mining maintenance?

Integration across the value chain

Looking ahead, technological change remains central to the possibilities of mining maintenance. Integrating operations across the value chain remains central to a complete maintenance strategy.

“A fully integrated network makes it easier to monitor every facet of an operation, including equipment health. Operators can use a blend of smart sensors, condition data and analytics to detect impending issues, determine when repairs need to take place, and prescribe exactly what needs to be done,” says Higgins.

Murray from H-E Parts International reiterates the point.

“Agnostic systems will allow various communications with central operating hubs on the same platform to ensure mobile equipment and plants are running at maximum efficiency and producing as required,” Murray says.

Automation and artificial intelligence

Could we see equipment scheduling its own maintenance? Higgins certainly thinks so.

“Next generation equipment could even utilise artificial intelligence (AI) to schedule its own maintenance and repair, while shifting tasks to other equipment included in the network. Proactive maintenance also means that spare parts can be ordered well in advance, avoiding express shipping costs and delays, and improving inventory management,” Higgins says.

Mobility for maintenance

Maintenance comes with a lot of paperwork and red tape. AssetOn’s Burckhardt believes that mobile technology will change this.

“Mobile devices have become cheap and ubiquitous. However, the content and applications needed to take full advantage of the technology have lagged,” he says.

As more content and applications get developed and deployed, mobile devices will become a staple of the maintainer’s toolkit, becoming an extension of their own knowledge and experience that is available wherever they go.

“Further, increasing compliance requirements and focus of improving safety have ballooned the volume of paperwork and data entry needed. This has had a detrimental effect on cost and productivity. By building these requirements into smart systems and devices, compliance can be administered at the source rather than double or triple handling, greatly reducing the administration time.”

Austmine is proud to be celebrating 30 years of support and advocacy for the Australian METS sector. As we lead up to our anniversary date in November 2019, we will be examining the significant transformations and key innovations driven by Australian METS and their effect on the global mining industry.

To keep up to date with Australian Mining, subscribe to our free email newsletters delivered straight to your inbox. Click here.