What’s the deal with automation and augmented reality? OSIsoft and Rockwell Automation debunk high technology myths with Vanessa Zhou.
Automation is a key enabler of improved health and safety in mining, but it is not the only solution.
Just as an airplane wouldn’t fly on autopilot and be left without a pilot on duty, the mining sector requires the presence of employees even in autonomous environments.
Such is the belief of industry principal, mining, metals and materials at software company OSIsoft, Martin Provencher, a former production manager who now works with companies to help improve their production results, reduce their costs and heighten on-site protection of workers.
“Having access to real time operational data can help people know what’s happening and when it will happen, and even in prescribing the best actions to take in certain circumstances,” Provencher tells Australian Mining.
“We have a client who is an operator in the cement industry. They have transitioned to an autonomous operation of kilns, but even though the kilns can operate on autopilot and their processing ability has improved significantly, they still have people on-site.
“You still want your people even if you have an autonomous truck. We need someone to monitor on-site or remote operation in real-time to make sure it’s safe and everything goes as planned.”
OSIsoft conducted a health and safety survey. Out of 192 mining companies that responded to the survey, 95 per cent believe that technology is a key enabler of health and safety.
Fifty-eight per cent have seen the adverse effects of injuries and fatalities on productivity, 50 per cent on costs and 35 per cent on company reputation.
“Technology is definitely a key enabler, but it doesn’t necessarily replace people,” Provencher says.
A Canadian mining company, for example, was battling with noncompliant events when a series of incidents occurred during ore dumping by truck drivers.
“While operators want to do a good job, they want to maximise the throughput,” Provencher says.
“So they were going quickly on dumping to get to the new ore faster. The problem is, if you dump too fast, it creates risks.
“If the operator doesn’t know that, he thinks he’s doing a good thing. Now, the company uses real-time data so the operator can see if he is compliant with the dumping procedure.
“The truck drivers subsequently adjust their behaviour and dump the ore properly, reducing 85 per cent of incident rate.”
Real-time operational data, coupled with technology, not only allows a company to improve a process, productivity or safety one at a time, but multiple areas such as quality, environment, compliancy and reporting at the same time.
Mining companies can collect real-time data from their assets, including the trucks, crushers and individuals, to improve asset reliability, regulatory compliance and safety.
Provencher has gauged rising interest among mining companies that are yet to exploit increased tech capability to improve their workers’ safety.
“In 2012, I talked about bearings that will tell us when they need changing. They’re called intelligent bearings,” he says.
“Today, I’m still talking about that example, but I see more companies being engaged with it. And it’s not going to be about transformation just among mining companies, but also a business transformation for the manufacturers.
“They will start offering intelligent bearings – value-added bearings – not just plain bearings. That transformation is coming.
“The use of real-time operational data is the next revolution that’s coming from the mining industry, and it has started.”
Rockwell Automation enterprise account manager, Murray Phillips, believes as technology evolves, mining companies will continuously be on a journey towards autonomous production.
For every business case the mining companies fund, there needs to be a sufficient return of investment (ROI) to justify the investment.
Due to the ever-changing environment, companies need to revisit their business cases as often as every six months to get a robust, end-to-end understanding of the opportunities that are available for their operations.
“Autonomous fleets, for example, are multi-billion-dollar investments, so they must have a significant multi domain payback, for example safety and productivity.”
The dynamic environment that businesses operate in has been particularly highlighted by the first few months of 2020.
Phillips says that in some manufacturing sectors the sense of urgency to introduce automation has significantly increased from January to April.
“If you look at Victoria’s surgical supply provider, Med-Con, there is suddenly a huge urgency to increase production from two million to 50 million surgical masks a year within 12 weeks, so automation has become absolutely essential to achieve that scalability,” he says.
Human resources can also become a bottleneck for being the decision makers when the human gets flooded with having to make decisions within a short period of time.
“Typically, the way workflows have been designed, all data is delivered to the control room operators, so they can end up being the bottleneck in non-ideal conditions,” Rockwell Automation technical consultant Mike Smith says.
“Therefore, the next step in the automation journey is decision automation which can, as a minimum, assist the operator with decision making and when required, can also make authorised decisions autonomously.”
“That may be execution management, where operators now need to only do 20 per cent of the job in setting up a piece of equipment, because the 80 per cent has been autonomously pre-configured and ready to go.”
“This allows the operators to dedicate more time to process improvement rather than having to make all the decisions that can be automated.”
Strategic partnerships between technology companies, including Rockwell Automation, have powered the world of automation into the reality that it is today.
Rockwell Automation and PTC formed a strategic partnership in 2018 that provides an integrated Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) platform to customers with analytics that matter most to them and drive results.
Rockwell Automation now gathers data from different sources, allowing it to do more predictive control and analytics, and also provide decision support required by mining companies.
The partnership also helps smooth the journey for a company’s automation strategy. PTC’s augmented reality (AR) solution allows two or more people to collaborate and troubleshoot equipment without requiring the subject matter expert’s physical on-site presence.
Cutting hours of flying or driving to the non-functioning equipment, PTC’s AR remote assistance app, Vuforia Chalk, is a solution that allows an on-site operator to show a subject matter expert, who may be miles away, the exact machine in trouble via a video chat. Chalk is being offered free of charge until June 2020.
Chalk enables chat participants to annotate on the video, and the subject matter expert to point at the exact wiring or object that needs fixing, and how.
This helps remove the possibility of creating further damage, safety issues and equipment downtime as a result of communication barriers and using incorrect procedures.
“It’s hard for people to put into words what the system is doing wrong, but Chalk provides over-the-shoulder assistance, where experts can collaboratively solve a problem while keeping the actual context going via the video chat,” Phillips says.
“It gives you the opportunity to animate the screen, circle the exact area of problem and see what others see.”
Chalk’s capability is so versatile that it can also assist with equipment commissioning.
With the onset of coronavirus and its resulting travel restrictions, Chalk has conveniently become the go-to tool for mining operators, including many of Australia’s mining giants.
Indeed, Rockwell Automation has observed a spike in the amount of app downloads since the world became more isolated to limit the virus’ spread.
The good news is, Chalk has become a Rockwell Automation standard offering with equipment since 2018.
Though technology is not a sole answer to all problems, it has proven to be an enabler of better safety, communication and turnaround times.
This article also appears in the June edition of Australian Mining.