The Protected Mining Plant – Using automation to reduce risk to operational integrity

Although automation has enabled mining process operations to modernise, the sector still faces the challenge of increasingly complex threats to the integrity of systems, both internally and externally.

More advanced process automation systems must be engineered with several layers of protection if a mining company is to ensure it has a truly ‘Protected Plant’.  To ensure solid business continuity there must be a focus on the process-connection aspects of a system and how design elements can mitigate risks to operational integrity.

Operational integrity can be defined as the capacity of the process system or plant to maintain its whole or unified state to ensure continuous production, business continuity, safety and security. Potential threats to a plant’s operational integrity that can affect the process system include: increasing speed of business, nonstrategic proliferation of big data, cyber terrorism or other attacks, natural disasters, industrial accidents, unmanaged implementation of new technology and poor planning.

To address these threats it is possible to work backwards and recognise the characteristics of mining systems resilience. The system must have added reliability, protection from external forces and a means of fast, economical recovery if systems or sub-systems breakdown. Reducing risk to mining plant integrity involves eight key characteristics which provide protection to these automated systems.

  1. High performance processors

As Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technologies are adopted, the amount of raw site and supply chain data created grows exponentially. A modern process automation system must be designed to ensure that users have the processing power and communications bandwidth to allow them to leverage big data as it begins to flood the enterprise. Mixing and matching capabilities preserves operational integrity by providing the flexibility to add processing power without needing to invest in a major system replacement. At the process layer, technology leaders in mining operations are already hitting the limitations of legacy process automation data processing throughput. Nevertheless, the problem for legacy processors is only going to increase as the proliferation of data producers below and data consumers above the automation system further increase the communications workload.

  1. Multi-tiered historian

To realise the promise of big data in driving operational efficiency, all mining plants require a system to store and access historical data. For those operations with multiple locations, or plants running more than one brand of control system or historian, accessing all of this information places a strain on both information systems and operating personnel.

A multi-tiered historian such as Wonderware Historian, can aggregate data from multiple historians up to a common parent. When such an historian is SQL Server-compatible, it can receive information from a wide variety of sources. Newer historians may support up to two million points in a single instance or even many more in the largest multiple configuration systems deployed by large mining operations.

  1. Workstation level redundancy

In traditional configurations, workstation users interact with data via a human machine interface (HMI), which sends requests to a server – and then fetches information from the controller to display for the user. With the advent of smart, connected cyber physical systems, it is increasingly the case that each workstation is configured to fetch at least some data directly from the device or controller – if a workstation goes down, the user can still access needed data from another. This kind of agility drives resilience that is useful in many applications, ranging from immediate troubleshooting of process problems or disaster recovery, after issues that may have impacted workstations across a mine site.

  1. Emergency shutdown level redundancy

Safety is always a top priority so safety systems require a high level of redundancy. Failure of a mining process automation system to properly address safety is a resilient way that results in putting the people, the environment and the business at risk.

  1. System level redundancy

In state of the art systems, mirroring of operational control in remote backup locations provides end users with more capability to manage the availability of their applications, servers and equipment. In the instance of a natural disaster causing a system failure in one location of a mining site, such a system could fail over to a backup disaster recovery system mirrored on the other side of the world, or in the cloud. This can occur in a matter of minutes, allowing the plant to be back up and running with minimal service interruption.

  1. Cyber Hardening

With the increasing digitisation of mining operations, cyber security is a vital consideration and requirement which must be carefully considered over the entire lifecycle of mining assets. Mining operations must focus on resilience through the creation of multiple layered cyber security designs. These designs implement defence in depth and consider not only operational and network aspects but also human, physical and asset life cycle effects from conceptual design and development through to operation, maintenance and decommissioning.

  1. Flexible system design elements

Proper system design from the commencement of a plant can have a major impact on the costs associated with engineering and implementation. Not only for the process control system itself, but also the development and rollout of high level mine management and optimisation systems that rely on process data.

Flexible, open process control architectures that enable the managed flow of information increase the cohesion of process and supervisory control systems and decouple data flows between connected assets, process control and operational / enterprise level software.  Such design has a major impact speeding up process engineering by eliminating a significant engineering bottleneck by reducing the co-dependence of instrument, process, SCADA, historian and MES engineering, testing and commissioning processes.

  1. Controlled obsolescence

By managing and controlling obsolescence plans carefully, plant managers can expect to remove and replace aging and legacy operational assets near the end of their useful lives before they fail. Given the opportunity to replace and refit during off-hours, the benefits of business continuity far outweigh the costs of replacement. Developing a detailed asset lifecycle plan highlighting plant and equipment close to the end of its useful life gives mining plant managers the ability to maximise their return on investment for these assets while avoiding the consequences of aging systems.

Automation system technologies cannot address every challenge overall faced by Australian mining but together they can help build a ‘protected plant’ that allows those involved in the process-connected aspects of the system to their jobs in a more effective way.

Advanced process automation offerings implement robust technology, wrapped in many layers of protection, which enables everyone in a plant to fulfil their roles more effectively. Advice and technologies from automation experts such as Schneider Electric help Australian mining companies every day to improve internal operations agility and efficiency – increasingly important aspects in a volatile market beset by negative external factors.

Keep an eye out for the next piece in the series: The Enlightened Plant and New Insights.

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