Realising the potential of digital mines

Image: ABB.

Digitalisation, electrification and automation are three trends that are transforming global mining operations.

They continue to grow at an unprecedented rate, according to ABB Australia head of mining Stuart Cowie.

The challenge for companies is not procuring these technologies, but integrating them into mine operations in a holistic way.

“Technologies integration should be performed in view of the larger transition to a mine of the future,” Cowie tells Australian Mining.

The future of mining will be characterised by horizontal integration, remote operation centres, the mine-to-port value chain, electrification of assets, data management for a continuous improvement process and increased collaboration.

For others, transformation is all about reimagination.

“Think left, think right, think low, think high, overthink things you can think of, if only you can try,” Accenture natural resources industry lead Ann Burns, speaking at the Austmine 2019 conference, quotes Dr Seuss.

“There is increased connectivity, data analytics and automation, all brought in by this next wave of industrial revolution. But to what end?”

Burns encapsulates the goal of this mining transformation in “triple zero” – zero harm, zero loss and zero waste – believing that the purpose of this next industrial revolution has to be more than just “being agile” or to transition to digital operations.

ABB, for example, is developing applications that allow risky activities to be conducted from a control room, mapping activities to remove from dangerous areas.

The technology company is also focussing on analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to orchestrate and predict autonomous-based activities in mines.

Examples of this include autonomous fleet coordination, predicting time to perform a task and being able monitor and control ventilation systems by recognising the location of people and vehicles.

These are intended to provide high levels of visibility and control over machines, plants and systems.

“With the ability to adapt and learn in changing situations, and act in sometimes sudden and critical situations, technology can help improve productivity, energy efficiency and safety,” Cowie says.

ABB’s MineOptimize also optimises safety processes to reduce the impact of wear and tear on machines, making it less likely they will malfunction and potentially injure an operator.

ABB Ability MineOptimize is a framework that simplifies and unifies engineering, optimised solutions, digital applications and collaborative services to bring new levels of performance across the mining enterprise.

Collectively, this framework helps mining end-users achieve the most efficient design, build and operation of any mining or mineral processing facility.

“Of course, safety remains a critical concern of mine operators,” Cowie says.

Rockwell Automation also sees “an interesting direction” and a huge opportunity in the Internet of Things (IoT) to improve safety in mining.

“IoT has the ability to interact with lots of different types of data, be that the control system’s data or historical data, and access to other different types of data bases that assist with maintenance, electrical and mechanical tasks,” Rockwell Automation global industry technical consultation, mining, Mike Smith says.

This allows mining operators to fault-find more quickly, or in other words, “find the needle in the haystack,” and get the required assistance in a timely manner.

IoT now also provides both real-time and predictive data to operators, helping them make informed decisions that reduce ore variability and operating costs, according to Cowie.

Importantly, it provides visibility across the mine-to-market value chain and can be targeted to build a collaborative approach across the board.

IoT can also display the data that previously could not be well-represented visually or collected without putting workers in an unsafe environment, Rockwell Automation enterprise account manager Murray Phillips says.

“IoT providing data to analytics modelling solutions gives the ability do a prospective continuous scanning to look for conditions that are similar to the event to help avoid a trip or fault condition in unsafe situations before an operator gets there,” Phillips says.

There is also augmented reality, virtual reality and other graphical webpages and reports, allowing data to be displayed in the most appropriate medium depending on the type of user needing the data, rather than being operator-focused and displaying everything on Abnormal Situational Awareness (ASM) based greyscale screens.

“The IoT can put all of those inputs together and provide a lot more context about what it is you’re looking at, who worked on it last, how it’s been performing and what its previous faults were,” Smith says.

Cowie says the challenge for many operators now is connecting equipment, system and technologies to drive impact through the mine’s entire supply chain.

Integrated remote operation centres (IROCs) are an example of how everything from drill control to the dispatch of trucks in a pit can be monitored and controlled thousands of kilometres away from where physical assets are located.

In fact, remote working is an important factor in generation change, according to Cowie.

“The baby boomer generation will soon be at pensionable age and the young generation prioritises remote working, so having an IROC in a city centre is key to bringing efficiency and attracting talent to our industry,” he says.

Indeed, efficiency appears to be on the agenda of mining companies. Unsurprisingly so, as efficiencies could drive output and in turn generates revenue.

Automation, like digitalisation, has the potential to future-proof mining operations by increasing productivity and enabling more sustainable use of resources, and simultaneously lower input costs, according to Cowie.

Many technologies are readily available to assist mines, from robots and drones, to AI and virtual, augmented and mixed reality, to digital twins, 3D and 4D printing.

“By partnering with an experienced leader in the field, it will make piloting, learning, adapting and connecting these different technologies easier, and will help prioritise and embed the right solutions that will drive the biggest impact to an operation,” Cowie says.

Electrification, particularly the transition to electric vehicles, will also eliminate the need for many diesel machines, improving the working environment and boosting companies’ sustainability credentials.

Cowie is seeing progressive companies investing in fully-electric or hybrid-electric vehicles to eliminate the use of diesel, cutting both costs and emissions.

However, electric mines also present challenges for operators in terms of infrastructure, maintenance and operating constraints, according to Cowie.

“Solutions are being developed that prioritise total cost of ownership,” he says.

“The transition from diesel to battery equipped mining vehicles is the subject of a global collaboration between ABB, Global Mining Guidelines Group (GMG) and the Canadian Mining Innovation Council (CMIC).

“We are also working with LKAB, Epiroc, Combitech and Volvo Group on a sustainable underground mining project, which aims to test smart, autonomous battery equipped vehicles by 2020.”

With today’s technology development geared toward future-proofing mine sites around the world, mine operators appear to continue looking at ways to become more energy efficient, be less diesel dependent and further their social licence to operate, while ensuring a safer and more productive operation.

This article also appears in the September edition of Australian Mining.

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