Talking digitalisation, agile and smart mines with TI Mining

Augmented intelligence: Holographic digital twin of an open pit mine developed by TI Mining.

Founded by a computer scientist who started working with miners 20 years ago, TI Mining has grown into a company that helps digitalise mines around the world. Australian Mining speaks with chief executive Nicolas Jubera.

TI Mining chief executive Nicolas Jubera was an innovation and strategy consultant before stepping up into his leadership position and joining as a late co-founder three years ago.

TI Mining was a small boutique development firm when Jubera started, but the company has now grown to employ 55 people, with offices in Chile, Australia and Canada.

Australian Mining speaks with Jubera about the digital transformation he has witnessed and what has led the sector’s change.

In Chile, some of the biggest copper mines in the world are now using TI Mining solutions. How did the company get there?

Mining is the main world-class industry of Chile. It attracts a huge pool of talent who want to work in the sector. The country’s mining industry and its ecosystem attract the United States’ equivalent of MIT or Stanford University graduates. Hence, we have high-level professionals.

Recognising our big mines portfolio in Chile, we saw the opportunity to go beyond that. If world-class miners are using our solutions, why not take them worldwide? A big motivation for us is creating impact. And we only create impact when our clients create value using the solutions we develop.

Australia is a big focus for us because of its large mining industry and high interest in the adoption of new technologies for smart mining.

What’s driving the uptake of advanced mining technologies today?

Through the commodities super cycle, the focus of the mining industry was on increasing production. Most operations were not focussed on improving efficiency, because commodity prices were very favourable. Operators had no time to optimise. But that’s changed a lot in the past five years. The industry realised those prices would not come back, so they needed to work smarter and embrace smart mining. Most operators have an effective equipment performance of less than 50 per cent today. So this presents a massive opportunity to create value and use equipment more efficiently.

You ask, why only 50 per cent? Because mining companies deal with big uncertainties, from geology and geotechnical issues, equipment failure, weather, and interference between processes that are managed independently. It’s a very challenging environment.

Agile methods and new technologies can help improve efficiency in uncertain and variable environments.

How can Agile be applied to the mine? What are the challenges?

In an uncertain environment, you can’t foresee the challenges that are coming, so the corrections obviously won’t be incorporated to the original plan. The logic behind agile is that if you make planning cycles very short, you can incorporate the new information to the new plan very quickly. An agile athlete can react and change directions very fast.

In mining, some people call it short interval control. It’s the same agile principles but with a different name. It talks about the PDCA cycle – plan, do, check, act – and trying to make that cycle as short as possible. But there is a big challenge for miners due the quality and speed of the information they get.

When Christopher Columbus went on a sail that led him to discover America, he wasn’t sure of his direction during the day. When the night came and he could see the stars, he’d realise if he deviated from the plan and correct his direction.

He could do the PDCA cycle only once a day, because he was restrained by the check step – the information needed for situation awareness was available only at night. Today, ships navigate with GPS, and the rudder corrections are done every second.

Some big, world-class mines only realise that they have deviated from their plan once a month. The best ones do once a week. And you ask why? Again, it’s because decision makers don’t have access to the right information at the right time. And that’s where technology can help.

What’s the state of readiness for these technologies?

The base technologies are ready. They have gone through a lot of improvement in the past few years. Wireless networks, sensors, computer hardware and software platforms have improved dramatically.

Now you’ve got hundreds of sensors and GPS in every piece of equipment, drones with laser systems, cameras, satellite images, all connected. The data is there.

But then there is another challenge. You must transform data into useful information, and into insights for the decision maker – information that can improve their situation awareness, help them understand what is happening and project scenarios for the future.

So, you must keep the user and his challenges at the centre, not technology. A lot of people say we need apps, we need digital twins, we need artificial intelligence (AI), but they don’t know why. You cannot be successful if you don’t know why you’re doing it.

What about people? Are they ready?

I think we still have some way to go, but things are looking good. You’ve got millennials, who grew up playing video games, today becoming managers and sitting in decision-making positions. This generation is a lot more open to adopting new technology and taking risks. You won’t have innovation without some failures, which is part of the iterative innovation process.   

On the other hand, this same generation and the ones following are not very keen on staying in their positions for long. They want rotation.

So we as developers must work hard to make systems intuitive, easy and “fun” to use, so new users can become competent very quickly. Making systems intuitive and incorporating user experience design at the core of the solutions is key.

And I insist: keep the user at the centre. Some people talk about AI replacing experts. We don’t see that happening in mining soon. The environment is too challenging. We prefer to talk about augmented intelligence – systems that work along with experts and help them improve decision making.

The coming years are going to be a lot of fun. We’re really looking forward to the digital transformation of the mining industry.

This article also appears in the July issue of Australian Mining.

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