Inside Fortescue’s mission control

Fortescue Metals Group’s Integrated Operations Centre allows workers to operate a mine, rail and port network that is 1200 kilometres away. And during COVID-19, it sets a blueprint for what the industry can do to safeguard operations in the future. Nickolas Zakharia writes.

In an unprecedented time of social distancing, travel bans and lockdowns, the mining industry has remained buoyant in sustaining many of its major operations throughout Australia.

For leading miners such as Fortescue Metals Group, developing a remote mining control centre in Perth, Western Australia has become even more of a precious asset to keep business flowing and its workers safe.

Fortescue’s Integrated Operations Centre (IOC) is in Perth, the capital city of Australia’s largest mining jurisdiction and where the iron ore company centres the bulk of its activities.

What started with the company’s Train Control Centre for its Pilbara rail system over 10 years ago has continued to push boundaries as it has developed, moving the country towards the next generation of mining.

This year, Fortescue pledged that its Pilbara vehicle fleet would become fully autonomous – something that has the ability to prevent a virus such as COVID-19 from spreading in the workplace when compared to a manually-operated site.

Fortescue chief operating officer Greg Lilleyman believes the company’s people are what push the envelope through determination, rather than the technology on its own.

“We are operating a mine, rail and port network 1200 kilometres away from where it is located, so there is a lot involved, however, we have always believed it’s our people, not the simply the technology that drives improvements,” Lilleyman tells Australian Mining.

“In order to embrace the benefits of automation and technology, we need a workforce committed to challenging the status quo and generating new ideas. That is why we have always focussed on employing people who share our values, which drive our culture and performance through a strong focus on safety, family and courage and determination.

“More specifically, remote operations require some different skills such as being able to think in a virtual world. This can be particularly helpful when completing tasks like building dump plans for stockpiles and keeping the mine model accurate.”

Fortescue’s IOC continues to grow to include additional sites that will allow for further automation of operations from mine to port.

“We are currently expanding our IOC to include additional site operations, together with our shipping and marketing functions, which will increase our ability to deliver efficiencies by sharing knowledge and skills,” Lilleyman says.

The IOC also allows Fortescue’s extensive team of male and female workers to have much more flexible work arrangements, while also preventing the need for travelling hundreds of kilometres to regional areas. Avoiding regional travel has been particular important during COVID-19.

“Our IOC allows us to provide more flexibility to our team members, including for women who have returned to work after having children,” Lilleyman explains. “Their positions in the IOC mean they no longer need to regularly travel to site.

“Today, during the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the fact that we can still run our mining hubs while limiting the number of people flying to site is also valuable.”

With health and safety playing a huge part at any mining operation, the adoption of automated technology prevents injury from occurring on site.

“Automated mines are safer through the removal of people from potentially risky situations,” Lilleyman says.

“If you take AHS trucks as an example; when people drive trucks they speed up, slow down, get tired and assess risk differently, whereas AHS trucks operate consistently and predictably.

“To date, our autonomous haulage fleet has safely moved over 1.3 billion tonnes and travelled over 43 million kilometres. Or to put it another way, in the month of March alone, our fleet travelled the equivalent of two return trips to the moon – safely.”

By embracing technological advancements, 3000 Fortescue team members have been trained and upskilled to master automation technology.

Lilleyman says Fortescue’s unique culture has been the foundation for an appetite for embracing technology and generating ideas from the beginning.

“At Fortescue, we believe innovation shouldn’t come at the risk of jobs and the key to our successful automation projects is our people,” he says.

“Our training and redeployment program has successfully transferred or upskilled employees to new roles across the business, resulting in no redundancies as a result of the roll out of autonomous haulage.”

And Fortescue’s Cloudbreak iron ore mine in the Pilbara region shows just how far the company progressed with its focus on autonomous operations.

“Cloudbreak is the first remote mining operation in the world to use the CAT MineStar Command system in production mode,” Lilleyman says.

The MineStar Command system is one of several automation solutions that have taken the industry by storm. In May, the company announced it had reached a milestone of over two billion tonnes being hauled using CAT Minestar Command.

Mining from home

COVID-19’s impact on the mining industry has not been taken lightly.

Many companies are now looking for new methods of productivity at a mine site to eliminate the risk of future transmission of the virus.

The shutdown of a mine due to a worker being infected with COVID-19 can be catastrophic to a company’s financial position.

However, automation can act as a saving grace during a mine site’s shutdown.

Beckhoff Automation’s PC-based control systems are opening avenues for several industries to be controlled autonomously from a computer.

The primary benefit with any piece of automation equipment at a mining site is reliance in the face of adversity, Beckhoff managing director Nick Psahoulias tells Australian Mining.

“A remote operation opens up availability of qualified operators working from many locations,” he says.

“Having the ability to monitor, adapt and control an operation remotely gives you greater resilience as an organisation and especially in times with COVID-19 or inclement weather or labour shortages.”

Beckhoff’s control systems are designed to have the ability to make automated decisions depending on what they are assigned to do.

“At Beckhoff, we provide high level control systems that bridge the IT and operational technology fields to then bring all the information from a site back into the master controller which then can make decisions on behalf of operators,” Psahoulias explains.

“The control system becomes the brain of the operations.”

For Psahoulias, Australia’s mining industry is ready for a wider adoption of automated technology after witnessing the havoc COVID-19 has caused.

“If you look at the last month (April), we have proven how adaptable we are as a country and as a workforce. Everyone comes together to find a solution and that’s the Australian way so I think we can start to look at widespread adoption of automation,” he says.

“I think COVID-19 has definitely made the industry more aware of what it’s capable of. Greater levels of automation and remote operations would allow sites to continue to a greater degree in any new foreseeable world event or disruption to an operation.”

This article will also appear in the July edition of Australian Mining.

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