Greener pastures for fieldbus

Fieldbus technology could make a huge difference to the way mines are operated, but the industry is still resistant to change. Michael Mills writes.

Since its development, Field bus technology has been embraced in many in dustries that were looking to automate their operations and processes.

Fieldbus is the name given to a range of automated indus trial network systems, which are designed to provide real- time distributed control of instru ments and equipment.

Profibus has become the most successful Fieldbus tech nology, with nearly 30 million installed nodes worldwide since its inception 20 years ago.

However, according to Aus tralian Profibus Association chairman John Immelman, the technology has still not been widely accepted by the mining industry.

“The mining industry is very conservative,” he told Austra lian Mining.

“Profibus DP has been the most widely used in the mining industry because it has become the standard for the intelligent control of drives.

“Of course, mines usually use a lot of drives in crushers, ball mills, SAG mills and many other machines.

“However, this technology was only really accepted by miners about five years ago.”

Another system, Profibus PA, is designed to replace the classic four to 20 mA field meas uring technology, by providing power and data on the same two cables.

“That was only accepted about three years ago, which again is down to that conser vative nature,” he said.

Profibus International Com petence Centre technical ser vices manager Grant Weyman agrees with this characterisa tion.

“Many mining companies are risk-averse and are not pre pared to look at Profibus as a serious technology that can offer significant long-term benefits,” he said.

“Implementing any new technology may, in the short term, result in an unsettled period.

“This unsettled downtime can be costly, particularly in some of the larger sites where losses can be anywhere up to $17,000 an hour.”

A matter of education

According to Immelman, this conservatism has proved to be quite a large obstacle, with many companies reluctant to see the benefits.

“Implementing Profibus does not simply require a migra tion from old technology to new equipment,” he said.

“The miners really have to embrace change and put the old methods to one side so they can thoroughly learn how to use the technology.”

“Unfortunately, the uptake has been slow.”

According to Weyman, the mining industry on a whole has a poor understanding of Profibus and therefore prefers to perse vere with familiar hard-wired technology.

To correct this, the Profibus Association of Australia has provided certified training courses over the last four years.

According to Immelman, the response from miners has only been lukewarm.

“We have engineers and mining consultants who see the direct benefits of the technol ogy, but can not translate it into technical skill,” he said.

“It is obviously a problem and I do not think we are invest ing enough to fix it.

“Profibus often fails after is implemented because the tech nicians do not properly under stand it and, of course, they then blame the technology.

“It is a bit of a chicken-and- the-egg conundrum.”

Isolation issue

The isolation of the majority of Australian mining operations has created another obstacle for the Association to over come.

The technology has been used in manufacturing and factory automation activities for a much longer time than it has in mining, Immelman said.

Furthermore, because the factories tend to be closer to major cities and regional centres, the skilled Profibus technicians also tend to stay there.

“Trying to get those skilled factory automation people into the mining world is actually hard,” he said.

“The remoteness of the oper ations in Australia is a fairly unique situation, so getting these highly skilled people out to the sites is often on a fly in, fly out basis.”

According to Weyman, the best strategy for promoting Fieldbus implementation to the mining industry is to focus on the economic benefits.

“We have to demonstrate the operational efficiencies and the flow-on cost savings that the technology will deliver,” he said.

“Adopting a Fieldbus will allow mines and processing plants to implement a higher degree of automation.

“Plant automation will allow operators to monitor more of the plant and retrieve more data from devices and in turn allow them to organise their workers more efficiently.”

Opportunity beckons

According to Immelman, the mining industry is missing a real opportunity to make long term improvements to their operations.

“The Australian water indus try, food industry and automo bile industry have all embraced the technology, but the mining industry is lagging behind,” he said.

“There are a number of mines, at this stage mainly coal mines, which have adopted the technology and have since said they would never consider going back.”

Immelman believes the tech nology will become a standard on all greenfield sites over the next five years.

“We are already seeing that a number of new mining proj ects are specifying that they are Profibus-compliant,” he said.

“Whether they implement it is one thing, but at least they are thinking about it.

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