Securing mines with digital twin technology

A digital twin doesn’t need to stay inside the plant installation or commissioning box. Rockwell Automation illustrates how it can be used to enhance the safety of 21st century mines.

The rise of the coronavirus pandemic has driven mining professionals to rethink the way they operate.

According to Rockwell Automation enterprise account manager Geoff Irvine, the mining sector has long sought to remove workers from unsafe areas and operate as remotely as possible.

But this goal has been given a fresh focus and urgency due to the unprecedented pandemic.

“For a number of years now, miners have caught the idea of having remote operations,” Irvine, speaking in a Rockwell Automation webinar titled, ‘Safety and Digital Transformation in Mining’, says.

“Typically that means gathering people in a remote centre that controls and gives guidance to the operators of the mines communicating with it.

“COVID-19 takes that a step further: is it possible for the workers in a remote operations centre to work remotely from the centre?”

One way to enhance on-site safety is by extending the use of certain technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) for safety assessments and processes.

Leveraging on AR and VR capabilities, miners can build a virtual model of equipment, process, product or service that imitates what the physical object is actually doing, a concept that we know as digital twin. It is so versatile that it is also applicable to safety applications.

Miners can incorporate a mine’s control and safety system functionality into the digital twin, to observe in an immersive 3D environment what happens with the actual machine.

The digital twin is increasingly being applied at mining operations, but very few sites have applied them to safety applications.

“Despite safety making very good business sense, analyst firm LNS Research found that there were a lot of companies that had safety in their core values, but the actual numbers of companies that were investing in it were less than those that claimed safety as a core value,” Irvine says.

With a digital twin that is enhanced by AR and VR, risk assessors can identify risks a lot more rapidly during a safety assessment. The digital twin can immediately show the limits of moving machines as they operate in the virtual realms.

Operational and maintenance personnel participating in the risk assessment process can quickly identify potential nip points, dragging hazards and pinch crush hazards from different angles, speeding up the assessment process rather than examining 2D drawings.

The Rockwell Automation risk assessment software for Windows (RASWin) can leverage the images extracted from the digital twin and reference these images within the RASWin software tool.

RASWin can assist in managing one’s progression through the safety lifecycle, from the definition of hazardous areas, through to the selection of corrective measures, to reporting and online monitoring tools.

“Designers apply the hierarchy of control principles when considering the required risk reduction recommendation from the risk assessment,” Wayne Pearse, consulting manager at Industrial Machine Safety Consultants (IMSC), says.

“It might not be possible to eliminate the hazards, but we need to put in engineering control providing safe access to the equipment, this could involve guarding and safety interlocking.

“Designing a safety system offline utilising the digital twin principles before building the real solutions, can save mining companies time and money.”

Miners can enhance the digital twin by having a digital platform that accepts data from real-time control systems, historical data gathering systems and Industrial Internet of Things (IIot) devices.

A Rockwell Automation partner and tech company, PTC has developed one such digital platform called Thingworx. It helps bring context and meaning to the data.

In addition to the digital platform providing functions such as AR and VR, the platform can perform predictive condition monitoring of equipment to predict when failures will occur at a future time.

The system can then generate maintenance orders automatically to ensure scheduled maintenance is carried out on the machine before an unplanned outage occurs. 

Studies have shown significant losses and safety incidents occur due to unexpected mechanical failures on machines, so predictive condition monitoring assists in increasing safety of the plant.

Industry sales manager at Rockwell Automation, Australia and New Zealand, Kevin Cole recommends that operators look into the unintended consequences of launching new technologies.

“All miners need social licence to operate. The business environment is extremely complex for them. With fewer people working in remote mine sites, workers’ safety becomes more critical,” he reasons.

But a safety journey doesn’t end with the implementation of a safety system – mechanical systems can wear, operating procedures often need to be adjusted, new workers need comprehensive training, and safety assessments need updating.

“A digital twin can increase safety of your plant and can be part of your overall digital transformation program. It can help you achieve compliance to internal and external standards, minimise unplanned and safety-related loss of production and increase productivity. It can improve your work processes,” Irvine concludes.

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

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