Building the mine of the future, one step at a time

May 24, 2018

As mines move toward advanced digital technologies to support safer and more productive mines, implementation challenges persist 


By Dave Richardson

While the industry strives to embrace the concept of the “mine of the future”, reaching that goal can sometimes be elusive, oftentimes hindered by skepticism regarding new technologies, the risk of failure due to rushed implementation and not having clear objectives.

“Leaping into the mine of future is a big step, but the risks of implementing new technologies can be mitigated by taking measured steps and benchmarking at every step of the process. Both approaches build confidence and know-how as the new technologies are deployed,” says Dave Richardson, manager of engineering and innovation leader for Stantec’s global mining team. Richardson will co-present a paper on Implementation Strategies for Advanced Digital Technologies on February 27 at the 2018 SME Annual Meeting in Minneapolis, alongside Ben Sharpe, mining, metals and cement EPC business manager at Rockwell Automation.

Adoption of advanced technologies slowed during the downturn in the mining industry but is now accelerating within mining companies and their partners who are all seeking the benefits of technology, digitalization and big data to deliver improved productivity, efficiency and safety gains.



Chip away to the breakthrough

Risks that come with adopting new technologies can be mitigated by developing an overall technology roadmap that deliberately staggers implementation by adding new applications and devices over time rather than all at once. This staged implementation spreads potential risks over time so they can be addressed meaningfully. In addition to making the risks more manageable, the mine also remains flexible on its technology journey.

“Successful technology roadmaps generally utilize multiple, parallel paths that simultaneously address construction and development, infrastructure, production, and workforce development. This roadmap allows a mine to manage change in multiple areas – since each area will have different issues and challenges,” says Richardson, adding “A focus on change management is key to technology adoption.” The parallel paths include milestones to measure progress to goal with the milestones acting as a stage-gate to evaluate risk – and rewards – before proceeding to the next stage of implementation.

Consider the end goal of fully automating load-haul-dumping (LHD) machines. For a mine with an existing fleet of LHDs, a parallel path would consist of continuing to operate LHDs manually, while introducing a small fleet of similarly sized machines equipped with a complete autonomous controls package. This “pilot” fleet of machines would then be set on an iterative path to fully autonomous operation via staged enhancements as follows:

  • For a given test stope, the pilot fleet of LHDs would be configured to operate via line-of-sight remote control, with passive remote monitoring in the mine’s control room.
  • After a pre-determined test period, remote control functions would be enabled to permit operation of the machines from the control room.
  • Again following a test period, operators would no longer be stationed within line-of-sight at all. Instead, operation of the LHDs would be completely managed from the control room, and a centralized maintenance team would be deployed to service the machinery only as required.
  • With the machinery running autonomously, additional enhancements to further improve efficiency could be leveraged, including predictive maintenance indication and analytics, adaptive positioning and error-correction controls, and automatic reporting to maintenance facilities.
  • As the pilot phase advances, the staged enhancements can then be applied to the conventional fleet following successful test periods.

This approach parses the mine’s technological leap forward into a logical progression and:

  • Reduces the risk of downtime that could come from going too far too fast with a particular new technology.
  • Ensures that sufficient infrastructure is in place and control systems sufficiently modernized to handle the additional demands from a data collection and processing perspective.
  • Allows time for the workforce to make a cultural shift and develop skills needed to optimize the new technology and realize its full return on investment.


Confidence and commitment

Some of the most important outcomes of deliberate and staged implementation are to build confidence and refine the business case. “Taking a staged approach brings certainty to the table and allows the mine to test their way to success. As a mine progresses with this approach, confidence naturally grows,” says Richardson. One way to improve commitment is to develop teams around a shared vision. These teams normally have a strong start-up mentality and are motivated to constantly look beyond the status quo. Buying in to the shared vision is also a criteria that should extend to the selection of suppliers and strategic innovation partners.

A technology roadmap with staged implementation, multiple paths and benchmarks builds confidence and makes breakthroughs by progressing logically to a future state while minimizing unintended consequences.

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About the author

Dave Richardson is a senior project engineer for the electrical group for Mining. Dave is experienced in the conceptualization, specification, design, installation, and commissioning of industrial power distribution and automated control systems for solid, liquid, and gaseous processing.

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