Getting mining up to speed with automation

May 1, 2017

By Al Poole

How can 'Big Data' advance the mining industry?

The use of ‘big data’ is an important trend to emerge over the past few years as companies in multiple sectors harness the incredible advancements in computing power to make improvements, reduce cost, increase profitability and identify problems. Yet despite being an obvious ally for mining companies to tackle problems, big data — and its-often cited meme “the Industrial Internet of Things” (IIOT) — has been an underutilized tool in the mining industry’s toolkit. Companies in resource industries spend just 1% on information technology compared to 5 to 7% in most other industries.

So why is digital technology such a hard sell among miners? According to two automation experts at Stantec Consulting, the answer is that many mining companies greet automation with skepticism.

That skepticism is partially rooted in the generational gap in mining that is less prevalent in other industries; in mining most senior staff including those running and maintaining equipment are well over 40. Another source of resistance is that mines that are considering new technology are often decades-old, giving the perception that upgrades are difficult. 

“When those mines were built, they weren't thinking of what would be happening now. They weren't considering what the new technologies would look like,” says Al Poole, Stantec's supervisor for mining electrical design. 

Despite the slow uptake, some advanced digital technologies are being deployed in the mining industry. A recent example is Goldcorp's decision to make its Borden gold mine in Ontario an all-electric operation.

Another is the adoption of driverless haul truck fleets. Trucks at Rio Tinto's Yandicoogina and Nammuldi mines are now controlled remotely from an operations centre in Perth 1,200 kilometres away. Remote-control technology is also available for underground mining equipment, including LHDs and jumbo drills.

A third trend in mining automation is on-board diagnostics, which provide live feedback between the equipment and the operator (on-board or remote), thus allowing for predictive maintenance. Borrowed from the automotive industry, these diagnostics are even more valuable to the mining industry due to the high cost of downtime.

“Unplanned downtime creates a ripple effect through a mine. If maintenance can be planned around a predictive maintenance program from data collected from the equipment, the mine can dramatically improve the overall availability of their system,” says Dave Richardson, director of engineering, global mining at Stantec.

“Unplanned downtime creates a ripple effect through a mine. If maintenance can be planned around a predictive maintenance program from data collected from the equipment, the mine can dramatically improve the overall availability of their system,” says Dave Richardson, director of engineering, global mining at Stantec.

So what is the value proposition for a mine that is considering the adoption of some form of automation or digitalization? According to Richardson, safety is where the rubber hits the road for most operations. If a mine owner can be convinced that failure to automate is likely to expose their personnel to injury-related lost time, which costs the company, resistance can be overcome, quickly. “Often that's the message that resonates with the operations team as well as the accountants,” says Richardson.

Another key value proposition is productivity. Poole recommends “instead of trying to push all this ore through a system, have the system pull it out.” The idea is to transform a number of separate ore-loading stages into one seamless operation making the system far more efficient.

“This is all about connecting silos of production through a data-centric solution so that one part of the operation knows what the other part of the operation needs and can semi-automatically adjust the output to smooth out that profile,” says Poole, noting that doing so reduces manpower and extends equipment life.

If that sounds like a major shift for a mining operation, it often is. But Richardson and Poole say all the changes don't have to be made at once; or, if a change is going to be made, make it with the future in mind.

Some clients who are eager and enthusiastic to embrace innovation have been tempted to rush implementation.  “In my experience a hybrid approach where innovative solutions are deployed in parallel with conventional ones – to mitigate implementation risk – is often a wiser choice,” says Poole. “Innovation is good, but it’s prudent to use the benefits of staged deployment to manage some of those risks.”

“A design methodology we promote is to install a larger-than-you-think-you-need backbone at almost negligible cost increase,” says Poole. “With that, when you’re ready, you can add on technologies that have matured and are considered reliable.   More importantly you can add them in with support from the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and without having to reinvest in a brand new backbone, which can be very expensive.”

Logistics aside, it is likely that the resistance which has so far prevented many mines from automating will be reduced by attrition. As younger managers and equipment operators move into the workforce, and as digitalization becomes more commonplace, mining automation will become the rule not the exception.

“I think we're seeing a bit of a generational shift in the workforce,” says Richardson. “At the same time and possibly for the same reason, you're seeing suppliers who provide products that are more reliable, more battle-tested in these harsh environments. And I believe there are people on the owners' side who are now more receptive to trying those things because they feel more comfortable with technology in their day-to-day life.”

Content was originally published on Mining.com.

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