The mining industry continues to face core challenges including fluctuating commodity prices, ore body depletion, poor productivity and rising costs, while also seeking to improve safety standards. To face these challenges, mining companies are investing significantly in digital technology initiatives. Research by the World Economic Forum in 2017 suggests these initiatives will, over the next 10 years, provide mining companies with additional industry value of up to $320 billion, the equivalent of 9% of industry profit. Furthermore, it estimates that digitalisation will contribute to reducing emissions by 610 million tonnes, and will improve safety, with a 10% decrease in lives lost and 20% decrease in injuries.
Mining productivity is highly variable by nature due to the uncertainty of the resources being mined combined with differing environmental conditions. Digital innovation is looked upon as one of the key ways in which mining companies can mitigate this variability in the future. Over the last decade, global mining productivity has decreased by 28% according to McKinsey&Company and as existing mines are maturing and decreasing in productivity, digital innovations are needed to compensate for lower ore grades and longer haul distance from the mine face. Digital innovations can be used to better understand and target new resource bases, and therefore make new mines more productive for a longer time.
Digital innovation in mining will have a widespread effect on the whole sector, from exploration, to mining and processing. In this article, we discuss four key technologies that are set to transform mining in the short, medium and long term:
Although these are by no means the only technologies that are set to transform mining, we believe that these four are the key technologies that CEO’s, CIO’s and CTO’s should be investing in now to prepare for the future.
Traditionally, the whole process of mining a resource is carried out by human-controlled machinery, from exploration all the way to mining and processing. IoT technology allows mines to connect equipment and people based on RFID and sensor technologies. During the exploration phase of a mine for example, IoT devices, through a network of interconnected sensors, can provide visualisation tools to create a 3D display of the resource that is being explored. Instead of a multitude of different pieces of information, systems capture and upload all the available data, which can then be tracked (increasingly via blockchain technology) and is immediately available to all links in the network.
IoT devices are key in providing information that mining companies use to run an active mining operation. Through these IoT devices in various pieces of equipment, in combination with geological and environmental data, mining companies can improve employee safety and equipment by creating a real-time multi-dimensional model of the operation. Furthermore, mine operators can introduce predictive maintenance by analysing data to predict equipment failures. Another benefit of introducing IoT devices is the possibility it grants mining companies to optimise their processes, from mining to processing and transport.
IoT devices form the very core upon which (real-time) analyses are being built in mines that have adopted this technology. By combining IoT data with information from other sources such as geological and weather data, two separate kinds of analyses can be made: real-time analyses and long-term analyses. As the range of IoT devices available in the mining industry is still growing as the technology is maturing, so is the range of analyses available.
Real-time analyses focus on the metrics that influence a mine’s efficiency and profitability in the short term. A good example of this is predictive maintenance. Machine-to-Machine (M2M) sensors constantly measure and update the status of a machine and, in combination with weather data and maintenance history, human operators and/or algorithms analyse metrics such as speed, vibration and the temperature of core components. They can then predict failures before they happen. This enables operators to order spare parts early, preventing lengthy downtime of critical equipment.
Long-term analysis on the other hand, focuses on the analysis of movements by equipment and people, and their optimisation. This analysis allows mine operators to coordinate a mines’ layout so that machines and people operate at maximum efficiency and safety. This allows operators to realise gains in both profitability and efficiency. Long-term analyses also allow for easier identification of performance issues and might even show a glimpse of the improvements that are available. Rio Tinto’s centre of excellence in Brisbane is a prime example of the possibilities of long-term IoT data analysis. This centre analyses data from 7 mines throughout Mongolia, the United States, and Australia, which forms recommendations for improvements throughout the mining process.
An added benefit of analysing IoT data for mine operators is that the geographical location for such analyses is irrelevant. This allows mine operators to shift more staff to geographically desirable locations instead of having to hire more expensive fly-in fly-out staff to work on location. For example, if an analyst based in Brisbane can make predictive maintenance recommendations for Rio Tinto’s mines, this will contribute to significant efficiency gains, as the company no longer needs to hire extra mechanics in remote locations.
For those operators that are already collecting and utilising IoT data, this data and the analyses thereof, forms a foundation for the design of new mines in the future. Analyses of data collected around the mining process will also form the foundation for many process improvements and we therefore expect to see mining companies rapidly increase their utilisation of this technology over the next 3 years.
Mine operators are increasingly collecting more data from equipment throughout mine sites and they are using this data for all sorts of beneficial analyses. The next question that comes to mind when looking at this development is: why do we still need operators to physically control machines on location? Due to an increasing number of M2M sensors available and an ever-expanding interconnected network of IoT sensors, on-site operators can slowly be replaced in those areas where it is deemed an economic necessity, but also to remove staff from areas of the mine that are considered most dangerous.
Automated haulage and drilling are areas that many mining operators have already looked at, but there is no reason, for example, why blasting or shovelling cannot be automated. Furthermore, it’s not only machines that can be automated, but processes and support. Barrick Argentina is a prime example of a mining company that is leading the charge to the future, by means of their integrated Remote Operating Centre (iROC) in Albardon, San Juan, Argentina. Barrick, which has already used equipment automation in Canada for over 10 years, has started the remote control operating process in Argentina with the dispatch for mine operations, processing and maintenance.
With efficiency, safety and profitability at the forefront of annual reports in the mining sector, automation is playing a key role in improving these. We at Belatrix expect to see automation continue to rise in importance for mines across the world.
As the amount of data that gets collected increases and remote controlling certain machinery becomes more commonplace, the security of this data and these operations must be paramount. Ernst and Young reported in their 2017-2018 business risk analysis, that cyber risks have rapidly climbed the C-suite’s agenda and are now in the top three risks facing mining and metal companies. Cybersecurity is often thought of in connection to data theft (such as the data hack of the mining company Goldcorp, which saw 14.8GB of private data published online in 2016), but in the case of mining, a large and expensive piece of machinery running wild or shutting down at a critical time represents a nightmare scenario.
Intrusion-sensing systems and manual overrides are some of the systems that can aid mining companies in combating cyberthreats. But the risk remains. That’s why 53% of energy and resource companies increased their cybersecurity budget in 2017, and we expect to see this level of investment continue to rise. Mining companies will also increasingly look to cybersecurity best practices, that have been implemented in industries such as finance and energy. Industry-wide security best practices and standards will also emerge.
There are widespread opportunities for digital innovations in mining. IoT devices provide information which mining companies can use to analyse and improve processes and therefore lead to improvements in efficiency, profitability and safety. This information is leading to the automation and remote control of mining operations.
However it’s not easy to start with the aforementioned processes without factoring in the risks that come with it. It is important to regard data safety and cybersecurity as a priority from day one and design all networks and processes so that threats from outside the internal environment are minimised. It therefore pays to work with a knowledgeable partner who can not only design the right systems for you, but also ensure your safety while utilising those systems.