Schneider Electric has the expertse to digitize mining and take advantage of the IoT. CREDIT: SCHNEIDER ELECTRIC
By now, even if they haven’t acted on it, every mining company has given lots of thought to the potential for digital technologies to change their business.
Some, like Barrick Gold, are making dramatic announcements about technology adoption aimed at a complete transformation of their business to capture the value that digital technologies can bring. A few have built integrated operations centres, aimed at breaking down silos. Others are experimenting or have taken bits and pieces that suit their needs.
And, because of the many complexities and fast-evolving technology involved, a lot of mining companies are still on the sidelines, but doing their homework about both technologies and vendors, says David Willick, vice-president with Schneider Electric and Mining, Minerals and Metals Segment regional leader for North America.
“This whole digital opportunity is both the biggest risk but the biggest reward,” he says.
“One of the challenges is that companies are a little bit confused and afraid of making a mistake, so they don’t want to quickly jump to a platform or one particular vendor and then be trapped,” Willick explains. “So customers are doing their due diligence, they’re doing a lot of homework ensuring that the partner or partners that they choose are going to allow them the flexibility to be able to manage their business going forward.”
Richard Sellschop, a partner and global leader of the Metals and Mining Digital and Analytics Service Line with consultants McKinsey & Co. says that while the current rate of adoption is uneven, some companies have shown a lot of progress in exploring the potential of digital technologies in mining.
“A couple of years ago, for example, autonomous haulage or semi-autonomous haulage was really in the proof of-concept phase whereas a number of companies have now moved to production scale adoption of some of these technologies,” Sellschop says. “That’s at the leading edge, but we also do see a number of companies that are intrigued and are trying things in pockets that have worked to crack the code in how they want to scale that use case up and drive impact at a faster pace.”
A big part of the digital opportunity comes from the integration of data that has previously been siloed.
Australian iron ore miner Roy Hill is one of the few miners to have a truly integrated operation. Schneider Electric partnered with the company on its remote operations centre, located in Perth, 1,300 km away from the mining operation. The control centre gives the company visibility from end to end of its operations – mining and processing to shipping and port operations.
“Putting everybody in one room is an excellent idea to foster collaboration – there’s less hierarchy in this operations centre,” Willick says. “The collaboration that it drives is really quite interesting – you dissolve silos by opening communication and what the remote ops centre does is put people in one room across many different silos and business proofareas and also gives the support to the operation that they typically don’t have because they’re so busy onsite operating equipment, they don’t have time for strategic planning.”
Integration and availability of data on a smaller scale can also make a big impact.
For example, it can make efficiencies more transparent. Consider an underground mining operation where costs are optimized separately by each department.
This can actually end up costing the company more overall, Willick says.
If the drilling and blasting budget is optimized by using slightly larger drill patterns to save on the cost of explosives and other raw materials, the larger ore sizes that would be generated would result in higher energy consumption and costs at the crushing and grinding stages.
“Even though it looked cost-effective for that one particular department… the overall process would be less efficient,”
Willick says. “With the availability of data, companies now are looking at this across the operation and spending a little bit more further upstream and then benefitting overall as a corporation.”
Sellschop says several McKinsey clients have been able to increase throughput by making use of that data integration and increased transparency through digitally enabled front-line operations.
“We’ve got some underground mining clients that have been very successful in increasing throughput by deploying new generations of mobile solutions underground and aboveground to create better awareness of what the plan is for the day, how specific headings and pieces of equipment are performing against the plan and being able to make adjustments to the plan in close to real time,” Sellschop says.
Advanced technologies in renewable energy, battery storage and distributed energy networks are helping companies respond to higher energy prices by integrating renewables into their existing energy mix.
“It’s making sustainability sense, commercial sense and business sense as renewable integration becomes much more mainstream,” Willick says.
Schneider Electric is getting more requests for consultation around energy consumption, he adds.
“Scheider Electric has an amazing smart grid approach – we have microgrid controllers to optimize the overall use of energy using multiple different energy sources. These are things we actually use ourselves within our own facilities and you can see how much power you’re generating from the solar panels on the roof and how much energy you’re consuming,”
“Once it’s visible, you start being able to control and monitor it a lot better, you become more aware when you make your energy consumption more visible. I think mines are starting to definitely take this into consideration.”
Willick sees renewables integration as a sustained trend that will only be fed by carbon taxes that are starting to be implemented in Canada and elsewhere.
Ventilation on demand
Advances in sensor technology have allowed the development of very sophisticated ventilation on demand systems.
The technology allows airflow in underground operations to be directed where while airflow to empty locations can be minimized.
“The VOD systems that Schneider Electric are critical partners on use sensors underground, variable frequency drives on many fans, and tagging and tracking on both equipment and personnel,”
“The interesting thing about this solution is it also works at the other end of the spectrum in that if you’re directing the air in a more strategic way and minimizing the wasted air, you can mine at more faces in the event of higher commodity prices, and you can actually boost production.”
He adds: “It’s a constant decision being made with data and using analytics.”
Other companies have sought to improve efficiencies at their processing plants and have achieved between 2% to as much as 4% improvements in yield by applying advanced analytics to their concentration processes, says Sellschop.
“(That improvement) comes through being able to model the process better, develop optimization algorithms that are both machine learning algorithms that are continually improving themselves through to validation algorithms to make sure that the intended impact is actually achieved and that the entire model is actually working.”
In this case, Sellschop notes that the company actually developed the algorithms in house.
“It’s becoming dramatically easier to develop software in the modern age,” he says.
That doesn’t mean that it’s always the right answer, but something created for a specific plant, for example, can be more successful than an off-the-shelf solution – because of specific technological requirements and because of a lower degree of front-line adoption.
“Often the smallest issue which doesn’t even show up in a technical specification document can become the reason that a tool’s not adopted at the front line. The clients we’ve seen actually developing solutions themselves, are really taking a design thinking approach where user journeys are mapped out and pain points are understood – have a far greater chance of seeing solutions being adopted and used and impact being generated as a result.”
Simulation or digital twin software is a growing application for both training and for planning, says Willick. Schneider Electric’s simulation software has become so accurate in predicting what will happen in a given situation, it is very valuable for training for customers like Chilean copper miner Codelco.
Willick says the software also allows companies to do “what-if” planning and run scenarios without risk. “By doing it offline in the simulator using the digital twin, we’re really able to optimize the process in an offline environment first, and then bring the most optimal solution to online. This is all enabled with the digital era that we’re in now.”
There are many examples of companies making use of data available from mobile equipment for predictive maintenance – to monitor the health of their assets, and to plan for failures before they happen.
Some, including at least one McKinsey client Sellschop is aware of, are using the cloud, which offers scalability, cost, and security advantages, to do so.
“There are no on-site servers, no hardware on the ground, which enabled them to implement (their predictive maintenance solution) much more quickly, but also from an infrastructure perspective being able to maintain and thinking about taking this to other sites in a much simpler ways.”
Advice for miners
There will undoubtedly be many more ways to apply analytics to mining operations, and as the digital capabilities of process engineers, metallurgist, supervisors, etc. grow, so will the applications.
“If you’re talking specifically about data and what value it can bring, it’s an intricate journey – it’s not a binary, to borrow a digital phrase. It’s iterative,” said Sellschop.
The most important thing to start is that companies need to ensure that they know what is that they identify the business need that they want to target, says Willick.
“Fundamentally, it has to get down to the business need and ensure that you’re looking to achieve a particular business need – so increasing your safety, increasing your reliability,” Willick says. “You have to start with the business need and then work backwards to having access to the data and using the tools that exist to achieve that outcome.”
Miners should also keep in mind that the biggest challenges they will face in becoming digital creatures are not necessarily technological, says Sellschop.
“The biggest consistent mistake that I see being made is the assumption that this is mostly a technological issue and challenge. For sure technology is part of the challenge, but it’s equally a leadership and capability and change management challenge.”
That said, miners need to educate themselves on the latest technology for the particular application they’re looking for.
“We are living through a time right now of incredible change in – for example, IoT (Internet of Things) devices, where the cost and ease to move data off of a mobile device is changing dramatically,” Sellschop says.
“But equally, there are a lot of people out there selling yesterday’s technology.
This is why it’s really critical for people to understand which way various trends are going and do you want to lock into a certain generation of technology? Of course there never is a right or wrong answer and sometimes it requires a lot of consideration by management of various pros and cons.”
Miners will have to adopt new skills – being able to use coding languages Python and R, for example, which Sellschop calls “the Microsoft Excel of the next two decades.”
He says: “We do see at the advanced analytics end of the spectrum that this becomes a core skill for many clients.”
And they will also need to embrace agile development, where a minimal viable product is developed and tested, based on a need, rather than a product that has every conceivable bell and whistle.
“Putting together a comprehensive specification document which is then sent out to numerous vendors – it becomes a long and often costly process where the analogy …. is like speccing out the most exhaustive pocket knife with every blade, every feature you could ever dream of before you even have tried out the single blade, smallest version to see is this pocket knife actually going to work.”