Paper, paper, and more paper! Paper forms are the bane of mining operations everywhere. Used for recording and transporting every kind of data imaginable, they have served as the lifeblood of mining operations for decades. But wasn’t the technology revolution supposed to eliminate the need for paper? Wasn’t that huge information technology (IT) budget supposed to bring us into an electronic nirvana, one free of paper? Well, there is hope. There truly is a way to run a paperless mining operation.
Looking back at how technology was implemented, it’s easy to see how we’ve ended up with what has been aptly described as “the biggest problem that management doesn’t even know it has.” Mainframe computers came into use in larger mining corporations in the 1960s and ’70s. Custom software was often written in-house to automate most processes. This provided a huge benefit over previous methods since it eliminated the need for manual calculations. But all the input data were still gathered on paper forms and then keyed into mainframe terminals. And this still produced stacks of hardcopy reports. Eliminating manual calculations had an important impact on corporate overhead, but it did not go far enough.
The release of the first IBM Personal Computer in 1981 sparked a new revolution. Suddenly novice programmers could build their own software applications in a relatively short time. The advent of spreadsheet software like VisiCalc, Lotus 123, and Microsoft Excel made it possible for average users to build dynamic data models that greatly streamlined their job functions.
Still, paper forms remained. Fixed-location desktop computers continued to be the main input point for data entry, analysis, and reporting. Ruggedized laptop computers were introduced at some mines, but their overall size and weight made them too cumbersome for use by most mining personnel.
Twenty years later, mining operations still rely heavily on paper. While offices have realized significant productivity gains from these technologies, they have had little impact out in the mining operation. However, continuing to rely on paper presents several critical problems:
there’s no verification that forms are correct;
required fields are often left blank;
the margin for error is high when data are keypunched into a desktop computer;
data are distributed only after a significant time lag; no real-time data are available; and
data are often captured more than once, by different personnel.
The net result of a paper-based information system is that significant management decisions are regularly made using data that are inaccurate, out-of-date, and that few people consistently trust. Yet the general perception within the mining community is that, regardless of the obvious flaws in the system, there is no better way.
There are now better ways to assimilate data. Technology has indeed changed in the past twenty years. In place of paper forms, there are two, far superior methods of data collection: fully automatic electronic data collection devices and mobile handheld computers used by personnel right at their workplaces.
The advantages to fully automatic data collection are obvious: without the human element, data errors are reduced and labour costs are eliminated. Unfortunately, in many cases these devices are very expensive and offer little flexibility in the types of data collection they can perform.
Since a new generation of mobile handheld computers came into the marketplace in 1997, their capabilities have increased dramatically, with some now rivaling the power of the desktop computers that were available just a few years ago. Equipped with the right software, these personal information devices enable a company to extend its IT infrastructure directly into the hands of all its employees, no matter where they work.
Along with the evolution of wireless technology, mobile handheld computers are changing the way businesses operate. Companies like MW Technologies have developed comprehensive mobile technology solutions to handle timekeeping, production statistics, maintenance, assay tracking, parts and supplies delivery, inventory tracking, and many other tasks. Clients adopting these solutions have reported a huge impact. Their data are accurate, their employees have more time to work on other business and critical tasks, and they’ve all but eliminated paper. The savings have been so significant that they are now considering computerizing additional processes. The next revolution is underway!
Robert Werner is president of MW Technologies Inc. For additional information, contact him at email@example.com, or visit the web site at www.mwtech.com