Technology Innovation in Mining : Are We Getting The Expected Value ?

Technology Innovation in Mining : Are We Getting The Expected Value ?

No question tech innovation is the next step change in our industry - and every industry. And I speak not from an OT/IT (Ops/Information Tech) base, but from the stand point of a 35+yrs hard core operator that has trottle medium to large operations from US and Canada to Africa, from Europe to Kazakstan, from Australia to Laos, seeing what lies ahead of our industry.                                        

We are already seeing autonomous systems taking over, running drills, trucks, eventually shovels, with significant improvements delivering a safer and more productive operation. Expert systems are slowly permeating operational levels including motor speed, water flow, temperatures, auto-data analysis adjusting milling, and water/material flow inside circuits.

Robust ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) are being added to widespread condition monitoring, facilitated by low cost wireless sensors replacing expensive hard-wired systems, assisting in identifying where and when to intervene, linking the info with maintenance schedules, inventory of parts, resourcing planning. Drone mapping & measuring surface and underground operations with high precision are getting everywhere. Work conducted remotely already started under SWIS (See What I See), facilitating on-job execution & training, particularly in remote, less attractive areas to retain top talents - which in near future will be operating from the comfort of their home, wherever this is.

Businesses started being run under centralised ROC (Remote Operation Centres), with optimum integrated decision-taking place. Communications improving and will soon be flowing freely and quick, supported by high quality wireless/wide bands systems, running under private (or public once ready) 5G platforms.

Meaning less people exposed on sites, with repetitive work done 100% by machines, and controlled elsewhere. Eventually AI (Artificial Intelligence) will take over, optimising all chain - and consistently optimising it once we reach The Singularity - with MIT experts suggesting fully implemented by 2030 - which means “tomorrow” in any industrial term...! 

What Could Block This Bright Future ?

But Technology is also latest fashion - everyone talking - lots of companies implementing, but not everyone getting expected value.

Some examples of autonomous systems implemented with poor haulroads and limited wireless band - large operating hours lost due to misplanning on basic haulroad design and comms capability. Introduction of high tech in areas where skills are v basic or non-existing - seems for the sake of fashion rather than business sense. Examples of decrease in op hours, increased cost, creeping complexity. ROCs implemented with still the same silo mindset as if they would still be site-operated - despite being in the same room.

And failures being questioned, particularly by the ones supporting the initial investment, but still to see the results.

What Went Right (and Wrong) ?

Important to reflect that some of the improvements in tech were found by chance rather than plan.

Autonomous trucks in Australia were initially driven by the need to reduce workforce on site, after escalation costs of attraction/retention in remote Pilbara. Once implemented, teams realised that the extension of life for most components and increased reliability due to less human interaction played a much bigger part, with increased op hours (sometimes up to 20%) and resulting tonnes having a much bigger positive impact in volume and value than labour savings. 

Same in respect of ROCs - quality of integrated single room decision-making far outpaced labour savings.

On the other hand, examples on autonomous haulage still being ramped up in Year 7 - due to poor quality haul roads and wireless comms, responsible for over 1000op hours downtime per year in drills and trucks. Once in discussion with a supporting area I was told weak comm was due restriction on budget - without realising over 10x more money was being lost in lack of production, significantly impacting revenue.

Examples of ROCs implemented with areas still operating in silos, despite located in same room - by teams transferred from site to town, but that fundamentally had not changed the mindset of running silo-only areas, led by schedulers, and supported by inexperienced OT/IT teams without an integrated view of the full chain. And worse - sometimes having to be backup up by full redundancy of site control centres with idle personal, due to lack of good quality comms - that could be easily fixed by internal 5G-capable private networks.

And last but not least - lack of ownership of full value chain by experienced professionals with hard core understanding on where value is gained or lost - what we call the “long-arms” professionals, the true Mining Professionals of our 21st Century.

How To ?

Best examples seeing of mining innovation started first by engaging “long-arms” professionals, with hard core operational experience from OBK )orebody Knowledge) to blasting to mining design and ops to ore processing to logistics to marketing - people that had lived and learned, from real experiences, how good looks like across the value chain.

Then build a theoretical end-game vision - how we would like to be in 10yrs - high likely to be a moving target giving the advance in tech - but a necessary step to give focus. We then produce a roadmap with a step-by-step approach including advances in autonomous gear, conditional monitoring, connection and auto adjusting flows, including variable water, speed etc. All connected through a ROC that could optimise the decision making through visibility of the full chain, and ultimately in preparation for full control through an ever optimising AI scenario - once singularity is achieved. 

Critical to develop the plan and a strong storyline as such that business cyclicality won't affect the end game. Also critical to gradually review it - as tech is definitively moving faster than the pace of implementation.

Also critical for the organisation to decide on where and if it would like to be in the leading edge or become a first follower - second choice has worked well for most. But not necessarily follower in mining - as tech is being proved in other industries and are generally highly transferrable - recent example where ROC was considered to move from regions into a single country option - when for example the Sail GP today operates from a single global ROC ion UK, providing central weather, waves, winds and location to all boats, avoiding large crews - less in-boat weight and exposure. Same in regards to auto-adjusted (Expert systems) flow control to supply water, fertilisers and insecticides through GPS-based crawlers, linked to drone surveys in Agri. Two examples of so many others where tech innovation has been experimented and proven in other industries, outpacing century-old concepts we still do carry in the mining industry today.

What To Expect ?

We should expect - and above all, drive - innovation in our businesses.

It is a must for sustaining a critical industry, with increased productivity, improved attraction/retention for what promises to be a very tough environ for locating capable people remotely, and above all, reduced exposure to safety & health.

Technology advances are mostly available and evolving fast - ultimately businesses will operate mostly at centralised centres from remote areas through AI, with productivity, quality control and safety never dream off - ultimately fully controlled and consistently optimised - our away of current operating will look like century old+ vintage…!

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