How can mining companies “go digital” safely? Fabio Mielli, Market Development Manager: Mining, Metals & Cement, Rockwell Automation, explains some ready-to-use technologies that can deliver quick wins for mining companies.
Digital transformation provides a major opportunity to address some of the mining industry’s greatest challenges. The World Economic Forum projects that digital transformation initiatives will result in more than $320 billion of value before 2025. And yet, according to Mielli, most digital initiatives are failing.
He says the problem isn’t isolated to the heavy industries. In 2018, a Gartner analyst reported that an estimated 85% of big data projects fail. And Cisco recently revealed its estimate that 75% of all Internet of Things (IoT) projects currently underway are failing.
“So how can a mining company ‘go digital’ safely,” he asks? Mielli believes that quick digital wins are the answer. Some ready-to-use technologies that are able to deliver these quick wins and also address some of the major business challenges mining companies face are listed below. Most of them are relatively simple to implement and are scalable, which means they can be applied in one area, validated, and then expanded to other areas and applications.
One: Augmented Reality (AR)
The concept is well-known. The idea is to superimpose digital information onto real objects or equipment. It can be done using tablets, mobile phones and wearables.
If this sounds complex to set up, it’s not. “Modern AR technologies allow quick development of applications without coding,” Mielli says. “And this implementation goes beyond the standard overlay of digital information over real objects: it also enables virtual collaboration.”
He points out that this means that, in addition to providing field personnel with real-time information in context of the actual process, this technology helps mining companies enable remote expert advice for equipment maintenance. It also augments the training process to create customised, memorable instructions for new workers.
Two: Hybrid Architectures (when mainstream sensors meet industrial applications)
The beauty of a combined platform is that it allows you to mix data from mainstream low-cost sensors or devices on equipment with industrial automation information. “Imagine integrating information from environmental monitoring (from IoT sensing technologies) with real-time production information coming from process automation systems,” Mielli says.
He adds that, in his opinion, incorporating information gathered with IoT mainstream (and low cost) devices into mining automation systems provides a huge opportunity to gain operational visibility, limited only by your creativity. “For example, there are ready-to-use IoT development kits for environmental monitoring that can be ordered on the Internet.”
By nature, mining operations are very spread out geographically. Field workers often find themselves servicing or operating equipment without a direct view into how the specific piece of equipment is currently performing. This lack of visibility and information can reduce productivity and also result in unsafe operations.
Mobile tools, like the Rockwell Automation FactoryTalk® ViewPoint application, allow field workers to monitor, manage, and control processes in a secure mobile environment. These tools can be accessed via web browsers, which means no client software to install and maintain, a lower total cost of ownership, and a more straight-forward implementation.
“One of the major challenges mining companies face is disconnected and siloed information,” Mielli points out. “It’s a constant struggle to find ways to aggregate and contextualise information from various areas of the business to enable better, more holistic decision-making.”
Today, technologies like FactoryTalk® InnovationSuite, powered by PTC exist. They allow mining companies to collect structured and unstructured data from nearly any source within the enterprise and quickly build applications and decision tools.
“In addition to using analytics to gain broad, operation-wide visibility, you can also use it at a smaller scale to improve equipment performance,” he says. Controller-based modules, like the Rockwell Automation LogixAI module, can be plugged directly into your controller’s chassis, where it will analyse device data and automatically build a model for optimal operational parameters.
The module can also monitor equipment performance over time and alert operators when conditions are outside of set parameters. This means mining companies can begin using self-service predictive, and even prescriptive, maintenance strategies.
Mining supply chains are an intricate sequence of material movements and processes, and there are several potential combinations of material movements across the value chain: extraction, conveyance, stockpiles, processing plant, rail and port.
Simulation tools can help mining companies analyse potential changes to their operations and supply chains, and even incorporate the impact of external factors like weather, market demand and commodity prices.
Advanced simulation tools like Arena® enable a process called discrete event modelling. “Discrete event modelling is the process of depicting the behaviour of a complex system as a series of well-defined events,” Mielli explains. “This works well in virtually any process where there is variability, constrained or limited resources, or complex system interactions.”
Discrete event simulation allows users to quickly analyse the behaviour of a process or system over time; ask “why” or “what if” questions; and test designs or changes to processes or systems without any financial implications.
These are just few examples of how ready-to-deploy digital technologies can help mining operations be more productive, cost-efficient, and safe.