Mining has been going on for centuries and was always a difficult business. Traditionally, the mining industry has lagged with respect to adopting new technology due to the challenges in implementing changes across vast geographic locations with non-standardized processes and technology. But with time, the once plentiful and easy to extract resources are depleting fast. Market volatility and increasing Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) regulations are also adding to the complexity, leading the industry to rely on technology innovations for sustainable business operations.
Let’s look at a simplified mining value chain and its basic functions (Figure 1) and see how nextgen mining leverages technology innovations across functions to enhance productivity, cost control, compliance, and more.
Drones are increasingly used by global miners for survey purposes. In a green field operation, it is used to conduct aerial geological surveys of the exploration area. For brown fields, drones are being used for routine surveys of mining operations, which would typically be done manually. Mines progress daily, and digitized images captured through drones can be used to update mine maps
Drones are also being used for telemetric volume estimation of stockpiles, generating a more accurate production estimate over the manual method (which estimates stockpiles as trip counts X average pay load per dumper).
Mining is asset heavy industry, with the cost of equipment going up to millions of dollars. Key operational performance indicators are therefore asset dependent (for example, trip count, availability, utilization), and are now being captured through various sensors and then filtered and stored in real time. This generates a ‘digital twin’ for each piece of equipment, a digital replica of physical industry assets, process and systems. When integrated with machine learning and analytics solutions, a digital twin delivers better real time control over performance and helps pre-empt failure.
Maintenance costs of assets are often high, varying from 30 to 50% of OPEX. Real time proactive monitoring of an asset’s health (for example, its tier pressure, engine temperature, etc.), enables preventive maintenance, which can substantially reduce unwanted breakdowns. Monitoring can also help with predictive asset maintenance by analyzing time series data over a period and identifying the pattern of failure in real time.
Sensors are also being used to automate the starting/stopping of conveyors, hydraulic pumps and ventilation fans of mines, based on requirement. This helps save fuel/energy and prevents human errors.
Safety through automation
Mining is extremely hazardous, and often the use of autonomous vehicles or remote guided equipment becomes a necessity. For example, a few copper mines in Chile are situated at too high an altitude for human beings to work in them. Some underground mines (mainly gold) are kilometers deep from surface level, with temperatures as high as over 50° C, being close to earth’s crust. Such operations face challenges in ventilation as well as two-way communication between underground miners and surface teams. Autonomous vehicles and equipment can massively reduce the casualty risk to humans working in hazardous situations.
Global miner Rio Tinto successfully piloted a driverless heavy haul rail in Western Australia, covering a distance of 110 kilometers. Rio Tinto is equipped with a fleet of 200 freight trains and more than 1700 kilometers rail linking 16 mines and 4 ports in Australia. The auto haul pilot is a part of Rio’s Mine of FutureTM program.
Sensor-based collision detection is also gaining popularity in Nextgen mining. In non-autonomous scenarios, sensors can help detect a driver’s drowsiness and send alerts to prevent mishaps.
Robotic Process Automation
In mining, different types of vendors provide support for core domain activities like labor supply, internal and outbound logistics, and so on. Typically trade suppliers are paid as soon as possible and invoices for non-traded material or services are settled much later. The rates/tariffs for vendor services are updated frequently, and the ratio of invoices for freight forwarders and other 3PL logistics service providers is huge.
Manual checking of invoices and payment processing are being gradually taken over by automated invoice processing (OCR or otherwise), with 5-7% of manual checks being retained for quality control. This is significantly reducing manual process handling time as well as human errors.
The Internet of Things (IoT) has made a lot of digital technologies accessible to the mining industry, and its rapid evolution has made it cost effective and easy to implement. There are many more such instances of technology innovations redefining the traditional mining value chain. Please share your stories with us in the comments section!