In a market solidly immersed in the fourth industrial revolution, technological advancements have unlocked a myriad of possibilities for businesses. However, as has always been the case, there remains a gap between possibility and practicality.
Competing budget priorities are always a challenge — in order to fully adopt new tech, management needs to understand risks, benefits and skills needed to fully realize the return on investment. The decision-making process is more complex in low-margin industries that need to demonstrate strong revenue and lean operations. Mining is one such low-margin industry that is always challenged to deliver value across a mine’s lifecycle. Safety and financial considerations often take precedence over pushing the envelope when it comes to innovation and new technologies.
There are many possibilities that new technologies can offer to transform mining into higher margin operations, however, access to talent in remote locations can pose an obstacle to adopting tech that is new to the mining industry. Process automation, electrifying vehicles, and adding Machine-Learning through Artificial Intelligence (AI) can transform mining, however, the reality is that some technology is not yet feasible for deployment in existing operations, or over the short term. Many businesses, particularly those with safety-sensitive operations, hesitate to become early adopters of untested technologies.
This is especially true as hardware and software are all changing at a breakneck speed, complicated by regulations and standards that impacts deployment and utilization. So how can the mining industry iteratively leverage technology and innovation in day-to-day operations for real value? How can we make tactical decisions to maximize the benefit of new tech, while minimizing financial and operational risk?
Optimization through technology
One early consideration is around how pre-existing tech and data can be optimized. The mining industry does not have a data or innovation problem, but uptake and implementation challenges. How can we improve? Can we utilize resources we already have, such as analog data, in the digital revolution? Can we lower the initial investment to create meaningful process changes and learnings that phase in digital transformation at a sustainable pace across operations? (Digital assets can always be upgraded gradually, reducing the sticker shock.) Can we slowly introduce change to behaviours and processes that enables future enhancements and funding for new technology? How can we upskill existing teams that we have a responsibility to and are needed to run operations?
Operations and behaviors are very specific to individual companies and locations. By integrating a truly collaborative approach, through workshops on design and strategy, KPI’s and dashboards can be designed for the people that will use them on-site —the decision-makers from the control room to the boardroom. Further benefits can be achieved through off-site mirror control rooms to provide added tech support at lower costs than at site. These create realized efficiencies across the entire mine operation that enhance processes deeper into the organization.
When adopting tech, it’s important to create a culture that understands the concept of “garbage in, garbage out.” In order to maximize the value of data, robust data management and processes need to ensure that machine learning and AI systems can access and relate the right data, regardless of the complexity or expense of the system. By starting small, good practices can be implemented that fit the operator and their needs.
Mining is a mature industry — there are only so many efficiencies to be found in the extraction and logistics processes. Minimizing downtime, increasing labour efficiency, equipment utilization, optimizing procurement — these are low-hanging fruit that mines can find value in. Other strategies can incorporate leveraging historical data with advanced data storage and machine learning to remove human errors, reduce unplanned downtime, extend the life of existing assets and streamline complex mechanical and chemical processes.
Behavioural safety through technology
Another high-impact, strategic application for new technology is the use of digital twins. In the mining sector, a digital twin is computer generated 3D replica of a mine that allows management to run virtual simulations and sensitivity analysis to better understand how changes will affect both upstream and downstream processes. As operating mines run with slim margins for error and schedules that leave little time for even planned downtime for maintenance, a digital twin allows miners to run simulations and scenarios with little pressure and risk. Recently, the speed and cost to create a digital twin have become very favourable based on laser scans, physical models, sensor updates, fleet history and other data sources.
Large refurbishments or mining maintenance projects are high-risk endeavors — not just financially, but also to the people on-site. By utilizing simulations with a digital twin, work packages can be orchestrated to minimize downtime and decrease exposure to safety risks. People and equipment can be deployed effectively and safely. As well, virtual reality can be used for training workers on the potential risks and dangerous scenarios that may present themselves during the project — removing the pressures of potential errors through thorough preparation beforehand.
De-risking your investment
Investors generally see new technology as high-risk — large upfront costs that don’t produce fast returns. How can we utilize technology and innovation to de-risk mining? Mines are inherently risky ventures — from buried value to remote locations, all complicated by the human element. However, the mining industry is ready for a mindset shift toward integrating new technology in a tactical way due to the trend for retiring workers and difficulty in attracting new talent to work in remote locations. From drone technology to the electrification of processes and movement of material, advanced scanning and LIDAR to enhanced chemical and mechanical processes, there is significant upside value to be found in these technological innovations. Other efficiencies can be realized through digital tools that allow collaboration away from the plant and operations, remotely engineering and operating mines. This reduces time risk, cost risk, people risk and increases collaboration throughout the organization. Workers are happier, closer to their families and stay safe while organizations are able to attract talent from larger population centres.
Closing the integration gap
Research has found that the integration gap when adopting new tech innovations can contribute to a productivity loss of 10 to 20 per cent.
The global mining industry does not have an innovation problem — difficulties generally arise when it comes time to adopt and integrate new technologies. Mining has what can loosely be defined as a “technology adoption” mindset problem. By participating in discussions and innovation workshops with mining executives, we contend that companies realize the importance of innovation. However, they struggle with knowing how to deploy, use, and integrate innovation to achieve their strategic priorities.
A great example relates to the perceived lack of data within the operation of an average mining company. However, most mining companies don’t have a data problem. Instead, they have a data utilization problem. What’s more, solving it doesn’t necessarily require an emerging “home run/big data” technology. Perhaps refining internal processes and using a technology that scores a single or a double could resolve the issue. Taking a “crawl, walk, run” approach will go far to create confidence in local teams.
Closing that gap means taking a close, strategic look at the assets and capabilities that already exist, and perhaps investing in smaller-scale tech solutions that are specifically tailored to the mine’s individual needs. Taking a more tactical approach, instead of investing in large-scale technological “bling,” means more financial resilience over the short and long term, coupled with a more efficient operation.