Innovation and Technology

Remote work has increased automation, but change is a gradual process

The pandemic has unquestionably changed the way we work, however, most changes have been to cope with the constraints that Covid has imposed. In many cases, these are reactive rather than proactive; Zoom meetings replacing in-person interaction and technical support via video because of travel restrictions. However, Covid has also accelerated the use of remote-controlled, autonomous solutions, an important step towards a future that will depend on moving to automated, continuous production systems.

“We still hear, “what you are suggesting is not a pace of change that we are comfortable with,” and herein lies the problem: disruption is not comfortable, but it is required if real progress is to be made,” reflected Doug Morrison, CEO of the Centre of Excellence for Mining Innovation (CEMI), adding that the inertia that Covid has brought about creates the opportunity to make changes happen – if the will is there.

Marcos Wieland, general manager of Sitech, a Ferreycorp group company specialized in introducing technology solutions to mining operations, revealed that the company’s initial expectation was that Covid would bring about a new interest in biosecurity and health solutions.

However, Sitech found that interest in these topics peaked in 2020, then faded away as work dynamics began to normalize. “What we have observed is an increase in fatigue management, which has come as a result of longer work shifts during the pandemic,” he said.

image

“Deploying autonomous solutions with drills, as opposed to trucks, is completely different. The drilling section is contained and easier to deploy, so you do not need to radically change the mining operation to implement this. Mining companies can save money quickly without having to make expensive, wholesale changes.”

Víctor Huaco, Director – Latin America, Zyfra

Sitech has also noticed an uptick in the adoption of technology that supports remote work, as miners are becoming more interested in using tools that allow them to become more efficient without people in the field. Wieland gave the example of a rising demand for remote control centers, noting that, while many of these technologies existed before Covid, they have gained more traction during the crisis. “The early adopters of these technologies could potentially serve as a model for other mining companies and trigger a virtuous cycle,” he said, suggesting that as more solutions are deployed, it is likely more people in the sector will become aware of how these technologies make processes more efficient. “Companies will have to move towards technology in order to remain competitive,” affirmed Wieland.

TORSA, a Spanish company specialized in the research, development and manufacturing of technological solutions for heavy industry, has been working with SITECH in Peru for a number of years. One of its main solutions for the mining industry is a Collision Avoidance System (CAS), for which TORSA takes part in the Innovation for Cleaner, Safer Vehicles (ICSV) program carried on by the ICMM, as well as the Earth Moving Equipment Safety Round Table (EMESRT) working group.

Jaime Solano, TORSA’s technical sales director, remarked that the company’s solutions in highest demand are related to reducing occupational risks and improving safety, such as a Human Vibration Exposure Monitoring System that allows real-time analysis of the exposure to vibrations of equipment operators.

“Mining companies are also demanding our High Precision Collision Avoidance System (HPCAS) to improve the vehicle interaction to protect shovels, haul trucks, auxiliary, light vehicles and personnel,” he said, adding: “Safety always goes hand in hand with ROI since there is nothing more profitable than keeping your personnel safe.

Another of the companies working with SITECH in Peru is Zyfra, a Finnish-based company with its R&D center in Russia. Zyfra provides digital industrial solutions utilizing Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) platforms and artificial intelligence (AI), and intends to grow its business in Latin America after establishing a strong client-base in Europe, Asia and North Africa, according to Víctor Huaco, Zyfra’s Latam director. Huaco elaborated on the work Zyfra is doing with SITECH for Hudbay in Peru regarding the implementation of autonomous drilling technology: “Deploying autonomous solutions with drills, as opposed to trucks, is completely different. The drilling section is contained and easier to deploy, so you do not need to radically change the mining operation to implement this.”

He noted that autonomous drilling solutions allow mining companies to save money quickly without having to make expensive, wholesale changes, revealing that in addition to Zyfra’s work with Hudbay, he knows of five other large mines in Peru that are looking to deploy autonomous drilling solutions.

“The biggest challenge on the path to digitalization is the mindset. Here is where change management will play a key role, especially in legacy operations where most of the operators have done the same job the same way for the past 30 years.”

Carlos Travezaño, CEO, Siemens Peru

Educating a traditional industry

When asked what the biggest barrier to the adoption of new technologies currently is, the response of our interviewees was invariably the human element. Mining is inherently a risky business, but the appetite to take further risks once a project is in operation can evaporate as operations managers look to meet quarterly production targets.

Implementing new processes in a mine is often far more disruptive than in other industries, and therefore the onus lies with the technology providers to convince clients of their benefits.

“The biggest cost and barrier in adopting a new technology is not the technology itself, but rather the time the client will have to invest in change management,” reflected Guido Perez, head of Micromine’s Pitram business unit for the Americas region. “For example, Pitram is a tool which completely changes the operation of a mine, and therefore requires a substantial number of hours for training its users. In the case of Pucobre, this involves training 100 operators.”

In June 2020, Micromine closed its largest deal in Latam for the last three years with Pucobre in Chile. Perez noted that, while the training period for such a large project takes time, clients can increase the usability of their fleets by up to 10% to 15% within the first three months of using Pitram, as well as using the information gathered to make decisions based on actual data gathered in real time.

image

Wilson Monteiro, hub division manager – process industries for South America at ABB, echoed the sentiment that the biggest challenge in moving towards an autonomous operation is the human factor. “Our main job is thus educating rather than selling a product,” he said, observing that many companies are trying to jump directly to fully autonomous operations without following the necessary steps.

On that note, Monteiro divulged that ABB, Epiroc and Ericsson, supported by the Swedish Chamber, have collaboratively embarked on educating the market about the benefits of digitization and electrification. By way of example, he added: “By moving to autonomous and electrified options, ventilation (one of the largest costs in underground mining) becomes less of an issue.”

Carlos Travezaño, CEO of Siemens Peru, opined: “The biggest challenge is the digital mindset. Here is where change management will play a key role, especially in legacy operations where most of the operators have done the same job the same way for the past 30 years… Fear of the unknown and fear of failure are perhaps the most common drivers to postponing digital transformation efforts.”

Travezaño added that another challenge is the lack of digital talent in the region and industry, and the time it takes to develop these skills within the current workforce. Eventually, the implementation of the digital mine concept will bring sustainability, allowing for continuous operations, more efficiency, and more flexibility due to all the data available to make a decision. This will result in faster investment recovery, more sustainable operations and happier stakeholders. However, it is a gradual process, and the providers offering a clear vision and visible path to ROI will be those making the early inroads.

“The most common challenges we see is the need for increased efficiency and digital monitoring of equipment. We are also starting to receive significant challenges and solutions relating to industry 4.0. The industry is looking at how to integrate data for equipment in the entire mine to mill process.”

Emilio Gómez de la Torre, CEO and Founder, Linkminers

Stimulating Peru’s mining supply chain

For the industry to embrace technology on a large scale, it will require the buy-in of companies of all sizes, not only the tier one producers with big budgets. To that end, Emilio Gómez de la Torre created Linkminers. “We look to boost the future of mining through creating opportunities for everyone – large, medium, and small companies… creating an easy link between mining companies and mining suppliers,” he said.

Linkminers’ digital platform helps companies connect without having to travel through the highlands of Peru, an expensive task at the best of times that has been further complicated by Covid medical protocols. The website is divided into sections, such as exploration, concentrator plants, digital mine, among others, and de la Torre revealed that the most common challenge clients are looking to overcome is the need for increased efficiency and digital monitoring of equipment, as well as solutions relating to industry 4.0. He summarized: “The industry is looking at how to integrate data for equipment in the entire mine to mill process.”

Linkminers works with the Mining Cluster of Southern Peru (CMSP), created in 2018 on the back of successful mining cluster developments in Antofagasta (northern Chile) and Australia. Benjamin Quijandria, CEO of the CMSP, explained that an important pillar of the CMSP is its open innovation program, launched at the end of 2019. The program features eight main challenges affecting mining companies, including CMSP members Hudbay Minerals, Anglo American, Southern Copper and Cerro Verde, which were identified by visiting mining operations and talking to officials and executives.

“To complement our open innovation program, we plan to carry out workshops in alliance with the chambers of commerce of the region, universities and local institutes, and help companies reach all the necessary standards to register as providers for the mining industry,” detailed Quijandria.

Erick Iriarte, CEO of B2B platform eBIZ Latin America, related that the cost structure of companies in the mining sector shows that about 46% of operating costs come from the supply and logistics processes. With this in mind, eBIZ was formed 20 years ago to optimize these processes, either by reducing business cycles or by improving the interaction between buyers, suppliers and service companies. “We developed an e-business solution called B2M (B2Mining) that streamlines B2B relations between players, from automating information exchange (i.e., payment dates, document registry) to increasing opportunities to do business for both buyers and suppliers,” he explained.

As business has become increasingly digital, Iriate warned of the mounting issue of cyber security, with eBIZ seeing a seven-fold increase of cyber-attacks on mining companies in the past two years. “In most cases, the triggering issue was inside the company: not by technical malfunction, not by foul play, but by mere human error,” he noted, underlining that protecting information is the only way in which companies can ensure busines continuity.

Image courtesy of Ferreyros S.A.