Innovation & Technology
Changing mindsets and using actionable data
Innovation has evolved from a benefit to a necessity, not only in order to process lower-grade deposits more efficiently or reach deposits that were previously inaccessible, but also in the fight against climate change. The mining sector will not be able to supply the amount of metals and minerals necessary to supply demand driven by electric mobility at its current rate of production.
In such a context, the industry needs to think outside of the box. If a silver lining is to be discerned from Covid, it is the acceleration of technology adoption in an industry not known for rapid change.
“Remote operations is a big trend which, even though it is something we have been pushing forward for a long time, has really accelerated since the start of the pandemic,” stated Jorge Abraham, country division manager – process industries, and mining lead at ABB Chile.
Abraham commented that ABB has been developing remote operation solutions for decades, but the industrial segment had dragged its feet as companies did not believe it was necessary or possible, particularly in a mining setting. “Fortunately, this way of thinking has changed completely. Parallel with this came the digitalization of a series of processes that used to be done manually and now had to be digitized to remove workers from the site.”
“Our technology roadmap targets solutions that optimize tasks from exploration through mine planning and design to mine rehabilitation. Digital solutions based on advanced algorithms save time, releasing people for higher value work such as analysis and decision making.”
Eduardo Coloma, CEO, Maptek
One of the pioneers of remotely operated mining technology is Canadian company HARD-LINE. Brian Larocque, HARD-LINE’s general manager in Chile, explained the transition from line of site control (an operator standing in front of the equipment watching it work from a safe distance) to teleoperation.
He gave the example of autonomous blasting at a sublevel stoping operation as an illustration of how productivity can be increased: “Autonomous operations allow for much less down time as usually after a blast you will not be able to send anyone into the mine for two hours, but now the autonomous equipment can be operating.”
For the open-pit market, Larocque discussed HARD-LINE’s partnership with Hexagon to develop autonomous situations such as collision avoidance, GPS and drilling patterns: “We marry Hexagon’s systems with HARD-LINE’s systems and based on the combined technologies the equipment can move from teleoperation to semi-autonomous operation to fully autonomous operation.”
Rodrigo Couto, president Latin America for Hexagon’s Mining division, spoke of Hexagon’s partnership with Liebherr to deliver automation solutions: “The most impactful aspect of this is Hexagon’s autonomous mission management system, which orchestrates fleet and unmanned mine traffic movements throughout the mine for optimized haulage”.
Discussing the evolution of automation in the mining industry, Óscar San Román, general manager – Chile at Yokogawa, suggested that the aim is a much bigger goal – autonomy. Elaborating on this statement, he observed that some decades ago, the focus was on collecting data from a plant. Then came the challenges of understanding and communicating this data, which has been solved. More recently, what to do with that data has been driving innovation, through machine learning and others advance control systems.
“The pandemic has accelerated remote control systems and the implementation of digital infrastructure: you can now have someone in Santiago or London not only supervising but controlling a plant in northern Chile or South Africa, thanks to technologies such as 5G communications,” said San Román, noting that the challenge now is the integration of these aids for the long-term. He concluded: “Automation is today the only way to advance in an efficient, profitable and sustainable mining industry.”
Brad Donnelly, managing director – mining at Dingo, weighed in on the subject, reflecting on what the Australian technology company had learned in over 30 years in the mining market: “Over the years, we have learned that collecting volumes of data without a clear goal adds complexity and delivers little value. It is critical to apply context to that data to transform it into meaningful action that can make a material impact on a mine’s performance and productivity.”
Dingo’s flagship product, Trakka, a cloud-based predictive maintenance software platform, manages, analyzes and acts on all of the asset health data of its mining clients, helping to leverage existing condition data to minimize downtime and optimize asset life.
MC System Chile, representatives of Leica Geosystems, is a Chilean mining tech company founded in 2011. Its Machine Controls (MC) are topographic systems onboard machines (such as excavators) that help the operator work to the desired quota, eliminating over-excavating, markings on the floor, and the need for people controlling the floor or staking pegs. The company has worked at operations including Los Pelambres, Los Bronces and Quebrada Blanca, and Christophe Boinelle, director of MC System Chile, suggested that this technology should be provided by a small company due to the flexibility required. “When you start working with these systems the machine will work much faster, but if something goes wrong with the system, such as something getting unconfigured or a wire getting cut, the operator goes blind because there are no markings on the floor like before. We are very fast at fixing it,” explained Boinelle, noting that all the protocols larger companies have to comply with make them less efficient.
“The greatest challenges related to digitization in mining surround the interoperation of the components, making sure all operational and IT technology is functioning properly and that the computing environments in development on the cloud are properly protected by good cyber security.”
Francisco Waltersdorfer Rivera, General Manager, Adexus Chile
As one of the world’s leading mining jurisdictions, Chile is advanced when it comes to the adoption of innovation at mine sites. “The mining boom in the 1990s triggered the growth of mining expertise in Chile and the industry has grown alongside emerging technologies,” explained Eduardo Coloma, CEO of Maptek.
However, Coloma acknowledged that the mining industry on a global level is struggling to attract new, young talent. Fostering a younger generation of mining professionals is not only important to keep up with demand, but will also help from the standpoint of technology adoption.
“The main barrier to adoption is culture, not only in the mining market but across industries, and thus change management is extremely important,” commented Mauricio Gregorio, Siemens’ digitalization manager for Chile and Peru, adding that the mining market has come to understand that digitization will be the main driver of increasing main KPIs such as productivity, safety and reliability.
Hexagon’s Rodrigo Couto remarked that Chilean mining is advanced with respect to the adoption of many technologies, but catching up when it comes to collision avoidance systems and fatigue monitoring. Many of Chile’s largest mines have had unionized workforces for decades, which have contributed to better working conditions and fairer pay. However, new technologies can be seen as a threat to a traditional way of doing business. “We have been talking with the unions in Chile to explain that collision avoidance systems and fatigue monitoring technologies are not meant to expose drivers but rather to protect them instead so that they can return home safely,” said Couto.
Once the challenge of changing mindsets to introduce technology has been overcome, companies need to be prepared to run and maintain systems that are frequently cloud based. This also comes with challenges, such as ensuring cybersecurity. Francisco Waltersdorfer Rivera, general manager of Adexus Chile, described the current operational environment as “a perfect storm” when it comes to cybersecurity breaches, consisting of a fragmented processing system with multiple suppliers, many networks with perimeters that have not been properly defined, new technologies such as AI, and a scarcity of resources to manage these systems. He warned: “Many companies will not recognize the problem until they have had a major incident.”
Waltersdorfer explained how Adexus helps mining clients tackle such challenges: “Adexus has an advanced cyber security team that provides solutions such as firewalls, traffic analysis and secure gateways, as well as supporting final users make sure that risks are avoided and identified as soon as they occur.”
Image courtesy of Sigdo Koppers