Technological Advancements & Innovation

The nuts, bolts and technology driving mining operations

Innovation for mining’ is a term used by the Centre of Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI) to reference the urgent need for inter-sector collaboration to find solutions to meet the mining sector’s global demands and lower production costs to make projects viable. “All the plans in other sectors of the economy come to nothing if the mining industry cannot provide the volume of raw materials they require to innovate,” stated Doug Morrison, CEMI’s president and CEO.

Adopting renewable energy and electric vehicles needs to be made possible, not only for majors, but for the whole value chain. Financial challenges remain an obstacle to be navigated, especially by smaller companies that do not have the capex to invest in these technologies. “More expensive copper and nickel makes electric cars more expensive, which is not going to drive the transition to an electric economy,” Morrison added.

The Canadian government has invested C$40 million into CEMI to fund the Mining Innovation Commercialization Accelerator (MICA). The multi-disciplinary network will be developing clean tech, robotics and automation, which will help extend mine life, shorten the time needed to bring projects into production, and increase safety and efficiency.

Following a successful initial program with Vale, NORCAT launched an open innovation platform to share challenges faced by the sector to a larger global technology network. “We work so they can develop and test their proof of concept in our underground operating mine, to expedite the process and facilitate a potential transaction,” said Don Duval, CEO of NORCAT.

The sector is rapidly understanding the value of an opportunity to trial-run efforts in an operational mine to then reach clients with fully tested and de-risked opportunities. As relatively new players on the turf, SK Godelius recently opened its office at NORCAT’s Underground Centre. “We are proud to say that we have been awarded a project related to automation and robotics by Vale in the Sudbury area, and NORCAT is coordinating the relationship between us and Vale,” said Fernando Bracco, CEO and founder of SK Godelius.

“Battery electric vehicle (BEV) equipment providers are using the NORCAT Underground Centre to develop, test and / or demonstrate how their emerging technologies are poised to transform the global mining industry,” added Duval.

The speed at which innovation and new technologies are emerging also poses a challenge for the mining industry, given that by the time a new product or service becomes de-risked — to a certain extent, technology has already evolved and new possibilities reach the market.

“Explosive fragmentation is equal to less than 1/10 of the cost of crushing and grinding. Using ore body intelligence can have a material impact on energy consumption in the mining industry.”

Paul House, CEO, IMDEX

“Do you wait, or do you draw a line in the sand and learn, knowing that you could update at a later stage?” reflected Ryan McEachern, managing director of MSTA Canada. “Back in 2015, we identified an adoption issue. First to be second still rules the day.”

Global, multi-disciplinary collaboration is required for the mining sector to implement Industry 4.0 processes to meet demand pressures necessary for the transition economy. “The world-wide pandemic restricted mobility and, as a result, accelerated the trend towards automation and digitization,” said Christina Visser, CEO, Ionic Technology Group.

International knowledge will need to be shared and developed by global players - whether they belong to the mining sector directly or not - to ensure that global metal and mineral demands can be met. “This allows for better decisions to be taken that are better for the environment and for the bottom line,” explained Pierre Julien, president of the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum (CIM).

Generating lower GHG emissions when it comes to explosives remains a challenge faced by mining companies. EPC has a factory that recycles all chemicals utilized in explosives manufacturing and wishes to supply greener explosives to the industry. “We ensure that the manufacturing process is one where carbon emissions are minimal. Explosives represent less than 1% of the total mine’s carbon footprint, so manufacturing them sustainably is how we can help the mine reduce its footprint further,” said Olivier Vandenabelle, president and CEO, EPC Canada.

“If a mine’s operations are not efficient with traditional technology, advanced or new technology are not necessarily the answer to improved production – digitalization and automation are not a magic bullet to resolve productivity issues – it is important to identify and resolve the root issues prior to defining and undertaking the digital transformation journey.”

Francis McCann, General Manager - Toronto, AMC Consultants

Fragmentation is a key challenge faced by the sector when trying to hit green energy targets. Global mining tech company, IMDEX, is currently developing precision solutions to enhance blast design, and remove the compressed gas and dust generated during drilling. "Poor fragmentation is one of the main reasons for the sector’s high energy consumption,” said Paul House, CEO of Australian-based technology company IMDEX.

When it comes to safety, the Ontario mining sector is very mature, yet continues to innovate. Gus Minor, chief innovation officer of Sofvie, chose to transition from a tech background into the mining sector to address safety protocols using data collected from the front lines. With a personal history of family loss due to mining accidents, Minor said: “Complacency creates a lot of the hazards when we become very used to the environments that we work in. The mining workplace can be a very safe one, but when we start to let things slide when they should be picked up or put away, next thing you know, there is a trip and a fall.”

Sofvie’s software creates baselines and analysis trends to share information, from workers to the CEO, and foster positive reinforcement for achieving daily goals. “Shifting away from blame culture is a game changer in the industry. We focus on making the workers successful,” added Minor. Implementing new safety protocols during the Covid pandemic led companies to rapidly develop technologies that are likely to stay for the longer term, such as touch-less interfaces. Synaptic Technologies have generated a system that can scan IDs and ask screening questions without physical contact. “Thermal cameras can also be integrated with the technology to check temperatures, eliminating the need for several devices,” said Christina Visser, CEO, Ionic Technology Group.

The need to increase digital processes has been made amply clear in the past couple of years. Americas president for Redpath Mining, Paul Healey, said Redpath is focused on providing real-time information to leaders in order to make swift and accurate decisions. "This has only been accelerated by Covid, as operations moved remotely which amplified this requirement.”

Focused on data processing, highly integrated workflows and analytics to support clients' operations, Centric Mining Systems was acquired by Datamine early in 2021. The company aims to empower decision-makers to make choices for the mines of the future. Chris Novak, Centric’s CEO, gave the example of Perseus Mining: “In a short period of time we proved to Perseus that you could have a better run business using data-driven decision-making processes. With that success under our belt, we moved to the next two sites, increased the amount of information being collected and integrated the head office in Perth into that information management framework.”

One of the largest stumbling blocks to Industry 4.0 and digital adoption has been connectivity underground. Maestro Digital Mine saw a 56% increase of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) devices and software products in 2020, with further growth in 2021. Maestro believes in “disruption by elimination” and “developing mine hardened multi-variable measurement and devices that eliminate complex PLCs, cabinets, engineering services and wiring,” according to Michael Gribbons, Maestro Digital Mine’s president, CEO and co-founder.

Another challenge for the sector is the presence of proper illumination in underground environments. Founded in 2019, x-Glo North America partnered with FiComm Technologies, focused on IoT mining safety systems, to develop a customizable Visual Alert Control System (VACS) so clients can integrate low-voltage, long lifespan and highly resistant x-Glo LED strip lights for traffic control. They are currently integrated in over 500 mines in 74 countries. “Visual alerts are crucial when operating an underground mine and communicating emergencies,” said Don Bertrand, general sales manager at x-Glo North America.

Automation and robotics appear to be necessary frontiers to meet the demands of the future, with many companies competing for achieving higher levels of automation in their processes. “Level 4 Autonomy is one of our key differentiators,” said Nader Elm, CEO and co-founder of Exyn Technologies, regarding his company’s Exyn Aero drone technologies. “What that means is that truly all the intelligence is on-board the vehicle itself. In addition to enabling breakthrough capabilities it reduces the load of actually operating the robots,” he added.

However, some remain skeptical of automation and robotics being all-encompassing solutions. “AMC’s experience and data collected has shown that many operations that ‘go digital’ and / or ‘automated’ do not see the improvements in production that are often cited as the justification for the capital injection required to introduce such systems,” observed Francis McCann, general manager – Toronto, AMC Consultants.

“It is no secret that investors are preferentially directing investment towards companies that target and achieve ESG criteria. It is therefore important to adopt socially responsible mining practices, not only from an ethical point of view, but also to attract capital. We are seeing increased demand from companies that want to become more sustainable, want to contribute to a green agenda, and want to create a circular economy.”

Kurt Boyko, Director, Nordmin Group of Companies

Peter Corcoran, vice president at Sandvik Mining and Rock Solutions, Canada, believes more advanced technologies provide a cleaner mining landscape. “It might not be the full mine to begin with; people can start with a smaller automation project, like a single loader, to learn and then take incremental steps towards greater automation,” he said. “The whole sector will become more attractive because mining will have a clean and technically advanced profile.”

Majors have been embracing automation for several years, with the world’s first automated mine built in 2018 in Australia — the Syama Underground Mine. Ontario has deep knowledge and is leading the way when it comes to new processes. Companies have embraced technological advancements for drilling and transportation of raw materials, and continuously explore for new solutions. “North America is now fully embracing mine automation, especially majors such as Barrick, Newmont, Rio Tinto and BHP,” said James Lill, manager, East Canada, Mining Plus.

Robotics and automation companies can expect competition to grow at exponential rates, with preference given to those who have been in the sector for a long time. Drone and surveying processes are becoming more user-friendly and speed for data collection and processing is paramount. Having developed the SafeScanner technology to be mounted directly under drones to collect and transform data, SafeSight Exploration is trying to cut turn-around times. “Actionable information emerges minutes after the pilot ends the flight, rather than taking it to surface and processing it for hours or days,” said president Mike Campigotto.

Michael Zahra, former president and CEO of Drone Delovery Canada, commented that most mines are in remote areas and therefore perfect for drone logistics. “The time-critical delivery nature of some of the cargo in the mining industry makes our solution extremely relevant,” he added, noting that the use of drones also limits person-to-person contact, which is a fairly new demand that came with the pandemic. “Mining camps may prefer to isolate and limit the number of external individuals visiting the camp as a precaution to avoid the virus spreading, but they need to maintain their supply chain so drones are a perfect unmanned solution.”

Trying to combat the reluctance that some companies have to new technologies, Northern Survey Supply (NSS) has partnered with Exyn Technologies on a GPS-denied, autonomous, aerial, robot system. “A personal milestone will be to continue educating people on our technology, promote its adoption, and have more people embedded in technology overall,” said Bruno Lalonde, president of NSS.

Beyond automation, SK Godelius has seen unstructured robotics, generally pertaining to processes that cannot be programmed in advance, gain enormous traction. SK Godelius is currently bridging human and artificial intelligence and delivering solutions that are both autonomous and tele-operated. “Our company’s specialty is to create, develop, manufacture, integrate, implant, and operate engineering solutions related to automation, tele-operation, robotization and the connectivity of large machines, vehicles, robots and processes in open-pit and underground mining,” explained founder and CEO, Fernando Bracco.

A key challenge faced when operating in the robotics field is that of interoperability, but SK Godelius views this as a necessary step for the industry. Through its NORCAT partnership, it is designing an automated and robotic solution for the loading of Vale’s sulphuric acid trains. “The solution involves, amongst other things, the automated opening of hatches and valves of the wagons of transportation trains through artificial vision, robotics and teleoperation technologies,” added Bracco.

The rapid adoption of technology boils down to having leaders with a long-term vision, and enough support to make swift and accurate decisions. Technology and innovation companies are continuously developing strategies to de-risk their products as quickly as possible to make them more appealing for a sector that is juggling safety, skilled labor shortages and a need to rapidly increase and optimize operations. This new roadmap involving sustainable change will necessitate evolving business models, questioning productivity levels and cross-sector collaboration. Digitization can only do so much on its own, but it is the cultures of trust, collaboration and focus that will allow teams to meet the demands faced in the future. Luckily, Ontario has all the ingredients to succeed as we enter a new digital mining era.

Images courtesy of Sandvik, Drone Delivery Canada and Novamera