New technology enables new possibilities
When it comes to adopting new technologies the mining industry is notoriously reluctant towards changes. Often new technologies promise huge advantages, but for mining companies, safety and predictability are often the biggest priorities. Nevertheless, technology and software permeate all aspects of today’s mining industry where there is a large appetite for solutions that make deposits more economical and environmentally friendly and operations safer, more transparent and efficient.
Industrial IoT firm Symboticware has been working to provide mining customers actionable insights through predictive AI solutions since its early days utilizing NORCAT’s Underground Center in Sudbury. The company has managed to grow its customer base for nearly 13 years by partnering with dozens of large mining companies including Glencore, Barrick, Vale and Newmont. All of this was achieved without a need to raise outside capital, but now, as Symboticware looks to further scale up its business and continue introducing cutting edge innovation, it has raised C$2.8 million in its first-ever private financing round led by venture capital firm GreenSky Capital Inc. and supported by MaRS Investment Accelerator Fund, Celtic House Asia Partners and Axion.
When asked about the tough questions he would get from investors when raising money, Ash Agarwal, president & CEO of Symboticware, acknowledged that VC’s want to make sure they are investing in a large and fast moving market, and that there is a big enough problem that can be solved by the proposed solution. Furthermore, there must be a team in place that can execute effectively on the vision. “Answering these questions gets harder when it comes to the mining industry for reasons associated with slow speed of adoption and long sales cycles. We work in an industry where everyone wants to be the first to come second,” said Agarwal.
“When we tell prospective customers that we have a scalable, tuned-to-site solution that will give early indicators of impending failures and enable extended asset life while reducing fuel burn and greenhouse gas emissions, the initial response is often something along the lines of, “Yeah, we heard that from other people before, so what are you doing differently?” The short answer is that, instead of adapting an approach developed initially for fixed assets, our approach to the AI is tailored specifically for the challenges of mobile equipment.”
Amanda Truscott, Co-Founder and CEO, Rithmik Solutions
Fortunately, he notes that things are improving rapidly in today’s environment. “With GHG emissions, productivity, safety and operating costs being on top of the board agenda, there is widespread demand for our solution which answers the market size and speed adoption question to a great extent. From a solutions perspective, with our proprietary technologies and integrated hardware-software-AI solutions, we are in the most favorable place to solve these problems,” Agarwal elaborated. Another company tapping venture capital funding is Rithmik Solutions, who closed a US$1.2 million round of funding to commercialize its “AI-First” mobile mining analytics product. Asset Health Analyzer (AHA), as it is dubbed, was initially developed by Kevin Urbanski and Kris Isfeld, who, prior to founding Rithmik, worked with Honeywell on their mobile equipment monitor (MEM). His takeaway from that experience was that unplanned maintenance remained a huge issue even within technologically advanced companies. Getting that ratio of planned to unplanned maintenance is a high priority for mining companies, so he sought to leverage data to develop software that could turn it into actionable information. This, in turn, would be used to identify early indicators of what is happening with equipment, and consequently, companies could head off big problems while they were still small.
“The mining industry has traditionally been known to be slow adopters of technology as there is a resistance to change. I believe that this is due to skepticism of the unknown, and with AI, machine learning, digitization and automation technologies becoming more established and proven over the past few years, we are seeing a greater appetite for the adoption thereof. There is also the perception that AI and automation will replace the human factor in operations, but the reality is that human intervention and interpretation will always be necessary, maybe just in a new and different way than what we are used to”.
Rodrigo Villarreal, Director of Sales and Technical Sales, Maptek Canada
Amanda Truscott, co-founder and CEO of Rithmik Solutions, was encouraged by the impact this technology could have on improving the mining industry’s environmental footprint. “The biggest advantage comes from reduced fuel burn as a result of equipment that runs more efficiently. Our technology has been independently assessed as having the ability to enable improvements in that area of up to 15%,” Truscott revealed.
Rockwell Automation has a wealth of experience developing and deploying everything from sensors to safety devices, controllers, panels, electric drives, distributed control systems (DCS) and IoT platforms right up to the boardroom. According to Ben Sharpe, an industry operations consultant at Rockwell: “The market has encouraged Rockwell Automation to expand its offering in high value IoT. The challenge in the industry is having raw data from mining to concentrators and smelter operations connected right through to the delivery of the commodity. It is about having data in context so the information is relevant and actionable.”
Rockwell recently signed an agreement with the Canadian Mining Innovation Council (CMIC) to be a member of their high-efficiency Conjugate Anvil Hammer Mill (CAHM) project. This research project targets reducing energy in the comminution circuit by 35-50% and includes a significant number of end-users in Québec. The company is not only working with mining end-users, but also third parties delivering services alongside it into the mining sector. One key partner is Laval based SimWell, which is a supply chain simulation company doing analysis both internally in the mine, from pit-to-port, and externally for rail and ocean transport and delivery. “Their solutions have been integral to the mining industry, especially since the onset of the pandemic and with the government’s focus on developing critical mineral operations and supply chain reshoring,” added Sharpe.
Maptek is another technology company whose solutions gravitate around bringing value to the data its customers collect. Maptek offers a wide range of products across the mining value chain and on the mine planning and geological modeling side. Its flagship Vulcan product provides advanced 3D tools to the customer as they are understanding and quantifying their deposit and moving to the production planning and scheduling phases. More than 19,000 licenses of Vulcan are in use across the globe for applications ranging from exploration, geological modelling, mine design and rehabilitation planning for both underground and open pit mining operations. “Our aim is to provide information to our users so that they can effectively interact with the data to enable them to make the best decision with regards to mining as safely and economically as possible,” said Jesse Oldham, global project strategy manager at Maptek.
Images courtesy of AMQ