The new age of the smart mine

As digitalisation accelerates, stragglers fretting over change management and integration costs could be left behind

Jeannette McGill, VP and GM, Metals & Mining, AspenTech
 Resolving equipment downtime issues also increases safety

Resolving equipment downtime issues also increases safety

Mining has traditionally been a laggard with respect to technological adoption. The 2021 Boston Consulting Group's Digital Acceleration Index (DAI), rates the metals and mining industry as about 30% to 40% less digitally mature than comparable industries, such as automotive or chemicals. 

Mining companies historically viewed the implementation of advanced technology as an optional add-on, only to be considered if there was budget available during the hay-making years between commodity booms and busts. High-end technologies were often seen as too expensive, too complicated, or not sufficiently advanced. Coupled with this, the mining sector remained for many years fundamentally risk-averse, with companies often reluctant to adopt new technologies that they perceived as unproven. 

Increasingly, however, awareness has grown that these kinds of attitudes around technology and transformation are no longer viable. Over time, realisation has risen across the sector that technology can be a real source of competitive differentiation. Change is increasingly a business imperative. 

Multiple factors are coming together to make this change possible. First the cost of new technologies has been declining, while availability has increased. This has made it more affordable and easier for mining companies to adopt new technologies. In addition, the mining industry is becoming increasingly tech-savvy. Engineers are more open to using new technologies in the workplace. This has created a demand for the adoption of new processes and systems. 

An ever-broadening portfolio 

Recent advances have made it possible to develop more user-friendly and affordable mining equipment, capable of collecting data from a wider range of locations and in more detail than before. Coupled with this, software is now available that can be used to process and analyse mining data, thereby improving safety, efficiency, and productivity. 

The latest breed of data historian technology is a case in point. With the vast swathes of information now generated by scanning equipment, monitoring hardware and automation technologies, ensuring integrity of that data is essential. Within mining, integration technology can link every moving part of a mining operation to link the planning systems, fleet management systems, material movement and tracking systems, crushing and screening and processing as well as other parts of the downstream value chain.

Harnessing data in this way to accelerate time to insight and drive efficiencies is one way in which technology adds value to mining. Asset performance management (APM) is another. This latter approach relies on prescriptive maintenance to keep mining systems up and running at all times. In the context of mining, prescriptive maintenance solutions use machine learning agents to predict equipment failure based on a series of indicators drawn from real-time sensors. Building on that, they can then also prescribe changes to behaviour and equipment usage that will eliminate those identified failure altogether. 

Resolving equipment downtime issues increases safety by minimising equipment failures in the field while removing unplanned field maintenance activities and the attendant safety risks. Productivity increases as well, because mine planning engineers no longer need to redo their schedules to adjust for unmet production and scheduling targets, both of which can be time consuming. 

The key role of advanced process control 

Ensuring maximum value of ore mined can have a substantial impact on a mine's productivity. Process control solutions can continually optimise processing operations in the presence of disturbances and frequently-changing conditions. Smart APC solutions can optimise comminution circuits, assist with reagent usage such as controlling cyanide concentration or lime dosing to regulate pH levels, manage entire froth flotation plants to deliver percentage point increases in recoveries and more. 

The technologies we have discussed above are today helping to drive digital transformation and also helping to lay the foundations for the smart mine of the future. The first stage is around collecting data; the second involves applying enhanced connectivity through Internet of Things (IoT) technology and sensors; together with advanced analytics, and processing capabilities, to start developing smart mines  

Creating smart mines helps to minimise operational costs, which is one of the biggest advantages of going digital as quickly as an enterprise can. 

Connected mines allow mining organisations to optimise their assets through embedded sensors connected through a wireless network. With a combination of wireless software and physical peripherals, a mining operation can see a boon of productivity and a massive reduction in total operational costs. 

Likewise, artificial intelligence and other smart technology allow enterprises to link daily operations to specific company objectives and goals. There are then more eyes on the job of monitoring and predicting the reality of reaching these goals and objectives, and how quickly it can be obtained. 

Through digital plants, one can also reduce an enterprise's environmental impact from mining operations. AI technology can be incorporated in plant digitalisation to minimise energy requirements, reduce carbon footprint and much more. 

Genuinely smart mines are not yet widely in place but they are coming. As the cost of continues to decline and the operational benefits become increasingly clear, we can expect to see more and more mines adopting these technologies. By improving safety, efficiency, and sustainability, smart mines can help mines to operate more safely, profitably, and responsibly. If mines don't want to risk missing out, they need to digitalise today and then look forward to reaping the rewards further down the line.



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