As mining company profits continue to be pressured by the uncertainty that remains in the global economy, the industry is on a quest for innovation to help increase productivity.
The mining industry tends to be slow in adopting new technology but, given the state of the industry, change is paramount in order to survive. By employing new technologies used by other industries, mining companies can better manage their businesses and their bottom line. As such, we can learn from other industries use of innovative technology to improve mining.
By looking to other industries, the mining industry can incorporate new applications into existing technology for improved productivity. More advanced simulation and 3-D technology, as well as big data and the interoperability of systems, must be used at each stage of the mining cycle to improve productivity and output levels. Bold moves are needed to propel the industry forward.
Stability & predictability
To understand where mining can look for innovation, it is useful to examine what has led to successful transformations in other industries. Take, for example, Toyota – it became the world’s largest and most successful producer of automobiles by becoming an agile business – one that rapidly adjusts itself in light of changing demand and economic conditions.
In essence, it put the framework in place to become a much more sustainable business. It started at the very bottom of its business by establishing operational stability to gain better control over manufacturing processes.
To become agile and sustainable, mining companies need to achieve operational stability – the predictability of expected mine production, costs and performance levels. This requires mining and plant processing activities to function at higher levels of productivity and efficiency so that conformance to plan is always realised.
The quickest avenue to improved operational stability begins with reducing the variability in the planning and execution of mining and processing, which requires comprehensive planning, optimised scheduling and disciplined work management.
Stability increases throughput, reduces waste and associated costs, and ensures that production and quality targets are met. The key lies in harnessing operational data. While ‘big data’ may be produced in mining in terms of volume, it must become visible and analysable, and it must be made actionable to executives, mine management and frontline workers. If it is, the path to mining execution excellence, and eventually business agility, is paved. Enabling technology from other industries is one of the most important requirements to begin the journey.
Establishing predictability in operations is the first step towards transforming mining businesses in a meaningful way. Without control over operations, attempts at becoming agile may not deliver the desired value. If mining businesses do not understand how healthy their operating processes are (including their inputs, plans, equipment, labour and supporting activities), and how well they are functioning in the now, they will continue to waste resources (capital, equipment, labour and even the mineral assets).
Decades ago, the manufacturing industry established processes and systems to support operational stability, setting a foundation for agile decision-making and dramatic transformations. Today, companies from a wide variety of industries can design, simulate and manage their businesses by leveraging seamless collaborative environments, connecting their operations, employees, suppliers and even their customers. This technology exists today for mining companies, if they choose to embrace it.
Make a plan and stick to it
One of the most significant challenges mining operations face is conformance to mine plan. Achieving it often requires scrambling to make up shortfalls and increasing expenditures. Significant productivity benefits can be gain by reducing instability.
If planning and operational data is used effectively, it can provide rapid insight into how well activities are performing, enabling fast adjustments as operating conditions change. The analytics operational data enables will also drive continuous improvement.
Mining execution management systems (MES) or mining operations management (MOM) platforms, which integrate data from every mining data source on the site, enable superior work management through increased visibility and control over performance. Companies can expect up-to-the-minute tracking and management of: mining and processing activities; equipment; maintenance; labour; support; and other inputs and outputs.
Mining companies can: update activities and tasks between scheduling cycles; gain real-time visibility into capacity, availability and performance; and better manage activities, tasks and/or priorities to account for changes in production and unexpected events.
In addition, they can instantly communicate new and updated work orders wherever they are required, provide efficient handover of incomplete activities and tasks between shifts, and obtain assurance that activities and tasks are completed to specification (sequence, time, duration, tonnes, grade, maintenance, safety, regulatory compliance, etc).
When connected to scheduling systems, the benefits of MES/MOM in mining are amplified: linking to scheduling ensures that continuous feedback loops are part of the scheduling process for production, blending, waste, maintenance and support schedules. This allows for adjustments to be made rapidly, within shift, which keeps production on track.
While MES/MOM systems are not yet widely employed in the mining industry, manufacturing and other industries have used equivalent systems for decades. In these industries, systems like MES/MOM have played an enabling role in conformance to plan by reducing variation in processes. We understand how 3-D technology from other industries can be applied to the mining industry, and how it can enable operational stability by reimagining how productivity is addressed through next-generation technologies.
Some of the results of borrowing technology from other industries include a 2-4% increase in operating margins and reduced variation to plan by 20% or more. One mining company, alone, has improved its mine production output by 44%.
Another aspect of achieving stability is improved collaboration to drive planning. Bombardier Aerospace, a global aircraft manufacturer, provides an illustration of how significant improvements can be made to engineering. We partnered with Bombardier to develop more innovative aircraft in response to intense competition and changes in the aviation industry. 3-D models became the central source of all product information for Bombardier, integrating internal teams and worldwide development partners.
The company rolled out a global platform that enabled geographically dispersed teams to collaborate any time and anywhere, with each contributor able to access up-to-date information in the cloud. The results were a 62% drop in the time taken to develop multiple iterations of existing designs, 95% less time for engineering calculations and 80% less time to locate design information.
Advanced simulation also has a role to play in aiding the mining industry. A Sydney-based mining consultancy, Coffey, has used our SIMULIA software, widely deployed in automotive, oil and gas and other industries, to improve both open-pit slope stability for its rock mechanics analysis and underground safety.
There is plenty of opportunity for innovation in the mining industry, and numerous proven technologies used in other industries that can be deployed today. The examples presented here are just but a few of what is available.