Even just one year ago, industry insiders were still saying that digital was not delivering at the expected level. Now those voices have subsided and we can expect a remarkably more digitalised industry henceforth, with the pace of digital adoption likely to increase in the future.
During the pandemic, miners were keen to reduce numbers on site as well as the number of external service agents and third parties. This meant that areas such as remote monitoring and diagnosis, predictive maintenance and process optimisation took centre stage, and the benefits - from increased uptime and improved throughput to safety, cost and environmental gains - became evident. In short, smart mines were safe mines and more efficient mines.
A significant amount of servicing, maintenance and analytics can be conducted remotely across hundreds of sites around the world. As a global company, we can offer this support from centres in Copenhagen, Denmark, Chennai in India, Salt Lake City or Bethlehem in the U.S. However, in one recent case, our normal service to a customer site at a copper mine in the North of Chile faced local access restrictions.
We still needed to commission a new Filter Press - a piece of equipment with more than 8,000 pieces - how could this be achieved? Well, the challenge was overcome by two of our specialists, one in Chile and the other one in Peru, working from home using the ‘Augmented Field Engineer' digital tool. This way, the experts could still fully support a single field engineer on site, assisting him with this challenging task.
Challenges and new trends
The new year will also see some interesting challenges while new trends will develop and emerge. As with most industries going through a digital transformation, the focus in mining has been on individual pieces of equipment and "process islands". This is the lowhanging fruit that gets picked off in the first phase. But the big benefits are in the combination of data from across the entire mining flowsheet - this will unlock massive potential in optimisation, process efficiency and resource use (such as water and energy), which will help cut costs and reduce the environmental footprint of operations.
For this to happen, there needs to be more collaboration and cooperation between vendors and peers on issues such as data collection and sharing and the setting of standards around this.
Companies need to accept that to do this meaningfully, some of the traditional business models between customers and OEMs will need to change or be completely rethought. If you look at any industry that has successfully embraced digitalisation, the success was built on industry standards that different players within the industry agreed upon jointly. Mining needs to get this done.
Elsewhere, artificial intelligence will play an increasingly fundamental role in smart mining. We are continuing to see a significant blossoming in the capabilities of AI to support humans within the maintenance and operations spaces. This will lead to a greater collaborative effort between human and machine in the manner that we have already seen in other industries.
Capturing expert knowledge
There is an increased focus on capturing expert knowledge in what the industry calls "Digital Greybeards". This is knowledge not just from one individual but from as many experts as possible. When this information is combined with the pure data-driven approach of Machine Learning, the result is not only a much-improved capacity to prevent and predict failures and critical issues on mining sites, but also the ability to choose the correct response to those issues should they arise.
When we launched a new software package at the end of 2020 called ECS/ProcessExpert V8.5, we introduced some exciting new cognitive technologies and functions that can contribute to the development of the Smart Factory concept in the mining industry and support the drive to greater sustainability. For example, for the first time, we've incorporated the capability to use non-symbolic artificial intelligence technologies based on machine learning and deep learning algorithms. These technologies create their own understanding of a process by finding patterns in the raw process data - and then use that understanding to solve problems.
A new module also bridges the gap between automation engineers and data scientists by enabling customers' data scientists to integrate their existing machine learning and deep learning algorithms into the PXP applications and control strategies. It was an exciting step forward and a good reflection of where smart mining is heading.
The low-footprint mine
Over the last few years, the importance of sustainability in the mining industry has grown from the solitary voices of the first-movers into a significant chorus. It has moved from a general acknowledgement that something needed to be done to a point where the industry recognises that sustainability is now a prerequisite for doing business.
Sustainable practices are increasingly non-negotiable in securing investment, meeting society's evolving expectations, gaining licence to operate and, ultimately, ensuring shareholder value. All Tier-1 miners have a sustainability ambition centred around the low-footprint mine and it is up to equipment and solution providers to make that a reality in a cost-competitive manner.
The focus on mining will increase in this area. There is a growing realisation that for a clean, lowcarbon economy a vast amount of key minerals is needed - and mining has to provide them. This places the industry in the middle of the energy transition with regards to solar power, wind power, energy storage and even electric vehicle production.
The substantial level of investment in this arena will create massive opportunities for the mining industry. But with it comes the requirement for the sector to be able to sustainably provide the minerals and vital metals needed.
FLSmidth's new sustainability programme, MissionZero, aims to enable our customers to move towards zero emissions, water waste and energy waste by 2030 - in effect, creating the low-footprint mine. We are identifying opportunities to significantly improve customers' productivity and environmental impact across the entire mining flowsheet, including crushing, grinding, flotation, thickener upgrades and filtration, as well as the potential of pumps and cyclones.
Focus on tailings
The focus is on the entire flowsheet, but with an emphasis on areas where we see a lot of potential in terms of reducing water use, energy consumption, emissions and waste. Reducing the quantity of tailings or improving its properties is the most effective way of dealing with tailings. As such, tailings will be central but there will be a focus on pumps, flotation and arsenic removal processes such as Rapid Oxidative Leach, or ROL.
New REFLUX flotation technologies, including Course Air, will be introduced that substantially reduce the flotation footprint and comminution requirements while improving grade and recovery. This is turn will lower dewatering costs further, lowering the barrier to adoption of filtered tailings.
The first phase in this journey has been completed and is now being operationalised. This will mean a greater emphasis will be put on those products available today in the FLSmidth portfolio that have a proven sustainability benefit. In conjunction with this, the company will focus on demonstrating how some newer products in the portfolio support more sustainable operations through life cycle assessments and total cost of ownership analyses.
Additionally, we will accelerate work and increase attention on several, currently available, game changers for mining, such as filtered tailings, High Pressure Grinding Roll (HPGR), ROL and In-Pit Crushing & Conveying (IPCC). The final element is an R&D-based investigation into future products and processes that we know can make a significant impact on mining's footprint.
This will happen through disruptive thinking, innovation, partnerships and co-creation that will occur within the industry, outside of the industry and together with third parties and universities across the globe. Several ideas in this category are already being explored and/or developed, including alternate comminution technologies for mining such as the FLSmidth OK Mill. And by applying a digital lens on existing solutions, we intend to find further ways to reduce the miner's footprint.
With ore grades declining, more water is needed to process more material just to keep up with production rates. This creates more water and tailings to manage. Contamination of ground water and tailings dam failures are the biggest environmental risks associated with mining.
There is no magic wand to stop the need for water in mining and minerals processing from one day to the next. However, through cooperation with partners in the industry, we have made great progress and introduced a cost competitive solution that combines EcoTails with filtration and paste thickening equipment. This allows the re-use up to 95% of the process water and eliminates the need for wet tailings dams, even for large mines. Large-scale mines require proven, large scale, equipment. We were an early mover in large scale filtration and thickening equipment and with continued R&D investment are likely to maintain our leading position.
These solutions make it easier to obtain a license to operate and reduce operational costs significantly, it minimises the risk of contaminating ground water, it reduces the size of a mine's physical footprint, and it eliminates the dire consequences of tailings dam failures.
Finally, sustainability is a main component of, and a huge driver for, everything we do in R&D. It is vital to create products that use automation and digital technologies to increase efficiency, reduce energy consumption, increase the benefit from each unit of raw materials, extend the lifetime of the equipment and in general to allow operations to do more with the same or less, thus making the processes more sustainable.
For decades, the industry has worked on creating innovative solutions that enable increases in productivity, or that resolve challenges. FLSmidth also offered some of the first solutions in automation and we have continued that journey into the area of digitalization and data-based optimisation. Automation laid the foundations for digital and the recent digital and data-driven acceleration in mining.
It boils down to a very simple idea: the more you know, the smarter the decisions you are able to make. With the huge amount of data available, we can know a lot about how a mine is running. Too much for any human operator to process, in fact. Which is where digital tools, such as advanced process control, AI, Big Data, Cloud computing, digital twins, augmented reality, and IoT, come into play. They take the data and allow it to be turned into decisions.
Traditionally automation has been depicted as a pyramid, where the bottom layer is sensors and monitoring equipment, above this comes the control layer and so on until we get to the ERP systems on the top. With the increased use of data and data analytics, the need for a solid foundation has become even bigger. A new way of looking at automation and digitalisation is as "digital skyscraper" where the new and "heavy" data functions/services in the top layer are adding additional pressure and requirements on the lower layers, which are the "classical" automation worlds of monitor and control.
The industry is quickly moving from a simple set-up where companies needed to only analyse a couple of variables and link this to an alert system or alarm device to a place where AI and other solutions are taking the industry into a smarter and predictive arena.
Automation centres around five key areas: Asset health, Asset optimisation, Autonomous control and operation, i.e. human-free operations, Smart Factory (connected - optimised - transparent - proactive - agile) and sustainability.
As with any OEM provider of digital hardware and automation solutions to mining customers, it always starts with asset health. We begin with examining the historical performance of this asset, with a focus on how we can decrease the chances of unexpected downtime.
Control over operations
Digital gives operators more control over operations and availability. For example, the ability to make fine adjustments to wear compensation, track equipment trends and instantly detect any obstructions, enables increased uptime, optimum equipment life and significantly reduces risk of unplanned downtime.
The next step is to look at whether equipment is functioning to its full potential compared to historical trends and similar installations. We can see where bottlenecks exist and where improvements can be made. The guesswork is taken out of optimisation and replaced by smart, data driven decisions. And, of course, you no longer need to be in the control room to see how your plant or mine is functioning or to make adjustments and changes. Performance and health data are delivered to your smartphone or laptop wherever you are, so you can easily find and stay up to date with how your plant and equipment are running.
The real value arrives with fully interconnected data over the full mine's flowsheet and even beyond. This concept of the smart factory is becoming a reality but needs better data integration, standardisation and holistic implementation throughout a mine's operations. If this is realised, what will be available is an uninterrupted stream of data and processes that can is flexible enough to self-optimize and self-adapt to changing conditions in real-time or close to real-time.
This ability can deliver optimised processes from the pit to the port but also onto inventory tracking, automatic wear part ordering and smooth maintenance cycles. These are some of many exciting technologies out there for us to investigate and use as we focus on solving our customers' problems.
Automation also is a key to sustainable mining. It allows mines to use fewer resources such as energy and water and to reduce emissions. Take for instance the pyro process often used in nickel, alumina, chrome, and lime industries where digital solutions can have direct impact on the pyro processing efficiency. Advanced sensor technologies measuring both the kiln shell temperature and analysing gases such as CO, NO, SO2, CO2, HCl and O2 are providing valuable parameters for an advanced process optimisation solution, contributing to a more stable operation, reduced fuel consumption and thereby reduced emissions.
Process optimisation solutions are excellent when it comes to decreasing energy consumption in minerals concentrators. Advanced and intelligent control have emerged as the digital technologies driving performance improvement, and are now generally accepted as an advantage in most modern high capacity concentrators.
*Mikko Tepponen is FLSmidth's chief digital officer and Wayne Douglas is the company's head of global mining R&D.