What is interoperability?
In its simplest form it is a standard way to exchange a common message type between two or more systems.
To understand why this is critical in achieving optimal mine operating models, and see how simple the concept can be, take a look at how interoperability standards apply in everyday life.
Most of us drive or use cars.
If we want to get some fancy new aftermarket wheels for our car, and buy them from a re-seller, we find the wheels - any wheels - perfectly align to the studs on our car. A fluke or stroke of luck? Miraculous coincidence?
Of course not.
Manufacturers simply build them to fit using common industry standards and bolt patterns. We don't have to measure and drill custom holes to fit the bolt pattern on our car, as the onus is on the car marker to ensure wheels and studs are manufactured to precise, universally accepted standards.
It makes complete sense and the consumer simply wouldn't have it any other way.
Having to measure, drill and fit wheels ourselves is not only an unacceptable inconvenience and cost, it is seen by consumers as a frankly ridiculous notion.
Yet the same due care or consideration from manufacturers, and consumer expectation, doesn't apply in other areas.
One is mining software, in which significantly more money and time is invested than in any new vehicle wheel.
To an outsider this would seem unlikely. This is an industry that invests tens - hundreds - of millions of dollars in expensive capital equipment. Information technology and software have been integral to the industry's efforts to lift capital returns for at least 30 years.
But the reality is that common standards that guide manufacturers, and which consumers accept as the norm, in everyday life, do not yet apply to mining software.
Take your new scheduling software - can it send a schedule to a fleet management software system? If not, why? After all, schedules are produced to be executed and fleet management systems are the systems we use to help coordinate the execution of the schedule.
If that seems ludicrous, it's not the only example of misalignment of messaging in mining.
Maybe it's an IT thing, not a wheel thing?
Websites: an IT thing
Every day you are accessing websites (only for research purposes, of course). All the websites, built by many millions of people around the world, are accessible via the many internet browsers available and in use. How is this possible? Simple.
"Standards bring sanity, direction and uniformity to an otherwise chaotic world"
Standards enable this to happen.
The standards didn't just magically appear one day. IT companies and people got together and invested time, money and expertise to determine common standards to be used, for the betterment of all.
Web standards were introduced to protect the web ecosystem, to keep it open, free and accessible to everyone. Putting the web in a protective bubble meant people would not need to build websites to suit specific browsers.
And as with fitting a new wheel to a car, or building a website to market products, enabling consumers on all browser platforms to use them, end users don't have to be experts in the standards. The standards exist and continue to be updated. They play their role, enabling end users to simply leverage them and enjoy the benefits.
Standards bring sanity, direction and uniformity to an otherwise chaotic world.
Mines today use many types of software to support core business processes essential to operating mines efficiently and safely.
Geology modelling, mine planning, drill and blast, fleet management, materials tracking and reconciliation, personnel and asset tracking, laboratory information management, process control, data management and reporting, dashboards and analytics … the list of systems goes on.
Remarkably, none of these systems have been designed to share and exchange information in a standard way.
Even though each of the processes need information from at least one other - and generally more than one - to perform optimally, the industry lacks standards to enable this to occur in a uniform, predictable way.
How is business-critical information shared between systems today?
Unfortunately, it usually involves manual processes where a user takes data, manipulates it into a format acceptable by their receiving system, and re-enters it, manually, so it and they can fulfil a core task.
The manual, time-sapping, error-prone and often agricultural data transfer process can present very real constraints on how well mines operate due to:
• Cadence-based losses, where information exchange organised by agreed regular handover time means optimisation opportunities are missed between calendar-based exchanges.
• Over-simplification, where the process of simplifying and aggregating data before handover between departments to make it consumable by another person and/or system leaks beneficial details.
• Plain inefficiency, where highly qualified geologists, metallurgists and mining engineers spend significant portions of their days doing manual data transfer, cleansing, and manipulation, to satisfy reporting requirements.
• In a system requiring people to hand-key data, manipulation errors are much more likely and prevalent.
A vision for mining
Mining companies can be heard and seen often today articulating their vision of an optimum operating model.
Invariably it comes back to having the right material at the right place and time, at lowest cost, achieved safely and, increasingly, with the lowest carbon footprint.
Having the right information in the right place at the right time is going to be ever more critical to this mission.
We are not hearing leaders talk about a vision for less information, delivered and analysed slowly, involving more manual effort.
Information at the right time always means as soon as any new information is available.
An operating model built on the free flow of information, in real-time, allows intelligence on all key mine events to be used to inform decisions that will result in the right material being in the right place at the right time.
Vital to executing the decisions are planning, scheduling and fleet management systems.
Data warehouses and/or data lakes also need the mine information for reporting and analytics to understand performance and identify areas of opportunity for improvement, but these systems don't support optimising the mining operation day-to-day and never will.
Understanding what information is required by which system comes down to the function of each system.
This is where I4.0 standards are exceptionally helpful as they have defined this over many years of effort to ensure any type of information needed by systems that support common business functions and processes have been catered for. In fact, when you use these standards in mining to integrate a scheduling software package with a fleet management software package and/or materials tracking package, you find that it's the software that is the limiting factor as it hasn't been designed to take advantage of the information that can be sent or received.
One standout example of this is uncertainty of information with a measurement. The standards cater for an uncertainty reading to be provided with every material measurement. But there is no mining software that can receive, store, aggregate and provide visibility of the uncertainty of every property of a blended stockpile.
Which brings us back to the wheel
The mining industry needs all software technologies to become interoperable to achieve envisioned, and possible, operating models and performance targets.
The mining industry is lacking in knowledge, skills and experience about how to best achieve this (hot tip, it's not an IT thing, it's a specialist field where no formal education is readily available).
Taking advantage of what already exists can create opportunities to deliver value in the immediate term, and set up an operation for ongoing improvement. In fact, as mining is a physical goods rather than a services industry, it can take advantage of significant investment in interoperability standards that originated in traditional manufacturing.
The 4th Industrial Revolution (I4.0) is not a slogan.
It refers to a thoroughly engineered reference architecture and principles expected to have a monumental impact on manufacturing operating models and performance at least equivalent to the impacts of the first three industrial revolutions.
*John Kirkman is managing director of Enterprise Transformation Partners, a niche consultancy focused on assisting mining and oil and gas companies to achieve high-performance operations through the automation of processes, systems and information flows.