Hexagon sees Digital Twins fostering smarter automated mines

It’s fair to say that Hexagon’s Mining division is all in on Digital Twin. The technology has been making waves for some time now as a way to have a digital replica or model of physical objects, systems, and processes.

Hexagon sees Digital Twins fostering smarter automated mines

It's also highly applicable to the mining sector as a way to monitor operations and try out process changes but, as Hexagon's CIO Robert Daw notes, it's not-strictly speaking-a novelty.

"The concept of ‘Digital Twins' is not new," says Daw. "In fact, the first time the phrase ‘digital twin' appeared was on a technology roadmap by NASA back in 2010. Since then, nearly a decade and a half later, the vernacular has made it into mining as well.

"In mining, the idea is to eventually build a complete, dynamic twin of the mine stored digitally. This copy mimics exactly what's going on in the mine. Events that happen in the real world happen in the digital twin. Conversely, you could make alterations in the digital environment, and see these changes occur in the real one."

Big benefits

Hexagon's mission is "Shaping Smart Change by optimising design, planning and operations for safer, more productive mines" so Digital Twins are a particularly good fit for the Stockholm, Sweden-headquartered digital reality specialist company.

"The benefits of digital twinning can be numerous and diverse, depending on the application and context," Daw says. "In mining, it is usually used in the creation of digital replicas of mining operations, equipment, and processes to help mining companies reduce costs, optimise operations, and ultimately increase profitability."

Specifically, Daw says, efficiency can be improved through smarter resource allocation and by identifying bottlenecks to reduce downtime, improve throughput and drive overall productivity. Real-time monitoring lets miners make faster, more informed decisions. Then there is predictive maintenance for mining equipment to anticipate failure, address suboptimal performance and extend its lifespan.

Less commented on perhaps is the ability of Digital Twins to reduce environmental impact by simulating the impacts of mining scenarios.

Good for your health

Health & Safety is of course a huge priority for mining and here again Digital Twins can play a large role by identifying risks and enabling organisations to test safety protocols, all within a virtual bubble.  Daw says that by creating a virtual model of a mine, scenarios can be simulated without any real-world consequences. Predictive maintenance, modelling hazardous scenarios, providing training and education, monitoring personnel, and providing real-time monitoring of the mine can all help to make mines as safe as possible.

"The mining industry involves several hazardous situations, such as cave-ins, gas explosions, and fires," he adds. "Digital twinning allows mining companies to simulate these scenarios and test different responses to determine the most effective safety measures. New miners can be trained on the Digital Twin before being allowed to work in the actual mine, which can help reduce the likelihood of accidents caused by human error.

"With the help of sensors and wearable devices, Digital Twins can track the location of personnel and monitor their vital signs, such as heart rate and body temperature. This can help prevent accidents caused by fatigue or other health issues.

"[Digital Twins can also] provide real-time monitoring of a mine, including air quality, water quality, and temperature. This can help identify potential safety hazards and enable mining companies to take corrective actions before accidents occur."

A step change

Of course, visualisation has long been part of mining and mature technologies such as geographic information systems (GIS), augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) still have roles to play across sectors. But Daw says that several factors make Digital Twins stand out.

Digital Twins can for example integrate real-time data from sensors and other sources, enabling businesses to monitor and optimise physical systems in real-time. "In contrast, GIS, AR, and VR are more static and rely on pre-collected data," Daw notes.

Digital Twins can also be used to simulate different scenarios and test out new ideas, whereas GIS, VR, and AR are "generally more limited in their ability to simulate and test".

And while GIS, VR, and AR are generally more focused on specific aspects or components of physical systems, Digital Twins offer "a more comprehensive and holistic view of physical systems, equipment, and processes, including how different components and subsystems interact". 

Additionally, Digital Twins can use real-time data and machine learning to provide actionable insights, predict future outcomes and identify potential issues before they occur. By comparison, GIS, AR, and VR are generally more focused on visualising past or current data.

For Daw, the benefits of Digital Twin models go beyond just visualisation:

"Taking a step back, it's how the data is captured, stored and displayed that drives its core benefits," he says. "It is up to each project owner to determine the optimal ways in which data can be captured and managed, and what makes the most sense for project stakeholders to consume that data, and to create meaningful exchanges and outcomes that far exceed standard planning procedures."

Changing skills

A challenge for every company today is making up for the palpable skills gap and this becomes only more challenging with new, in demand technologies like Digital Twin.

"It is almost mandatory to expect that miners need to continuously expand their skill sets to keep up with new emerging technologies," Daw says.

"Similarly with deployment and operating Digital Twins, there is a skills upgrade involved. But it is more than learning the navigation of software solutions and dashboards. There needs to be a complete revolution in the way we handle and treat data. Understanding and being laser-focused on the objectives would drive better outcomes with Digital Twins. You need to understand the why, to better design how data is collected, and how to translate that into deeper and actionable insights."

A unique focus

As with any dynamic market that possesses great promise, vendors have been quick to leap on the opportunity. But Daw claims that Hexagon's specialisation makes it different to competitors.

"Hexagon's contribution is in what we call the creation of ‘Digital Realities'," he says. "We are uniquely positioned in the industry as a market leader in digital reality solutions, combining sensor, software and autonomous technologies. The scanning and lidar technology we offer can create detailed three-dimensional visualisations, or Digital Twins, of cities, mines and other infrastructure.

"Mining operations will be able to connect everything we provide to a mine in one central location in a realistic, truly smart digital reality.

Our solutions free our customers to harness the rapidly increasing amounts of data, putting it to work to boost efficiency, productivity, quality and safety across industrial, manufacturing, infrastructure, public sector and mobility applications."

Hexagon also has a broad reach across every major industry vertical and its partnerships span geographies, business divisions and industries, providing the scope to leverage best practices (see box). That experience is refreshed by acquisitions that bring in the latest technologies and innovations. In 2022, for example, Hexagon bought LocLab, a German expert in videogrammetry, the process by which rapid creation of 3D models is possible. The previous year it acquired CADLM, a French computer-aided engineering company that has sophisticated AI and machine learning capabilities.

What next?

Daw is a massive optimist when it comes to the future of Digital Twins and foresees it playing a full part in delivering even greater mining automation.

"It is not too long into the future that we will have digital mines that reflect and impact their physical counterpart," he predicts. "This starts by connecting all the data produced by the many systems, sensors and software found onsite at a mine."

He cites Hexagon's Power of One, launched in 2021, as a unified platform that connects all sensors and software with an intelligent monitoring system that is accessible from the field to the cloud, "effectively connecting the mine to the boardroom" as he puts it.

This approach feeds into the company's vision of automated mission management. Daw explains:

"While self-driving vehicles are the backbone of mining automation, the vision is not complete without software to manage mining fleets. Hexagon has launched an autonomous mission management system that orchestrates autonomous fleet and unmanned mine traffic movements throughout the mine for optimised autonomous haulage. It is fully integrated with Hexagon's fleet management and enterprise analytics and reporting portfolio products.

The winner of Mining Magazine 2021 Fleet and Equipment award, the solution is "a revolutionary step for automated haulage", he says.

Mines can take survey data of terrain and build a network of roadways, intersections and working areas on the terrain model. From a control center, autonomous vehicles can be assigned missions along these pre-determined paths and their progress can be monitored live and from anywhere in the world.

This vision is a sort of mining Nirvana where the physical risks associated with operations change are massively reduced and management becomes a remote function.

"Digital Twins has just taken flight, but it won't be long before we see truly connected mines," Daw says. "We should be looking to ensuring we are optimising the way we collect data and allowing for dynamic updates to drive safer and more sustainable mining operations."

Best practices

As with any emerging technology, best practice frameworks are important as ways to optimise chances of success. Daw makes the following recommendations.

• Clearly define the objectives and goals of the Digital Twin project and ensure alignment with the mining organisation's overall business strategy. "There is no need to jump on the bandwagon for every new technology, innovation, or platform if it does not make sense for the business," he stresses.

• Data is fundamental to a Digital Twin project so leaders need to assess the data requirements of the Digital Twin and ensure that the necessary data can be collected, processed, and analysed effectively. Do you have the right systems, processes, and people?

• Based on the above, select the right technology and tools that can support the data collection, processing, and analysis requirements of the Digital Twin.

• Consider establishing a governance structure that will oversee the development and deployment of the Digital Twin, ensuring that it remains aligned with the overall business strategy.

• Plan for scalability, so that the Digital Twin can grow and evolve as the needs of the business change.

• Implement robust security measures. "Cybersecurity is one of the top 10 challenges in mining today as we grapple with the sheer size and variety of types of data," Daw says. "Digital Twins must have robust security measures in place to ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of data."

• Post-deployment, drive and foster collaboration between stakeholders such as IT and other functional departments to ensure that the Digital Twin project meets the needs of all relevant parties, has improved processes and does not create more unnecessary workflows.

• Continuously monitor and refine the Digital Twin to ensure that it remains relevant and accurate. This may include updating the model, improving data quality, or integrating new data sources. Allow for the ongoing process of continuous improvement, which should be driven by user feedback and industry best practices.

Hurdling obstacles

As with any major IT project, potential pitfalls abound. Daw recommends planning ahead for the following:

• Integrating and managing data from multiple sources can be a challenge, especially if the data is siloed or of low quality. Integration with existing systems and processes can be also a challenge, especially if the systems are outdated or inflexible.

• Beware of a shortfall in technical know-how. The right personnel are needed to implement and maintain the Digital Twin and as the project complexities increase, it is often more difficult to get the right mix of skillsets.

• Mind the standards gap. There is currently a lack of standardisation in the Digital Twin industry, making it difficult to compare different solutions and choose the right technology.

• Build in data security and privacy. "Ensuring the security and privacy of data is a major concern for many organisations, and until proven, this can be a show-stopper," Daw advises.

• Anticipate resistance. Corporate change management in the form of resistance and concerns about the impact on existing processes or fears about the technology itself can occur. "A common question is, how many jobs will this project replace?" Daw warns.

Hexagon Mining

Hexagon’s Mining division brings surveying, design, fleet management, production optimization, and collision avoidance together in a life-of-mine solution that connects people and processes.


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