The Rock Factory

In the second article of their six-part series, Jeff Loehr and George Hemingway of the Stratalis Group outline their vision for macroscale mines of the future
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Jeff Loehr and George Hemingway

In our first article, 'The future of mining', we introduced Futurecasting, a powerful tool that we use to help the resource industry to discover opportunity by crafting possible visions of the future.

Our visions are enabled by technology and framed by industrial, societal and economic trends that set the stage for why change is required. These trends suggest that future mining operations will be:

  • Scalable, to take advantage of shifts in market demand;
  • Reduced, in operating and capital structure, to meet investor demands;
  • Adaptable, to achieve the above;
  • Consistent, with low variability and predictable risk as key to production flow;
  • Safe, with humans far from hazard; and
  • Sustainable, from both environmental and societal standpoints.

We have crafted two operating futures that meet these criteria. This article describes the first, which we call The Rock Factory. This mine is an integrated system that moves continuously, like a factory, from the face to the processing facilities to product delivery.

In this world, mines still break rock and move many tonnes. The mine uses relatively large mining machines, at first glance resembling a mine operating today.

What makes it different, however, is that everything is optimised to be predictable, stable and transparent, with variability in inputs, outputs and production kept to a minimum. A vast amount of data is collected and everything that can have a sensor on it does.

The Rock Factory is organised and compact. Smaller, modular components working together on minimised pathways take the place of giant machines on broad roads. Four 100t trucks working in tandem, with one driver, are more flexible than one 400t truck. This modularity allows operators to modify production levels and shift resources in real-time to match demand.

Enabled by sensor placement on everything, smaller production and development footprints become realistic. Sensor-based actions do not rely on imperfect human reactions and, unlike human eyes, sensors cannot miss an obstacle.

With computers calculating and implementing perfect acceleration and deceleration curves, mines will become smaller and safer. This will also increase equipment reliability and reduce the cost of the entire operation.

Autonomy & efficiency

The Rock Factory operates continuously with integrated maintenance. Machines run longer, with programming optimised to reduce wear and tear. Modularity also means that each individual component is less critical to the operation; in the case of a breakdown, losing 100t of capacity has less of an impact than losing 400t. Smaller modules are also less expensive to acquire as well as to maintain, bringing down costs.

The maintenance process itself is improved, becoming both more predictive and more efficient. By analysing diagnostic information, algorithms predict when something will fail and remove it for upkeep beforehand.

When breakdowns occur, 3-D printing could be used to create maintenance parts; this same technology could also be applied to entire machines. The ability to print on site means that suppliers could ship digital blueprints and the mines would do the rest. Stores and stocks could also be reduced.

Autonomous systems in the mine require much less human interaction, and the role of people becomes higher level, focused on mine planning, analysis and maintenance.
Humans entering the operating area do so by exception, bringing their own protection. With machine autonomy, expensive, "hazard free" mines are less important.

Instead, safety systems are designed around the individual. Cool suits protect workers in hot environments and mechanical exoskeletons provide augmented strength. Head-up displays provide real-time information to improve accuracy.

Continuous operations are supported by new blended breakage and logistics technologies. Batch blasting is replaced by a continuous breakage model that combines physical breakage, preconditioning and possibly new forms of safer blasting that do not require clearing of mining areas. New forms of logistics characterise the ore and even preconcentrate it. Machines that scoop also map. Every part is multi-functional.

The real glue holding The Rock Factory together is information. To make the mine work, operations and management rely on the mining, processing and targeted delivery of clear and reliable information about production, equipment, orebodies and the machines themselves.

Technology convergence

None of the technology outlined here is new. All of this is, in one form or another, happening today. The higher-order technology concepts that enable The Rock Factory are:

  • Mechanised blended breakage: novel machines that blend pre-conditioning, controlled explosives, boring, cutting and drilling technologies to continuously move forward are being developed by our clients and their suppliers.
  • Advanced autonomous robotics: advanced robotics with sensory awareness can overcome uneven and dynamic terrain. Drones that auto-land on aircraft carriers and cars that drive across the country demonstrate that ‘smart' robots are a reality.
  • Fully visualised, data-driven systems: made possible by the proliferation of sensors and drones that can survey operations and by new visual-data systems. Big Data technologies are supporting data-driven decisions, predictive analytics and scenario planning in mining.
  • Integration of people and technology: cool suits for hot environments are under development, while exoskeletons for increased strength and protection now allow the disabled to walk. Head-up displays convey real-time augmented reality information in many applications.
  • Self-sustainability technologies: new energy generation, saving and storage technologies, water recycling and underground pre-concentration technologies have all advanced.
  • 3-D printing: now capable of printing houses, rocket parts and more, this technology is developing at a rapid pace and promises to change supply chain and maintenance completely.

We believe that The Rock Factory is realistically obtainable in the near future and is partially implementable with existing technologies today. No one piece of technology will make it a reality. The real benefits can only be realised by putting together a technological system. This can be implemented in value-adding stages, with each stage building towards a complete long-term vision.

Next month we "go small" and explore the concept of a bio-technological mining ecosystem in what we call The Living Mine.

The Stratalis Group is a full-service strategy and innovation consultancy focused on helping companies in the resource industry to discover, develop and deliver new pathways to growth, increased profitability and ROI. See: www.stratalisgroup.com

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