In the mining sector, the latest wave of Industry 4.0 has emerged with such revolutionary pace that it shocked even the more futuristic advocates.
It has also implemented several new challenges while providing market and organizational enhancements. As a consequence, in a short period of time, mining companies and their suppliers have been checked to change their methods, innovations, and abilities.
A long list of applications that take advantage of stream data analytics, machine vision, remote sensing, teleoperation, and autonomous systems are involved in emerging technology in the mining environment. While all of them are for various uses and results, they follow a similar pattern: collecting and transforming data in digital format into appropriate decision-making information, often in real-time.
Its technological and organizational aspects have been reshaped by the implementation of emerging technology into the conventional mining environment. New hardware, software, changes to operating procedures, as well as new skillsets in the workforce involve the design, implementation, and use of such technologies.
Hardware should be sufficiently robust to cope with the harsh mining environment to hold the latest generation of sophisticated devices such as sensors, antennas, and chips without damaging them. In a challenging data environment with machine learning, deep learning, and stream data mining algorithms that ingest and process ever-growing data volumes, software and (edge) computing platforms should be powerful enough to perform. Infrastructure, facilities, and services often need to be updated by engineering and organizational practices so that they can work efficiently and effectively on digital platforms.
Finally, perhaps the biggest obstacle is the incorporation and integration of new skills into the mining environment. The new digital architecture not only includes mining experience due to the multidisciplinary nature of digitalization but also needs to be combined with telecommunications, computer science, and system integration skills.
Fresh frontiers for data and knowledge
More than laying wires, plug-in boxes, and mounting antennas, the digital mining path takes and goes well beyond linking devices or analyzing datasets. Digital technologies are opening up new frontiers for the management of vast and complex organizational processes through the use of data and information.
Productivity, productivity, and protection remain, of course, essential KPIs for mining firms. It is therefore important to develop and implement digital mining technologies with a holistic, long-term view to ensure that mines continue to operate safely with higher productivity and profitability. A scalable and flexible ecosystem is therefore required to cope with the technology’s rapidly evolving development without generating operational interference.
The amount of time needed to integrate fresh digital systems is one of the main challenges facing mines. Technology suppliers, system integrators, and service providers are instrumental in enhancing digital transformation in mining by accelerating readiness and transferring skills and knowledge to support the immediate needs of the industry.
Partnering with vendors of telecoms
New partnerships have begun to be developed by mining companies, not only to expand their digital ecosystems but to leverage the experience and expertise that partners can offer. Working with partners will provide the mining sector with the ecosystem they need, as well as instant advice and technical skills. But one caveat exists: these partners must have significant experience in the mining sector as well.
By developing and testing machinery that is digital-ready and can be operated remotely or autonomously, many equipment manufacturers have already embraced this industrial challenge. In order to obtain the right connectivity solutions to support their digital transformation, mining companies and their incumbent suppliers work together with network infrastructure companies and telecommunications operators to avoid the pitfalls of implementing, integrating, and testing solutions by themselves.
Komatsu, which tested and ranked the performance of their FrontRunner AHS on Nokia’s private wireless network (LTE) infrastructure on its proving grounds in Tucson, Arizona, is a good example of such an integrated effort. By testing the capabilities of LTE and 5G networks to improve underground connectivity at its Tampere-based test mine, Sandvik is also evolving its underground solution.
As predictable wireless connectivity is essential for mission-critical communications, as well as for reliable data collection, transmission, and processing, it is crucial to succeeding in the digital mining race to partner with a telecom vendor with extensive experience with standardized 4G, LTE, and 5G network technologies.
Partners may also bring new assets that would normally be unavailable to a mining operator, such as the wireless radio spectrum required by a 4G/LTE or 5G network. Usually, getting access to that spectrum means either licensing it from a government agency partnering with a local mobile operator or from a spectrum-owned third-party supplier. There are several mining operators that have recently teamed up to roll out private wireless networks with mobile operators. Examples include the Vale partnership in Brazil with Vivo, in Canada with Teck and Shaw, and in Peru with Minera Las Bambas and Telefonica.
In the digital transformation of mining and its further evolution, experience plays a fundamental role. It is often a challenge to get the first transformation right, and the industry needs to learn its lessons. One of Western Australia’s first autonomous rail projects ended up being 80 percent above budget and four years delayed. It highlights the need to find strong strategic partners that can help navigate the new digital terrain, follow the rapid pace of development of technology and foresee potential pitfalls.
The large CAPEX involved in digital transformation also highlights that it is only a recipe for delays and cost overruns to run projects of this scope and complexity in trial-and-error mode. A long-term asset is a partner with a long-term vision, expertise and experience in the mining field, and a willingness to make a substantial investment in the industry.
Digitalization of mines is key to improving productivity, safety, and cost reduction rapidly; it’s not a sprint, however. Significant investment in training and a long learning curve also come with it. Digital is now a mine-wide platform that requires strategic focus and partners with a holistic approach and good mining expertise to build the digital mine of the future, unlike operational technology projects of the past.
The transformation to the linked digital mine will be a journey rather than a destination, as most of the early movers have experienced. But the expedition will be gratifying with the right travel companions on board – and the big reward will be a secure, connected, efficient, and productive environment built for the next mining generation.