The importance of partners in mining digital transformation
The new wave of Industry 4.0 has appeared in the mining industry with such disruptive speed that it has surprised even the more futuristic advocates. While offering business and operational improvements, it has also introduced many new challenges. As a result, mining companies and their suppliers have been tested to adjust their strategies, technologies and skills in a short period.
In the mining environment, digital technologies involve a long list of applications that are taking advantage of stream data analytics, machine vision, remote sensing, teleoperation and autonomous systems. While all of them are for different uses and outcomes, they share a common pattern – capturing data in digital format and processing it into relevant information for decision making, often in real-time.
The introduction of digital technologies into the traditional mining environment has reshaped its technical and operational aspects. The design, deployment and use of such technologies require new hardware, software, adjustments to operational practices, as well as new skillsets in the workforce.
Hardware should be ruggedized enough to cope with the harsh environment of mines to carry − without damaging − the new generation of sophisticated devices such as sensors, antennas and chips. Software and (edge) computing platforms should be powerful enough to perform in a demanding data environment with machine learning, deep learning and stream data mining algorithms consuming and processing ever-growing volumes of data. Engineering and operational practices also need to adjust infrastructure, equipment and services so that they can perform over digital platforms efficiently and effectively.
Finally, the introduction and adaptation of new skills into the mining environment is probably the biggest challenge. Due to the multidisciplinary nature of digitalization, the new digital framework not only requires mining expertise but needs to combine it with telecom, computer science and system integrations skills.
New data and information frontiers
The digital mining journey requires more than laying cables, plugging-in boxes and installing antennas and goes far beyond connecting machines or analyzing datasets. Digital technologies are opening new frontiers on the use of data and information to manage large and complex operational processes.
Of course, productivity, efficiency and safety remain key KPIs for mining companies. Therefore, digital mining solutions need to be designed and deployed with a holistic long-term view to assure mines continue to operate safely with higher efficiency and profitability. Therefore, a scalable and flexible ecosystem is needed to cope with the fast-evolving development of the technology – without generating operational interference.
One of the main challenges that mines face is the amount of time needed to integrate new digital systems. To support the immediate needs of the industry, technology suppliers, system integrators and service providers are instrumental in enhancing digital transformation in mining by speeding up readiness and transferring skills and learnings.
Partnering with telecom vendors
Mining companies have started developing new partnerships, not only to expand their digital ecosystems, but also to leverage the experience and expertise partners can offer. Working with partners can provide the mining industry with the required ecosystem, as well as immediate advisory and professional skillsets. But there is one caveat: these partners must also have extensive expertise in the mining domain.
Many equipment manufacturers have already embraced this industrial challenge by developing and testing machinery that’s digital-ready and can be operated remotely or autonomously. Mining companies and their incumbent suppliers are teaming up with network infrastructure companies and telecom operators to obtain the right connectivity solutions for supporting their digital transformation – avoiding the pitfalls of implementing, integrating and testing solutions by themselves.
A good example of such an integrated effort is Komatsu, which tested and qualified the performance of their FrontRunner AHS on Nokia’s private wireless network (LTE) infrastructure on its proving grounds in Tucson, Arizona. Sandvik, is also evolving its underground solution by testing the capabilities of LTE and 5G networks to enhance underground connectivity at its Tampere-based test mine.
As predictable wireless connectivity is fundamental for mission-critical communications, as well as for reliable data collection, transmission and processing, partnering with a telecom vendor that has extensive experience with standardized 4G, LTE and 5G network technologies is key for succeeding in the digital mining race.
Partners can also bring new assets to which a mining operator would normally have no access such as the wireless radio spectrum needed by a 4G/LTE or 5G network. Getting access to that spectrum usually means either licensing it from a government agency partnering with a local mobile operator or a third-party supplier who already owns spectrum. There are several mining operators that have recently teamed up with mobile operators to roll out private wireless networks. Examples include Vale’s partnership with Vivo in Brazil, Teck and Shaw in Canada, and Minera Las Bambas and Telefonica in Peru.
Experience plays a fundamental role in the digital transformation of mining and its further evolution. Getting transformation right the first time is often a challenge, and the industry needs to learn its lessons. One of the first autonomous rail projects in Western Australia ended up 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 fast speed of technology development and foresee potential pitfalls.
The large CAPEX involved in digital transformation also highlights that running projects of this scope and complexity in trial-and-error mode is only a recipe for delays and cost overruns. A partner with long-term vision, expertise and experience in the mining domain, and a willingness to make a substantial investment in the industry, is a long-term asset.
The digitalization of mines is key to improving productivity, safety and quickly reducing costs; however, it is not a sprint. It also comes with considerable investment in training and a long learning curve. Unlike operational technology projects of the past, digital is now a mine-wide platform that requires strategic focus and partners with a holistic approach and good expertise in mining to build the digital mine of the future.
As most of the early movers have experienced, the transformation to the connected digital mine will be a journey rather than a destination. But with the right travel companions on board, the expedition will be gratifying - and the big reward will be a safe, connected, efficient and productive environment that is built for the next generation of mining.