Typically, new ore reserves are more technically challenging than at any time in history, and are located in remote or politically complex regions.
Business imperatives to improve performance and contain costs, combined with a chronic shortage of skilled labor and ongoing pressure to increase safety and reduce environmental impacts, all compound the difficulty of operating profitably in these inhospitable locations.
As mining companies look to ramp up production, they face a host of complex challenges to sustainable growth. Mining companies thus need to find new ways to achieve increases in productivity to meet demand.
This is not the first time mining companies have needed to innovate to get a dramatic increase in productivity.
The mining industry has already been through a number of technological “step changes” that have facilitated radical productivity gains.
For example, the gradual mechanisation of underground mining in the first half of the 20th century including the development of conveyors, loading machines and drill rigs dramatically increased tonnage per worker.
More recent advances like longwall-mining equipment, driverless trucks and recent developments in remote operations and control systems, enable today’s miners to produce many times the ore with fewer workers and better safety than ever before.
The challenge is that the last step-change of technology has now been exhausted: haul trucks are already big, pits are already supersized, and infrastructure is being pushed to its limits.
Other industries, such as manufacturing, have been able to make quantum leaps in productivity and responsiveness through new technology paradigms such as assembly lines, automation and just-in-time methodologies.
As mining enterprises aspire to achieve similar gains, elements of these concepts are now being investigated for their application in mining.
In this quantum leap scenario, the “mining factory” connects and orchestrates the production processes to optimise throughput and profitability based on ore body quality variations, production capacity and market demand.
The materials handling process is increasingly automated, and new technologies enable continual, rather than batch-based, movement using traditional methods such as rail or truck.
To support these greater levels of efficiency and automation, software and business processes need to transform alongside physical systems.
This change is taking the form of greater integration, visibility and “intelligence” within and among operational technology (OT) production control systems and information technology (IT) that manage the company’s critical assets, logistics, planning and operations.
The result will be unprecedented agility in response to changing conditions in the operations and to both supply and demand fluctuations.
As the convergence of IT and OT brings more and more information from real-time systems into IT software, these four are among the ”must-have” benefits that will enhance efficiency, responsiveness and profitability across the mining value chain:
- Intelligent production
- Intelligent response to critical asset condition
- Demand-driven planning
- Reduced energy consumption and waste
1. Intelligent Production
Production line processes have a major bearing on overall productivity. If mining companies are able to precisely optimize production functions based on real-time demand and market conditions, they can achieve significant improvements.
Take, for example, the optimization of dosing and flow rates. While many miners already have Advanced Process Control (APC) solutions automating the management of dosing and flow rates in real-time, most are unable to easily align this data with the realtime conditions out in the market.
For instance, miners are unable to connect information on relative product pricing, data on feed material and information from sales contracts, because this information is stored in disparate systems – often in a completely different department than the control room operators.
With the convergence of these IT systems and the process control OT, the APC can refine the set points to maximize returns for the current feed material and product pricing based on information from the sales system driven by the global pricing index.
To further improve productivity, on-stream analysers in the plant can be connected to reconcile actual feed with the model provided. The net result is that miners are able to increase plant recovery and optimize the product mix based on market pricing.
2. Intelligent Response to Real-Time Asset Condition
Failure of a critical production asset can have catastrophic impacts on the ability to meet heavy production targets. Consider the failure of the main conveyer out of a mine – failure could result in losses in production totalling hundreds of thousands of dollars per hour.
While comprehensive asset management strategies backed by an Enterprise Asset Management (EAM) system fit-for-purpose in mining, along with regular inspections, can go a long way to preventing failures in critical assets, the latest technology enables miners to take this one step further.
As IT and OT converge, more real-time data on asset condition will be available to streamline maintenance effectiveness, enabling condition-based monitoring.
When business analytics are applied to this wealth of real-time data, miners can get high-value insights into the real condition of these critical assets.
In the case of the above conveyer, if the temperature sensor was to detect an over-current condition, an alarm would be generated and the control system could slow the drive to reduce risk.
When integrated, these OT systems could connect directly into the IT systems without operator intervention and automatically raise a work order with the nearest crew. Once the crew completes the repair, the completion could be instantly reported, allowing the control system to return systems to normal in the shortest possible time.
Integration of condition monitoring, inspection data and work processes enables a dynamic, highly automated reliability centered maintenance (RCM) strategy. Asset management is optimized not only in relation to maintenance efficiency, but also relative to a holistic assessment of priority based on business impact and business rules.
The ability to apply predictive analytics to a combination of operational and information system data automates what would otherwise be a time-consuming process involving multiple decision-makers, plus a reliance on a high degree of decision-making skill and experience to recognize and prioritise critical factors. Ultimately, condition-based monitoring makes high-reliability asset management strategies more pragmatic and cost effective.
Let’s look to another scenario that highlights the critical issues surrounding the asset management lifecycle for a mill.
Analysis of real-time process data can flag a potential issue when certain operating conditions (e.g., load greater than 95 percent for given ore hardness) increase the mill wear and tear – risking failure and production loss. With this information, mill operations would be automatically adjusted to either optimise ore blending, or to avoid the risky operating conditions when the ore has undesirable properties.
Along with these immediate actions, work orders would be triggered to analyze the problem root cause. The result will be less downtime and more production.
A further advantage of IT/OT integration is that over time asset historical data becomes increasingly rich, enabling organizations to better understand the true condition and health of its assets and then adjust its operations in real-time for better overall performance.
Futhermore, the direct linkage of asset condition monitoring data with inspection/ work data stored in the EAM system helps build stronger business cases for replacement versus ongoing maintenance of an asset, for instance.
3. Demand-driven planning
The difficulties associated with coordinating supply and demand across the mining value chain are well known. Many mining companies experience bottlenecks in their supply chain processes, which can delay deliveries. This delay can lead to increased operating costs and a negative impact on profitability.
The mining supply chain extends from the extraction of raw materials to the transport of products to the end customer. To achieve production and productivity targets, mining companies need to achieve high operational performance and efficiency across supply chain processes.
Among the principle causes of supply chain bottlenecks are difficulties in inventory planning, output planning and demand forecasting.
These challenges in dynamically driving supply in relation to demand often result in inefficient production flow, large stockpiles and, incorrect product grades available to the customer.
Conversely, better integration and automation across processing plant operations, mine planning and asset maintenance/management ensures the right product is available at the right time and equipment maintenance can be scheduled to minimise impact on production schedules while maintaining the required level of availability.
What is required is a unified management view of data from both IT and OT sources that offers visibility into all production variables including delivery contracts (demand), current inventory, mine plans, equipment availability and transport schedules.
To further anticipate demand, this information can be supplemented by market-based demand signal information such as stock levels, customer demand trends, fuel and commodity pricing.
With this level of visibility, production plans can be optimised. In a coal mining value chain, for instance, visibility into real-time conditions can be provided by online coal quality analysis sensors. When these sensors discover that the actual blend deviates from the target blend, a control sequence could automatically be triggered.
This control sequence would use the inventory management system and its data on the stockpile composition to realign the reclaimer’s actions and correct the blend to meet the customer’s specification.
The result: production within specifications, with no penalties and guaranteed customer satisfaction.
This holistic view enables the full implications of short-term, medium-term or operations recovery decisions to be understood, improving the overall performance of the entire operation.
4. Reduced energy consumption
Energy efficiency fundamentally helps mining operations reduce costs. It can also help improve overall productivity and support compliance with environmental mandates.
Improvements in energy efficiency can be
driven not only by improvements in mining processes and technologies, but also by greater visibility and process control across the value chain through IT/OT integration and optimisation.
For example, more accurate and near real-time process control made possible by combining asset and flow rate data with supply chain inputs can reduce energy consumption by mill drive systems, while increasing overall production and grinding efficiency.
In another scenario, the targets for grinding section would be automatically selected according to the current ore properties, its expected composition in the near future, and the overall effect on the flotation plant performance. This enables significant energy savings due to less grinding effort whenever the ore characteristics allow for it.
The convergence of IT and OT can reduce mining energy demands in a number of ways.
- Understanding the energy profile of a site (where and how energy is used for extraction, conveying and hauling, and what opportunities exist for conservation or leveraging alternative energy sources)
- Ability to forecast energy requirements and schedule plant activities in relation to “on-the-grid” energy demands and costs, so that energy-intensive activities take place at off-peak times when energy costs are lower
- Leveraging “what-if” planning for completing energy-intensive production steps in order to maximize energy efficiency and reduce energy costs
- Ability to track and report on energy consumption for compliance purposes and/or as a baseline for energy efficiency programs
Moving toward the next generation of mining
As automation and communication capabilities increase, mining companies at the forefront of technology adoption can make significant improvements in their overall value chain.
From driving better linkage between IT and OT technology in production systems, to improving asset health by integrating real time data and intelligent insights, to smarter energy management, the advantages can be significant.
Perhaps the best and most visible example of these trends coming together is in the remote mining center, designed to manage operations with minimal on-site human intervention.
Such systems better facilitate around-the-clock operations and more easily ramp up and down in alignment with demand.
At the same time, technology and process improvements that support more automation on the site, such as continuous conveying of ore between key processing stages, will reduce or eliminate long-standing production bottlenecks.
Mining enterprises worldwide have already made significant investments in remote operations centers and remote mining technology.
The ultimate success of these remote operations centers lies in their ability to control and automate processes on-site.
This requires a synergistic convergence of IT and OT systems across the mining value chain to create a unified, highly collaborative enterprise able to be controlled remotely. Core enabling communication technologies combined with real-time input from sensors and logical devices deliver connectivity and data from the heart of the operations.
Applying information technologies such as business intelligence, data can be transformed into actionable insights and made available to the right personnel via customised views and reports.
This kind of technology is enabling mining companies to make dramatic advancements.
An integrated power generation and coal mining company in Europe has made significant progress toward this vision. Although a relatively simple scenario due to the short value chain, easily dug material, simple processing and simple demand model, this example represents the ultimate goal of future mining projects.
When stock levels at the plant get low, an automated message is sent to the fully automated mine, which digs, blends and mixes the coal automatically for delivery into the power station.
Completely automated, and optimized through one central control room, this approach embodies the “ore factory” objective of mining companies as they look to harmonize supply and demand, much like sectors of the manufacturing industry have achieved.
Unlike manufacturers in a plant, mining companies experience extreme variability of conditions in the field.
This makes the monitoring, control and artificial intelligence applied even more important to the success of these operations. IT solutions provide the visibility and insights required to improve the power of the control operations, integrating many operational “silos” such as drill/blast, load/haul, concentrator, smelter that typify many mining operations today.
While this integration is extremely high-value, many mining companies are struggling to achieve the results they desire due to the complexity of integrating these systems, data, and operations. To reduce cost and risk associated with moving to a connected IT/OT architecture, mining companies will seek to implement open systems, while at the same time minimizing the number of vendors in the ecosystem. Relying on providers who offer the widest range of “building blocks” will reduce time-to-value while ensuring that investments will add maximum value now and in the future.
The forefront of IT/OT convergence in mining
With the right next-generation infrastructure, conferring the ability to control and monitor operations in real-time, the operational technology is in place for dramatic improvements. With the 2010 merger of leading mining software company Mincom, the ABB software group and Ventyx, the final requirement for the step change was set in motion.
The software solutions include leading mine planning, logistics sales and marketing, asset management and business analytics software covering the entire mining lifecycle. The availability of leading-edge hardware, operational technology and information technology from one global vendor has opened new horizons for mining companies looking to embark on productivity transformations.