Like most other industries, the advance of technology has changed the face of mining forever – from the pit face to the purchase of products and their eventual delivery to end users. As technology infiltrates every corner of this business, management and automation systems that can iron out some of the complexities along the logistics chain, from production to supply and delivery, have easily found a place in the technologically advanced mine.
These applications cover a gamut of areas reflecting the sheer diversity and sometimes convoluted processes that are entailed in the commodities industry. All are designed to help operators manage, process and control the flow of information – whether it be measurement and metering solutions, complex analysis or sampling.
Ultimately, the task is simple: get the minerals and ores out of the ground for the lowest cost possible and then sell them to the market at the highest price. But considering the number of people, technologies and unknowns along the way, this is easier said than done. Any solution that can help mining companies manage this process and its complexities has generated great interest, though it is debatable whether such grand systems or software programmes yet exist.
One company active in this space is Mincom, a global solutions provider specialising in the mining industry that counts most of the largest mining houses among its key customers.
The Mincom Mining Solution provides intelligent tools that cover the entire mining operations value chain, from the geology of the deposit through to the delivery of the finished product. But its solutions are many – not just one single software package – and include Mincom Axis, an e-trading system connecting people through the internet and asset management tool Mincom Ellipse.
In the world of finance, the idea of straight-through-processing – the notion that transactions can be entirely automated from start to finish – is a beguiling one. In theory, this removes any human error and lowers overall transaction processing costs. Banks have spent billions of dollars pursuing this goal, though anyone working in the financial sector would admit that this remains a journey, rather than a destination.
Out in the field
Like the financial world, there are also real automation success stories to be seen along all key parts of the mining and logistics operation. The most evident are those that are active at the mine itself. ABB is among the more prominent automation suppliers, working across the mining sector. Recent projects include a $19m deal for onsite process control systems service and maintenance at Vale Inco's Goro nickel process plant in New Caledonia.
The ABB contract includes the ongoing optimisation and maintenance of the plant's installed System 800xA process automation system. This system extends the scope of traditional control systems to include all automation functions in a single operation and engineering environment, which enables plants to perform smarter and better, with associated cost savings. The concept offers greater visibility for mine operators, as well as control and automation benefits, resulting in improved performance.
Vale Inco extracts and processes nickel and cobalt at its mine in the Goro plateau. The new plant is expected to produce 60,000 million tons of nickel oxide and 4,300-5,000 million tons of cobalt carbonate annually. ABB Process Automation division head Veli-Matti Reinikkala says the automation support will aid one of the largest miners in the South Pacific region in what is still a very tough economic climate.
"ABB has the global resources, technology and mining industry knowledge to help Vale Inco achieve their growth objectives, with comprehensive support services and forward evolution strategies that protect their existing automation system investments," says Reinikkala.
Automation has become big business with the need to scale down costs or raise efficiencies increasing through the years. This is crucial during challenging economic times. Technology is playing a vital role in this regard through, for example, the monitoring and control of site machinery and equipment, which is now vital in the efficient running of any mine or plant.
Even in remote spots, highly reliable and accurate portable devices can also play a role, delivering the same level of automation and precision in otherwise testing locations. Rockwell Automation released its Allen-Bradley DataSite remote terminal unit (RTU) controller this year specifically for such harsh and extreme environments. It processes a user programme and controls and monitors the operation of other equipment on site.
The DataSite RTU controller includes an embedded web server. This offers tools for interfacing with controller-based data through a standard web browser to allow users to display device data and act on the controller data remotely over the internet. For example, this means that a maintenance manager does not need to directly connect to the device to review status or to modify parameters: it can be done remotely over the internet.
Mincom recently launched the Mincom Mobile Inspections Manager, which it claims can help save companies money on maintenance costs by taking a more proactive stance on preventative maintenance.
Mincom chief strategy officer Jennifer Tejada says she believes such mobile technology is especially useful during times when budgets are being cut or restricted.
"Having the ability to inspect a physical asset on site using an intelligent application on a mobile device enables field workers to quickly, efficiently and accurately inspect assets," she says.
But clearly, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. While mining may now be crammed full of new technologies, there are no overarching systems to monitor, supervise or perform the entire process. The trick, it seems, is in getting the right technology that is fit for purpose and allowing these different systems to communicate with each other as seamlessly and as effectively as possible.
This is where automation service providers have been especially clever. The huge financial commitment required for IT spending in general means any new solutions must fit with legacy systems. That applies throughout the business, from extraction and processing, right through to ultimate delivery.
Managing mine assets online
As Mincom proves, there are broad systems that go beyond this. Endress & Hauer has a web-based asset management system – known as [email protected] – that supports a whole range of business processes, specifically designed for the mining sector. The package comprises a string of solutions to aid operators from the planning phase of a new plant right through to its operation and performance. The company describes [email protected] as an open information system providing data flow and archiving for technical and operational management completely at any time and at any place.
It is not only in the mine where technology is greasing the wheels. Back in the office, global logistics solutions have for years been able to track deliveries while in shipment. ADG Global Supply, a long-term supplier to the industry, is promoting a total purchasing outsourcing solution which, it says, can cut time and administrative costs, thereby boosting overall productivity and efficiency.
The sheer diversity of equipment required by mining companies – from safety equipment to off road tyres and explosives – presents huge purchasing logistics challenges for procurement divisions. ADG Global Supply says the benefits in outsourcing purchasing of mining supplies extend beyond the actual procurement function. The company can also receive and check goods, repack if necessary according to location and item specifics, organise shipping logistics and ensure timely
Just as the oil industry has moved toward the concept of the 'intelligent oil field' so too has the mining sector embraced facilitating technologies that automate operations, and connect different stages of the production and supply process. But like technology itself, this is an evolutionary process, where new products and systems are continually shaping and improving mining developments. It is a journey where all technology providers – and human operators – must take part.