Apps for smartphones and tablets have already saturated the consumer market, with a slew of downloadable software available for the most niche interests. Naturally, as the app ecosystem expands it is becoming increasingly clear that mobile apps have uses far beyond tip-tapping on Flappy Bird and booking late-night cabs through Uber.
Apps dedicated to commercial and industrial users are beginning to revolutionise business just as they have our everyday lives. A January 2013 report by research firm Strategy Analytics predicted that spending on business-oriented apps will more than double to $53bn by the end of 2017.
The near-ubiquity of smartphones and tablets has prompted a growing affinity, even in heavy industries like mining, for apps to improve productivity, safety and communication in operations large and small. In fact, the remoteness and rugged conditions of many mining projects makes portable, off-the-shelf software a particularly good fit as an agile alternative or complement to costly hardware.
Apps are also playing an important role in non-technical support for mine workers and the industry as a whole, from simple mining glossaries to comprehensive job listings with daily updates. The apps listed below illustrate the growing depth and breadth of mobile software on offer to the 21st century miner.
Pocket Blast Guide (Orica Mining Services, iOS/Android/BlackBerry)
Given their reputation for frivolity among day-to-day consumers, the serious and safety-critical roles that apps are starting to play in the industry might come as a surprise. Few mining jobs come more complex and safety-critical than blasting with explosives, a delicate task that can now be simplified with Orica Mining Services' Pocket Blast Guide app, which was released in spring 2012 to provide blast calculations, conversions, product information and other important data while minimising the need for blasting engineers to lug around bulky paper-based manuals.
The app is accessible offline, making it suitable in mine locations without internet coverage, and expedites the process of carrying out delicate blasting calculations, safety procedures and rock property analysis.
"Being able to check product specifications and run complex calculations without the need to access manuals and laptops has made my job easier on complex blasting projects," said Orica senior blasting technician Rob Domotor after the app's launch. "I have put the guide to the test in the field on close proximity blasting jobs and have found it to be accurate and reliable, giving the confidence needed to proceed with the blast."
MiApps (MiPlan Consulting, iOS/Android/Windows 8)
Perth, Australia-based MiPlan made its name in the mining industry with its MiiNT business intelligence software, which converts raw captured data into usable information to improve productivity and other core aspects of mining operations. MiiNT's module-based structure is only a skip and a jump away from the app concept, so expanding into mobile apps was a natural step for MiPlan. The company announced its app venture in grand style at the tail end of 2013, unveiling not one but five apps in a linked suite called, naturally, MiApps.
The set of apps - MiDrill, MiBlast, MiDig, MiHaul and MiTime - continue MiiNT's modular philosophy, allowing users to access individual areas of data capture and analysis based on their specific requirements. Taken together, the apps offer a fairly comprehensive monitoring system for an operation's drilling and blasting, excavation, material logistics, human resources and equipment maintenance.
According to a company statement: "The suite of apps aims to integrate all areas of data collection undertaken at an operation, from manual activities such as pre-starts and drill hole QA/QC through to in-cab monitoring of production." With multinational software company SAP offering a similar suite of mobile mining apps, this modular approach could offer a glimpse into a future where rounded app 'sets' are the norm.
South Australia Mining (Government of South Australia, iOS/Android)
While apps have proven themselves capable of supporting the industry's more intricate technical aspects, the South Australia state government is betting on their value as a tool to drum up interest and investment in regional resource projects, especially in the face of the Australian mining sector's ongoing downturn in capital expenditure.
At the Mines and Money Australia conference held in Melbourne at the end of October 2013, South Australia's Minister for Mineral Resources and Energy Tom Koutsantonis launched the South Australia Mining app, the first of its kind in Australia. The app is designed for investors looking to identify opportunities in South Australia's minerals and energy sector, offering government-backed and regularly updated investment data on a host of mines throughout the state. On top of individual company information and contacts, it also includes a geospatial map mode displaying the location of mines in relation to mineral deposits and local transport and power infrastructure.
"Real-time information at your fingertips unleashes the huge store chest of data held by government and puts it in the hands of the decision makers in the resources sector," said Koutsantonis in October. "We have long adopted a one-stop-shop philosophy in South Australia and this government-produced app puts that into practice in an innovative way for existing and potential investors." Could apps become the new frontier for local and national development agencies to encourage private investment?
Eurotire mobile app (Eurotire, iOS/Android)
The proper management of haulage and other large vehicles is a vital component of any mining operation. Eurotire, the Miami-based manufacturer of off-road bias ply tyres and steel radial tyres for the global mining industry, knows this better than most, and in August 2012 the company launched its mobile app as an extension of its services in the field.
"Our clients are frequently working at isolated mine sites around the globe," said Eurotire's global marketing director Sue Schaffnit. "Proper tyre fit and inflation are critical for their safety, and the app eliminates the guesswork." The app allows users to select individual vehicle models by manufacturer before listing all suitable tyres for the selected vehicles. It also displays tyre product specifications and features the ability to perform a virtual load check to help ensure longer tyre and equipment.
Of course, from Eurotire's perspective the app is also partially designed as a marketing tool, with a Eurotire company profile and a database of company locations and contacts included as standard. Clearly the intention is to further establish itself in the minds of relevant mining decision-makers through wide adoption of the free app, which could then have a knock-on effect for sales of the company's main product lines. Apps will likely become a larger part of the marketing efforts of mine equipment and services companies, though given that a bad app can damage a company's credibility just as a good one can boost it, creating an authoritative and well-designed app will be essential for suppliers to achieve the desired effect.
FIFO RnR (FIFOsite, iOS/Android)
The fly-in/fly-out (FIFO) work schedule often used for remote mining operations involves workers flying to a mine site and working for several weeks before flying back to spend some quality time with their family and friends. It's a practical but punishing way to work, with the difficulties compounded by the struggle to reconnect with loved ones who are living the traditional nine-to-five lifestyle and aren't able to keep track of their FIFO friends' schedules.
In Australia, where the isolation of many mine locations makes FIFO a necessity for tens of thousands of workers, a new eco-system of social-centric apps is helping miners and rig workers balance their work and home lives. FIFO RnR, independently developed by miner-turned-independent software consultant Tyson Fitzgerald, allows FIFO miners to easily share their roster information with friends and family so that meet-ups and shared events are simpler to arrange.
Fitzgerald is keen to add new features based on the feedback of the more than 40,000 Australian FIFO workers, including job listings, community and networking options, and local event listings. Amid all the apps dedicated to productivity and investment, it's cheering that the happiness of hardworking employees and their families hasn't been entirely forgotten.