Technological advances in the areas of artificial intelligence, automation and blockchain are beginning to permeate the age-old profession. Mining Technology asks industry experts to give their insight into how such developments will shape the future of mining.

The future of mining: optimising efficiency with the Industrial Internet of Things

The clever implementation of digital technologies like the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and automation could transform mining, making it safer, more productive, efficient, sustainable, and profitable, and therefore better able to take on the challenges it faces. When we consider that over the last 15 years, the average cost of producing copper has risen by more than 300%, while the grade has dropped by 30%, these new efficiencies offer a cost-effective way to increase profitability.

“IIoT technology enables mining organisations to collect vast quantities of data about their operations remotely and in real time through internet-connected sensors.”

One of the biggest areas of promise is in IIoT’s ability to transform expensive and inefficient manual and mechanical processes into digital ones. IIoT technology enables mining organisations to collect vast quantities of data about their operations remotely and in real time through internet-connected sensors. This data can then be acted upon and used to improve efficiency on site, ensure a safe environment for miners and monitor the operational status of machinery.

Take transport and haulage. Sensors are currently used to collect data on how long trucks are kept waiting at different points within a mine, such as the time to be loaded. This data can then be analysed and used to improve the efficiency of haulage operations, for example reducing or increasing the number of trucks required hour to hour to ensure production is optimised around fuel usage, minimal maintenance time and haul distance.

Advanced IIoT solutions can even form the backbone of a fleet of completely autonomous haul trucks, drills and excavators which can deliver additional savings, reducing fuel and staffing costs and optimising operating efficiency.

– Joe Carr, director of mining innovation, Inmarsat

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The future of mining: smart mines and artificial intelligence

The mining industry is a combination of brute force and some of the most advanced scientific and mathematical processes used in any industry. The application of technology will continue to remove people from the brute force aspect of the business, whilst advancing the ability to find, extract and process mined materials, quicker, cheaper and at a better rate per tonne.

Given the onerous nature of the work, the future will see mine employees focused on the business aspects of mining, such as managing a company’s strategic relationships, and not in the field.  Machines will not only be able to operate autonomously to a pre-determined plan, but will process data themselves and make decisions when circumstances change and sensors detect different conditions.

Not only will the mines themselves be intelligent and all assets connected, but the value chain from mine all the way to the ultimate user of the materials will be connected, so that production can be planned and flexed to meet demand and adapt to resulting changes in commodity price. Artificial intelligence will make decisions on production and routes to market, informed by learning from connected global trends and the real-time capabilities of the companies’ mining properties.

– Chris Mason, director of sales for EMEA, Rajant Corporation

The future of mining: blockchain and the mining sector

The recent modest recovery in mining productivity has been threatened again as demand improves and prices recover, and as a result, the industry is under pressure to focus on methods to improve efficiency. Naturally this falls on the supply chain, and we believe, blockchain and smart contracts will be a key building block to achieve this.

“Smart contracts, with their self-executing automatism and case of replication can create significant efficiencies for global procurement teams and help ensure regulatory compliance.”

Blockchain’s role in sustainable and transparent supply chains could be a game changer, thanks to its ability to promote trackability, transparency and security through open peer to peer and incorruptible data sharing. This will offer a new tool to monitor and confirm compliance with sustainability and environmental ethical standards. Further to this, smart contracts, with their self-executing automatism and case of replication can create significant efficiencies for global procurement teams and help ensure regulatory compliance.

Ultimately, with more pressure on margins and inflationary costs, as well as corporate social responsibility, this technology will be key for the future development of the mining industry’s supply chain. It’s not a question of if, but when.

– Rebecca Campbell, mining partner, White & Case LLP

The future of mining: a new era of metals

While base and precious metals mining are mature markets, we are witnessing the start of a new era for lithium and cobalt production as demand for these two materials undergoes exponential growth from lithium-ion batteries. The compound annual growth rate for electric vehicles (EVs) uptake over the next decade is expected to be around 27%, but already growth rates are much higher than this, albeit off a low base. China’s EV sales are rising by around 80% year-on-year and in Q2 in Europe, battery EV registrations were up 45.5% compared with Q2 2017. Imagine what sales growth rates will be when battery-only EVs are cheaper than internal combustion engine vehicles.

Following the demand shock in 2015, when China put its weight behind EVs, that saw a rapid run up in lithium and cobalt prices, we are now seeing the supply response that has led to price falls this year, but with the end use market for lithium-ion batteries already growing rapidly, but still at the early stages of the innovation ‘S’-curve, lithium and cobalt producers are going to work hard to bring enough supply on in a timely manner. Battery cell requirements for EVs, passenger and commercial, are forecast to grow from around 70GWh in 2017, to 1,600GWh in 2030. For any supply chain to keep up with such a rate of growth for an extended period of time will be exhausting, but it will require the lithium and cobalt markets to grow from small markets to significant markets in double quick time.

– William Adams, head of research, Metal Bulletin

The future of mining: drone technology can increase mine safety

The mine remains a uniquely hazardous and inconvenient workplace. Mines often have to pay higher wages for remote workers, in addition to high transport and accommodation costs. Another challenge is the impact of high workforce turnover caused by the ‘fly-in fly-out’ lifestyle. IIoT and automation offers a way around all the risks and expense inherent in employing people in these locations, while bringing the precision and bandwidth of technology to the heart of remote mining operations, all whilst improving productivity.

“These drones not only scan the mines from perspectives that are dangerous and near-inaccessible to humans, they also instantaneously communicate any information they pick up.”

For example, Freeport-McMoRan is already using drones to create steeper pit slope angles in its mines, reducing the stripping ratio and amount of waste rock hauled before ore can be extracted. These drones not only scan the mines from perspectives that are dangerous and near-inaccessible to humans, they also instantaneously communicate any information they pick up. This makes for a more rapid and detailed analysis of the mine slopes without having to deploy highly skilled geologists or geotechnical engineers into an inherently hazardous environment or affecting production by closing haul roads.

With machines becoming progressively more capable of acting with little manual intervention, a future where adaptable and autonomous machines carry out the on-site, operational tasks of mining while human employees monitor them remotely looks probable and highly profitable.

– Joe Carr, director of mining innovation, Inmarsat

The future of mining: overcoming the skills gap

Critical infrastructure industries such as mining are struggling to attract and retain the right technological capabilities. Ultimately, the main barrier for graduates entering these industries is proprietary outdated technologies, which demands time-consuming and expensive training and limits future job prospects. As a result, the job market stagnates and older generations are the only people with the knowledge of how specific systems work.

However, the operational technology and automation space is moving to the same compute stack –and if we can streamline software languages, these various parties will soon begin to speak the same language. This will reduce costs and streamline effectively so that there are enough people within an organisation and the wider industry sharing the same knowledge and skillsets. The alternative future is one where we see an ever-increasing skills gap.

Looking ahead, companies will need to agree on technical standards that are open, based on common languages. This means process control systems in one organisation are compatible with those from another. This will not only make it easier and cheaper for existing staff to replace and repair control systems, it will also be easier for new talent to be attracted to and retained within the mining sector.

– Ed Harrington, director, The Open Group’s Open Process Automation Forum

The future of mining: preserving authenticity in the gold supply chain

Traditionally, gold investments have taken the form of share investments into gold exchange-traded funds or acquisition of physical gold bars, which then need to be stored. The introduction of blockchain technology and its inherent attributes brings about many advantages to the transfer of gold.

“The public ledger and full public access to all traceability and authentication documentation can minimise fraud risks.”

The public ledger and full public access to all traceability and authentication documentation can minimise fraud risks that are present in what would otherwise be just a physical supply chain of asset custody.

Gold-backed tokens will lower the barrier to entry and enable more retail investors to enter the market and hold tokens in divisible form. There is a plethora of use cases and appetite from both individuals and institutions – portfolio diversification, wealth preservation, payments, collateralisation for lending, and more.

– Kai C Chng, CEO and founder, Digix

The future of mining: technology underground

Now that intrinsically safe devices are more prevalent, we’ll see more technology actually down in the mines and the savvy businesses will be those that start to take advantage of this early. This will include improving on processes such as digital audit checks, where safety and quality control remains paramount. But we’re likely to see an increase in areas like in-location video conferencing and digital product tracking.

– James Woodall, co-founder and CTO, Intoware

Mining Technology’s Mining Safety content is supported by USA mining safety specialists Carroll Technologies Group.