Ambitions to digitalise mining operations aren’t new, but digitalisation of the entire mine cycle remains the holy grail – something we have yet to see. “Full mine integration involves identifying and resolving bottlenecks and inefficiencies across the entire operation,” explains Rockwell Automation’s enterprise account manager Geoff Irvine.

Reaching full integration is fast becoming a priority for mining companies facing increasingly competitive markets, rising production costs, a need to find efficiencies, more robust safety regulations and ever-challenging decarbonisation demands. Many believe that digitalisation can help mining rise to those challenges.

Sanjit Shewale, global business line manager for digital at ABB Process Industries, shares this view and believes mining is on an upward trajectory as its digital transformation journey continues.

“Technological advancements in automation, electrification and digitalisation are steering the future of mining and enabling safer and more efficient processes, with a more considered impact on the environment,” he says. Shewale is optimistic about the future, suggesting mining companies, original equipment manufacturers and the technology supply chain are all committed to allowing mine sites to work holistically.

Irvine also believes collaboration will be key. He says the ability to efficiently manage mines, their supply chains, partners and the entire operation, often across multiple regions, allows miners to lower costs, stay competitive, attract investment, and build resilience to external price influences.

Supporting the view that sector challenges have increased the pressure to digitalise is Glenn Kerkhoff, AVEVA’s global industry principal for mining, metals and minerals.

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“This pressure to do more with less has pushed the mining industry to adopt digital transformation and turn to automation,” he says, adding that over the past decade, advances in cloud technology have allowed the industry to lean into remote operations and equipment control, and increased data sharing across business areas.

Also highlighting the challenges distance and remoteness pose to mining, Kerkhoff says the potential for hybrid cloud architectures to analyse and provide integrated operations throughout production, maintenance, engineering, safety and more, is “unprecedented”.

While digitalisation promises many benefits across the mining value chain, some in the sector are yet to realise the transformational potential digital technologies offer.

A recent survey by our parent company GlobalData asked mining industry representatives about their plans for digitalising transportation and port activities. Just 16% said it was in process, and only 6% believed they had achieved it already. Some 43% said they didn’t know or thought it was not applicable to them; the remaining 35% said it was part of their short, mid or long-term plans.

Integrating operational technology across the value chain

AVEVA’s Connect, launched earlier this year, is a cloud-based platform designed for operational technology (OT) data, processes and insights, built to handle hybrid cloud environments. The company describes it as a “unique and complete data ecosystem” enabling industry to combine remote assets, its applications and third-party data sources into one secure platform.

“Full mine integration can mean a variety of things,” Kerkhoff argues, “but from my perspective it means full OT and IT integration across the entire mining value chain. We do this through a ‘single pane of glass approach’, meaning we make sure everything taking place across operations is viewable in one place, accessible both onsite and remotely.”

Rockwell also has a platform that it says “connects disparate systems and data and delivers a single version of truth by providing information in the same context across your operation”. The scalable Mining Operations Management platform integrates and models data from traditional operations and business systems.

For Irvine, the benefits of mine-to-market or pit-to-port oversight are abundantly clear. “The cost benefit of implementing these integrations outweighs the cost of the technology, as long as the implementation provides the expected results,” he says.

Rio Tinto is an early adopter; working with AVEVA, it digitised its operations from pit to port. “Our work in this sector is often focused on a central goal,” explains Kerkhoff. “To streamline data and generate insights at every stage – through mining, crushing, processing and transport… optimising the entire mining process using industrial data to meet production and sustainability goals, make informed decisions and more.”

Projects the two companies have partnered on have led to the incorporation of engineering tools like AVEVA’s Asset Information Management, a web-based digital twin for full visualisation. Kerkhoff says Rio Tinto streamlined project delivery, making operations more efficient by connecting design and engineering tools with operations and optimisation tools.

“Mine-to-market oversight includes complete value chain integration and optimisation,” he says. “In other words, decisions are not made in regard to specific functions within silos but rather in an informed, unified way that considers all factors of operations.”

Fleet management in the integrated mine

ABB has also been working with mining companies and partners to deliver automation, electrification and digitalisation through its eMine platform. “Together, we are making a difference, from pit to port,” says Shewale. The eMine solution helps organisations integrate electrification and automation systems across the entire process. With significant tangible assets, electric fleets for example, operating systems and software are critical.

“Implementing and integrating a digital fleet management system to support the latest Industry 4.0 interoperability standards has enabled more efficient and profitable extraction of gold from a mine that has been in operation in Australia since 2005,” Shewale says.

He is speaking about a project ABB collaborated on at Gold Fields’ Granny Smith gold mine. By utilising ABB’s Ability Operations Management System, a purpose-built mining operational visualisation and operations tool, and digital fleet management capabilities, in conjunction with the very latest in sensor technology, Gold Fields has an “unprecedented level of visibility and insight”, often in the palm of employees’ hands.

“Once embedded in mine procedures, this fully interoperable system will allow Gold Fields to manage operations at Granny Smith in real time from a centralised control room,” Shewale adds.

‘Just-in-time’ delivery and supply chain efficiency

Such capabilities are no doubt modernising today’s mines, but Kerkhoff believes there is more to come. He says that for true mine-to-market visibility, the entire value chain must be considered – from the excavation of rock through to customer delivery.

“This looks like moving more toward ‘just-in-time’ delivery, which minimises inventory stockpiles whilst maintaining product quality and specification,” he says, but cautions it is important to ensure that any adjustments to the process “turns the needle for the mine in a positive way”.

One such positive impact could be the process of stockpiling material and reclaiming it for transportation, Irvine believes. “Using smart technology to increase the speed of the yard machine can make the process 20% faster,” he says. “This removes a choke point and improves supply chain efficiency.”

In 2020, Rockwell warned that as global mining product stockpiles continued to rise steadily, companies were facing the challenge of balancing the benefits of maintaining stock, such as guarding against supply fluctuations, with containing the cost of stockyard management.

The company worked with MRA Automation, a New South Wales, Australia-based specialist in mine and port machine automation, on an award-wining smart stockyard management system that manages and automates inbound receipt and outbound delivery, meaning operators can visualise stockpiles and machine activity in real time, remotely. It is one example of how mine-to-market oversight is working – and how it will likely shift the dial in favour of mass digitalisation.

Data: a problem and a solution

As we know, with digitalisation comes data – colossal amounts of it. The critical issue is how this data is collected, managed and interpreted.

“In the modern mining industry, data is a problem and a solution,” says Shewale. He warns that whilst data is critical to optimising and streamlining operations, without a cohesive stance on connecting it through digitalisation, it can hinder impactful change.

Irvine, too, says ensuring data is meaningful and contextualised is essential. Kerkhoff suggests data is a vital ingredient of full integration, commanding investment in the digital transformation process, ensuring it is accurate and reliable data to work from.

After years of slow adoption in mining, the digital transformation is now gathering pace. Kerkhoff foresees AI and automation playing a major role over the next five years and beyond. More modern, digitally transformed processes – such as technology that combines real-time descriptive, predictive and prescriptive asset management data and insights to streamline processes and operations – can be expected, moving asset management from reactive to proactive and improving performance.

Shewale agrees the mining industry has lagged, but believes it is picking up pace, even “leapfrogging” in terms of the technologies used. However, there is no uniform approach; the transition will be unique to regions and even individual mines. Knowing what specific solutions will become commonplace may require a crystal ball.

For now, as Shewale puts it: “Let’s enjoy the challenge, and the fact that together we have multiple opportunities to make a difference to the industry and ultimately the world”.