Covid-19 has prompted the development of mining solutions and innovations which can revolutionise the industry and continue optimising its functionality even in the post-pandemic period. Yoana Cholteeva speaks to ABB about the digital solutions the company has already put in place and the future outlook on remote working in mining.

Yoana Cholteeva (YC): How important is remote connectivity in mining during the Covid-19 outbreak?

Max Luedtke (ML): Remote connectivity and operation have been important trends in mining for some time, due to safety, declining ore resources, and, of course, operational optimisation. Minimising unplanned and costly downtime through predicting the upcoming maintenance needs of equipment, as well as labour, travel and electricity costs is key.

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Remote asset condition monitoring is well established. Many of the thousands of production assets in mines and mineral processing plants have embedded tools to collect and store asset condition data. Digital applications are already employed to remotely monitor the condition of these with a complete online view of automation, instrumentation, electrical, mechanical or process equipment. This allows specific maintenance-oriented algorithms to help predict possible equipment failures and notify mine operators of the need to resolve this and thereby avoid costly downtime.

Another key remote capability is augmented reality (AR) which overlays computer-generated information, data, images, video, or other content onto the real-world environment through smart glasses or mixed reality devices. This enables a field service technician to share their view of a situation using the device’s camera and communicate directly with an expert via on-screen annotations, chat, and document sharing without that expert being on site.

YC: What kind of remote services and digital solutions does ABB provide for mining?

ML: ABB Ability Asset Vista Condition Monitoring for mining is a digital application that enables mine operators to evaluate precise maintenance needs in mines by pulling together previously disparate data about the condition of various production equipment. It offers operations, automation, and maintenance personnel in the mining industry a complete overview of their production assets’ condition, helping to increase process efficiency, avoid unnecessary maintenance, reduce exposure to hazardous areas and improve time to repair.

One example of remote servicing is ABB’s Ability Remote Insights which is a new AR platform designed to improve response times, extend asset lifecycles, improve production performance through increased availability and productivity, and ensure operational excellence. Introduced in October 2019 at the Industrial Transformation Asia Pacific EXPO in Singapore, ABB Ability Remote Insights has been developed for use in multiple industry sectors including metals and mining.

We are increasingly moving towards mixed reality, and ABB has been working to implement it into operations. For example, we have created a mixed reality environment for the Gearless Mill Drive, which we are working on implementing in actual mining operations for training, maintenance, and troubleshooting. This means someone can sit in an office using a mixed reality device along with a member of personnel on site in a remote location, and working together they can share documentation and expertise from thousands of miles apart.

YC: What advice would you give to mining operators currently trying to improve their remote services and staff training process?

ML: We’ve seen that mining companies with a culture that fosters innovation and encourages new ways of thinking and openness to new ideas have had a great deal of success with the transition to remote services and operations. This comes from management and can be a mind-set shift from a traditional way of thinking in mining.

The integration of operations technology (OT) and information technology (IT) is key. Integrating OT and IT so that data flows seamlessly between operational systems and business systems enables new capabilities such as process optimisation, predictive maintenance, asset management, and data-driven decision making, as well as remote operations and maintenance. ABB Ability Operations Management System improves responsiveness to unplanned events and reduces production variability through all the mine stages by integrating short interval control and closed loop scheduling into a single digital platform. This helps mine operators and planners make better decisions faster, ensuring ongoing operation of the mine and increased productivity. Equipment availability is also improved by moving from a reactive to a predictive maintenance model.

The shifting skill profile is an important consideration – hardware service technicians remain critical, but workers increasingly need digital and planning skills, and as mines evolve in other ways, understanding concepts of, say, electrification, also becomes important. ABB can help with training of staff and also uses digital technologies to deliver training services to upskill people in maintenance.

YC: Do you think things will go back to normal or will working remotely become the new normal and carry on expanding?

ML: Digital transformation is a journey. Companies have started and will continue to reinvent themselves through digital technologies that enable seamless deployment of continuous, reliable, and scalable processes at an optimised cost. Aligning people, process, data, and tools is allowing businesses to achieve excellence and deliver safe, dependable, and profitable production. Remote operations are a natural extension of the digital mine and a move to remote-enabled solutions is only likely to accelerate and become more established in the current climate.

YC: Are there any jobs, taking mining as an example, where remote working will never be possible, or will technology eventually overcome these hurdles?

ML: Internet infrastructure and capacity is the backbone to remote connectivity and as we are all discovering, working from home can be as important to invest in within cities as in the remote areas in which many mines are situated.

People still need to meet each other in business. Site operation and specialist technician roles will still be essential. We may see a shift to more remote operations and with it a skill set shift, but there will be a combination of on-site and remote personnel, not one extreme or another.

Digital presently does not complete the majority of mechanical maintenance, but with improvement, acceptance, and new robotic applications, this will improve as costs come down.