Last year, we reported that automation is a hot topic in the mining industry (Is Automation the Future of Mining?) and recent research suggest that it is even more so now. In March this year, Mining Journal reported that during the past decade, demand has increased for technologies such as industrial automation and control systems, simulator-training, equipment control and guidance, advanced mine-surveying technologies, underground mining and surface drilling technologies, and machine guidance and control systems. The article predicts that demand for cloud-based services, mining’s industrial “Internet of Things,” and new visualization, simulation and optimization software will influence the mining industry over the next 5-10 years, and that the increasing use of remotely-controlled automated equipment will be the most important development.
Remote monitoring and control of equipment
Remote monitoring and control of equipment allows miners to automate industrial processes like blasting, drilling, and transportation. The new, automated equipment used to perform these tasks is faster, more accurate, and can cover more area in less time. Efficiencies are gained through continuous, consistent operations, improved communications, and reduced infrastructure. Mine site safety can be improved by removing personnel from dangerous environments and placing them in remote control rooms where they can operate equipment from a safe distance.
Laboratory information management systems (LIMS)
Laboratory information management systems (LIMS) are also key to automation. A LIMS is an essential part of mining and metals laboratories, and today serves as the foundation for a completely automated lab by integrating with instruments and other laboratory tools, as well as enterprise systems like PIMS, MES and ERP solutions. And because a lot of the revenue of the mining company can be generated at the downstream operations level delivering processed materials to end users and other manufacturers, a LIMS is critical to determining a clear picture of the work-in-progress status of the lab at any point in time, identifying potential process bottlenecks and producing real-time analysis of large amounts of data for quality control purposes.
Incentives for Automation
The Mining Journal article quotes a Citi report on incentive for automated mining equipment such as driverless vehicles: “Labor is one of the biggest cost drivers for a big miner, contributing to more than 30% of miner’s cash costs. There is also the aspect of safety. Not only is this important per se, but the safest mines are often the most productive.”
The Citi report notes that while adoption of automated equipment has been slow, the situation is poised to change because the obvious cost-reducing measures have already been taken, leaving automated equipment and technologies as the best option to improve efficiency and productivity and reduce costs.
In Deloitte’s 2015 Outlook on Mining, Rick Carr, Deloitte Mining sector leader, also recommends embracing autonomous mining solutions: “Rather than layer incremental technologies over existing operating models, the industry could work with equipment makers to design autonomous solutions, collaborate with technology firms to develop sensor-driven production visibility tools, and embrace mobile and modular solutions for bulk mining operations. For example, at Glencore’s Ulan West mine in Australia, an underground flexible conveyor system—the second of its kind in the country—is being installed to drive improved operations, increase safety, and lower total operating costs.”
6 challenges to technology implementation
Given all the benefits of automation, what are mining companies waiting for? The CRC Mining website summarizes a presentation given by Professor Ross McAree, an authority in robotics and automation innovations for mining, at the International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC) in Melbourne on September 23, 2014 in which he presents six challenges to technology implementation:
- The double burden of immaturity
- The need for a common interoperability plan
- Operational technology and information technology must integrate
- Sourcing skilled people with appropriate expertise
- Altered responsibilities
- Equivalent levels of safety.
Information and communication technologies go hand-in-hand with automation. Read more about how all of these technologies will converge as part of the Industrial Internet, or the Internet of Things, in our next post.