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In line with industry’s move towards Industry 4.0, AEL Intelligent Blasting is moving full steam ahead with a digital transformation strategy.

The strategy aimed at enabling mines to leverage electronic blasting products and practices to achieve lower cost production cycles and improved safety.

This article first appeared in Mining Elites in Africa 2020

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As part of its global expansion strategy, AEL has repositioned its overall product and service offering to stay relevant in an industry that is undergoing many changes to meet the demands of today’s mining industry.

AEL has had to adapt its offering to better align with the mining industry’s pursuit to gain further improvements in safety, mining efficiencies and productivity, while reducing costs.

The blasting leader is embracing digital transformation through a variety of projects and offerings.

Adopting digital twin technology

Central to this strategy is the adoption of a digital twin in both its manufacturing and blasting applications. A digital twin, which is a digital replica of a physical entity, enhances proactive decision making, as well as the ability to select and optimise inputs and model various outcomes until the ideal result is identified.

Watch: AEL Intelligent Blasting takes the global world by storm

“With this approach, we can more accurately predict imminent equipment failures and perform planned maintenance before it becomes critical. This prevents possible costly shutdowns and enables us to manage our costs more efficiently, resulting in tangible benefits for our customers,” says Edwin Ludick, MD of AEL.

From a blasting application perspective, the digital twin ensures that the most suitable products, design and methodology are chosen to guarantee the most appropriate blasting result.

Software remains centre stage

Meanwhile, AEL’s introduction of advanced blast and fragmentation modelling software, which predicts and automates the analysis of data pertaining to improved blast outcomes, has changed the way blasting patterns and parameters are planned.

Simon Tose, Global Manager – Mining Optimisation at AEL, says that this has allowed for much better comparison of blast designs based on the geology, rock properties and the actual explosive and initiating systems selected, which leads to improved stripping rates, less waste/overburden and better recovery of minerals.

“The suite of software systems allow for cause and effect studies to be undertaken to better understand the impact of changes in the mining conditions for both optimal and consistent blast results.

“In addition, the information provided acts as a staging area for improved blast design and follow-up capability on the execution of the planned contribution from AEL as an explosive supplier,” explains Tose.

Industry 4.0 has brought with it the ability to interpret the multitudes of useful data available as well as the ability to transfer information from the bench to these blasting software programmes in real-time.

This allows for improves decision making and allows for more rapid decision making which in turn supports proactive management decisions and problem solving – moving the industry away from the reactive decision making approach of the past.

Virtual reality brings blasting to life

Meanwhile, the introduction of virtual and augmented reality (VR) technology is allowing these parameters to be visualised in a digital world through the use of headsets.

VR based training will be a key focus for AEL in future, as the company will be able to train junior mining engineers using VR training simulations of both open cast and underground mining environments.

To this effect, AEL entered into a partnership with the University of Pretoria in 2017. The partnership focuses on the development of the Department of Mining Engineering’s VR training material through the instructional design and inclusion of VR and augmented reality components, including consequence training – prototypes of training material chapters and VR examples.

Additionally, the company aims to implement VR training for Mobile Manufacturing Unit drivers as part of its safety and efficiency drive. AEL further assists in the software development of blasting practices to gain VR-augmented experience, which the company is certain will yield incremental improvement on existing blasting practices to enhance AEL’s technology leadership.

Digital technology drives product development

AEL’s is under way with the development of a new generation of electronic detonators, which are fitted with GPS positioning. These will allow for better understanding of each blast hole and the subsequent impact of each hole on the overall blast design.

Moreover, better understanding of the mass of explosives and improvements in blast design, such as stemming of blasthole collars (which redirect blasting energy to the rock more efficiently), allows for further development of the software tools used to control the adverse effects of blasting such as blast vibrations, potential airblast and flyrock, says Tose.

As technological developments continue at pace in the blasting industry, Tose believes that future major developments in the industry will leverage modern data analysis and utilise artificial intelligence to further improve blasting.

Global expansion strategy

Apart from driving these technological advancements, AEL seeks to expand its business, not only in Africa, but across the world.

The company aims to further increase its global business footprint from the current 60% to 80% with the establishment of 15 new facilities worldwide. “Our goal is to pursue the entry into at least five new markets by 2022,” says Ludick.

While AEL’s plans to expand its global footprint by an additional 20%, this does not mean that the company is moving away from its South African operations.

“We are fully compliant with the new South African Mining Charter, which is testimony to our long term commitment to the South African mining industry,” concludes Ludick.