With bulk commodity prices continuing to rise from their lows in 2016, and precious metals continuing to struggle, the mining industry is increasingly turning to technology to cut costs and improve efficiencies.
Technology systems that have been tried-and-tested in other industries, from defence to aerospace, manufacturing, oil and gas, can deliver comparable results in the mining industry, which has been slow in the uptake of digital transformation.
Key to unlocking this approach in the mining industry is Enterprise Collaboration, the foundation of the 3DEXPERIENCE platform from French technology software leader Dassault Systèmes, aimed at optimising geoscience, mining and production operations.
With 25 years’ heavy industry experience, Business Consulting Director Andy Mulholland’s broad portfolio is to create technology solutions to assist its customers along their digital transformation journey.
Looking at a Greenfield project, Mulholland explains that the mine geometry already starts to take shape from the construction phase, where the necessary infrastructure is in place and optimised for production.
Traditionally, only specific parts of the mining process were digitised, whereas digital transformation is an end-to-end process.
“When you look to optimise or transform just one part of the value chain, it is often done in isolation. This can result in good outcomes if you focus solely on the strategic mine-planning process, for example.
“However, digital transformation is transferrable across the entire value chain. In addition, we have a broad portfolio to assist, from exploration to prefeasibility all the way through to the logistics of getting the end product to the customer,” Mulholland explains.
It runs the gamut from medium term or tactical scheduling to real-time execution, where Enterprise Collaboration forms the basis for the solution of daily operations, according to Senior Portfolio Manager Jessica Jensen.
“My main role is to work with our client engagement teams in talking to our mining customers about the solutions we can offer, and how we can add value and solve any challenge.
“Most customers are eager to undergo digital transformation, but do not know where to begin. We partner with our customers to help guide them on their journey.”
Although the mining value chain is generally the same across the industry, there are differences depending on the mining method and commodity, or business processes specific to different companies or mining houses.
Hence determining a customer’s specific requirements commences with a general assessment to identify the key performance indicators (KPIs) driving success, business processes, and main stakeholders, as well as any opportunities or challenges in their business. This helps refine what solutions are best to use in each case.
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“The main aim of this upfront assessment is essentially to understand what makes our customers tick. That is where our innate flexibility comes into play. Depending on where we can identify areas for improvement, we will work closely with our customers to ensure they know exactly what this entails.
“In addition, the various solutions in our broader portfolio are configurable, so we can adapt them to unique customers,” Jensen elaborates. Dassault Systèmes terms this its Value Engagement Programme.
Here it is important for customers to have a defined mandate to embark on digital transformation.
“Over the last couple of years we have seen the percentage shift to the majority of our customers at least starting to think about digital transformation, if they have not already started down that path.
“Two years ago, it was mainly a ‘wait-and-see’ approach, with only the Tier 1 companies willing to take that crucial first step. Then again, there are multiple starting points that can be elected, everything from machine learning for analysis of drone data during surveys to geomechanics simulation, even to a process as basic as file management.”
A trend now is equipping mining customers with a short-term scheduling capability to support short interval control, which represents a major opportunity to add value and boost efficiency.
Already a staple in the manufacturing industry, for example, the advent of wireless technology and equipment sensors in the mining industry means that real-time data is responded to, as opposed to traditionally waiting for end-of-shift changes.
This is where Enterprise Collaboration plays such a critical role, Mulholland stresses. During the mining boom, companies were ploughing all their capital and resources into growth, getting as much ore out of the ground as quickly as possible, while commodity prices were buoyant.
“Back in those days there was not a lot of thought put into the tools to manage the workforce, and to ensure that the silos within the organisation were communicating properly with each other and exchanging information externally.”
With the main impetus being growth, there was no framework in place for collaboration, which indicated a profound gap in productivity and efficiency.
The subsequent downturn and resurgence in the mining industry has placed the spotlight firmly on digital transformation, breaking down barriers to genuine Enterprise Collaboration.
“It is one of those vital building blocks to ensure that the company is communicating effectively across the organisation, as well as externally.”
This is not just about simply placing data in a shared directory, but creating a shared understanding of all of the information that is available, and sharing that across the organisation.
It results in a significant lifecycle management of such shared knowhow, transforming it into a Single Source of Truth. An essential element of Enterprise Collaboration, this Single Source of Truth differentiates between information and raw data.
Most customers are eager to undergo digital transformation, but do not know where to begin.
“We partner with our customers to help guide them on their journey. As each part of the organisation utilises its data, new insights emerge to be deployed so as to enrich the information even further.
“Thus, a company begins to build an optimum solution, which is why Enterprise Collaboration is such an important part of digital transformation. No matter what area for improvement is identified, Enterprise Collaboration forms the basis for the solution,” Jensen points out.
More importantly, it is crucial to change management as well. “Digital transformation really is less about the technology than it is about the people,” Mulholland adds.
Traditionally, mineworkers have set ways of working, which makes them averse to adopting new technology. This regressive approach extended to management as well, which was reluctant to change methods of working and internal processes deemed adequate for so long.
The effect of the resurgence in the mining industry is that companies are making digital transformation a central pillar of their operations, which means they are embracing Enterprise Collaboration.
The next generation of mining professionals will demand a different set of digital tools, which will bring about a mind-set change in adopting technology.
However, digital transformation requires knowledge capture in order to be sustainable and viable, which underlines the importance of the Single Source of Truth. Here Enterprise Collaboration is key to capturing organisational knowledge for reuse and repurposing in future.
While Enterprise Collaboration forms the basis of the 3DEXPERIENCE platform, the platform itself facilitates such collaboration. Ongoing developments such as cloud-based technology and ever-faster processing of complex data serve to accelerate this process.
So what is the outlook for the future? Mulholland sees the mining industry as having its work cut out in codifying all of its internal processes.
For example, while the process of turning drill-hole samples into a detailed ore-body model is highly labour-intensive at present, in ten to 15 years’ time such analysis is likely to be carried out by machine learning, based on algorithms and artificial intelligence.
The corollary of such an evolutionary process is that it will free up geologists to focus on their core competency, for example, which is data interpretation.
Jensen alludes to the general improvement in the global economy as giving mining customers a breather to focus on operational and productivity efficiencies and improvements.
Due to the mining industry being cyclical by nature, any upturn provides an ideal opportunity to put new solutions in place, or to optimise existing ones.
“Our goal with 3DEXPERIENCE is to give our mining customers a platform to even out the cyclical peaks and troughs. Enterprise Collaboration can indicate where efficiencies can improve, so that our customers do not experience any bottlenecks.
“Again, we need to stress that we do not just offer off-the-shelf solutions. The major benefit of our 3DEXPERIENCE® platform lies in its configurability, which allows us to partner with our mining customers for the long term, through both the good and the lean times.”
However, the fundamental challenge remains in simply identifying if a specific customer is ready to begin the digital transformation journey.
While some are eager to begin, and others are not quite at the tipping point yet, it is critical to engage all customers about the benefits of Enterprise Collaboration, which can kickstart a basic discussion about the full advantages posed by adopting digital transformation.
“Here we can start with the most elementary basics, such as what is the best mine design,” Jensen reasons.
“While these are simple issues to resolve, the results are significant, and can point to even bigger value-add in the future.” Interestingly, Jensen cautions mining customers in seeking to jump to the end stage first.
“I aim to push that conversation out as far as possible, because if we do not go through the more important steps of first assessing what their current situation is, defining where we can add value, and then suggesting or proposing the best solution, we will never be able to resolve the actual problem.
“It is our responsibility to take a step back and work with our customers by means of Enterprise collaboration, as leveraged by the 3DEXPERIENCE platform, to guarantee that we provide an optimal solution,” she concludes.
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