Implementing digital technology in the mining industry is rapidly changing from a ‘nice to have’ to a ‘must have’.

The reasons for this is that technology offers significant benefits - reducing costs and optimising performance – which the sector can no longer afford to ignore.

Nonetheless, digitising a mining operation may seem a daunting task, especially as its role within the industrial sector is constantly evolving. Speaking at the Rockwell Automation Fair in Philadelphia, United States late last year, SUJEET CHAND, senior vice president and chief technology officer for Rockwell Automation, revealed how mining companies should approach digitisation to derive the greatest benefits it has to offer, writes LAURA CORNISH.

This article first appeared in Mining Review Africa Issue 1, 2019

Today the mining industry is in a state of flux - there is a lot of market and pricing fluctuation volatility. 

Regulations are changing and mining itself is becoming more difficult as ore bodies mature and new mines are uncovered in remote regions. Improving safety is another driving force in the industry.

“Fortunately, we are looking to digital technology to compensate for these challenges,” says Chand.

From a mining-specific context, digitisation generally entails gathering data on the performance of the operation and thereafter analysing that data to make more informed decisions about how to improve mining or process plant performance.

According to investment management firm Mackenzie Investments, the mining industry is at an inflection point and can today benefit from digitisation because a lot of progress has been made in computing technologies as well as communications technologies.

“But they are evolving very rapidly and we need to stop and determine how best to apply these technologies in the mining industry to obtain the greatest business value.”

“I need at this point to reinforce that digitisation does not stop with gathering data.  In fact, I would say that in three to six years’ time we will no longer be talking about big data but will rather be looking at determining what data needs to be evaluated to deliver the best results by considering this question from a business outcomes perspective.”

“Replacing big data with structured data or contextualised data is the starting point - instead of collecting every bit of data possible, you collect relevant data to help drive certain areas of an operation,” Chand explains.

Many industrial companies that the automation specialist is working with have through close collaboration realised enormous benefits and savings from digitising their operations, where more strategic objectives were defined in order to realise specific outlines – as opposed to blindly generating volumes of data that need continuous analysis.

Rockwell Automation client ZMC, a China-based pharmaceutical and life sciences company for example, looked at digitising a specific area of its business - replacing manual batched records with digitised batch records in order to attain FDA certification.  

Shell, another Rockwell Automation client, introduced digital technologies to monitor the frequency and utilisation of its LNG stations – enabling it to better schedule when and how to fill its station.

“In both cases we helped identify specific objectives and outcomes required in order to derive maximum benefit - by focusing on business value first.” 

Another important consideration for applying digital technologies is their incorporation into the cloud.

“In many instances a lot of mining equipment has a significant amount of computing technology embedded within it in order to do real-time local diagnostics.

"So determining what makes sense for real time analytics and what makes sense for non-real time analytics should be evaluated as well – naturally a real-time solution can have major consequences for production targets. Not all information needs to go into the cloud, and even then, only specific information.”

The same approach should be applied to digital twins.

“This tool is designed to answer specific operating questions about specific operating characteristics.

"Attempting to address the operational performance of an entire system through a digital twin will be ineffective – digital twins are designed to deliver answers to specific questions – is my pump running optimally for example. This again links back to the question I’m emphasising needs to be addressed through digitisation – how do I derive value for my business?”

Considering a mining operation’s primary objective is production, Rockwell Automation understands that the process of digitisation can be daunting and can result in information overload and therefore recommends partnering with a specialist who understands the business and how to improve it.

“There are many data programmes and many different ways to connect systems together and operate them and this is the role we at Rockwell Automation, together with our strategic partners offer in order to make life as simple as possible while delivering the required results – in terms of optimisation, productivity and/or safety for our mining clients.”

You can read the full digital magazine here or subscribe here to receive a print copy