6 Examples of How Mining Technology Has Driven Operational Efficiency in Spite of COVID-19
Updated: Oct 30
The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting national lockdowns have exposed weaknesses in many of the traditional ways of doing business. The mining industry is no different - elements of the mining industry rely heavily on rotational (potentially FIFO) workers, international and local contractors.
Right now, there are thousands of miners who cannot travel back to site for work. Many companies have also reduced the number of personnel on-site to assist with social-distancing efforts.
We have previously blogged on reasons and tips for moving mining tech people off-site, though we didn’t predict the global pandemic of COVID-19!
This sudden unplanned shift towards remote working has forced many operations to accelerate the creation and execution of digital transformation strategies and use of the latest mining technology.
In this month’s blog, we want to tackle the challenges that many are facing: The ability to manage operations remotely. You may have the ergonomic home office set up, a fantastic internet connection and a Zoom Pro account, but without the ability to actively manage the operation you may find yourself not effective as normal (when on-site).
We will cover some typical needs from key stakeholders and some high-level examples of how this has been tackled at several sites. Each requires a certain amount of planning and underlying resources but many sites already have these in place.
MTS is well versed with helping mines build up strategies and create practical road maps for execution. Take a look at our Services page for more info.
Better Use of Mining Technology and Data
Mining technology does not always have to be complicated or expensive. MTS has helped develop and deploy solutions to tackle a variety of problems, typically using technology and hardware already present on sites. Where this isn’t present, cost-effective options are explored to add the required missing piece/s.
We will go through some examples of challenges and how they have been tackled with data and new technology in mining.
New Technology in Mining: Production & Asset Performance Dashboards
Using Dashboards to present your mining technology data brings the following benefits:
At-a-glance information available
Always up to date
One version of the truth
It is important to track production and asset performance, yet many operations wait until the end of the shift/day/week to review this performance. A post-mortem approach doesn’t allow for changes during the period that could have a positive affect on the outcome (such as short interval control measures to decrease truck queuing times or improve shovel dig rates).
We see many mines that rely on manually capturing data into multiple spreadsheets or downloading huge amounts of data, that are again manipulated in Excel to produce several numbers.
The results - and only periodic numbers are seen, are multiple versions of the same Excel spreadsheets (as everybody wants their own), frequently containing different formulas and therefore different errors.
The bigger problem here, is that this method of data handling and processing typically results in a different number, reported by multiple people, for what should be exactly the same KPI. This is only exacerbated right now as people who are remote working struggle to see those Excel files that are stashed away on a company drive somwhere.
There is a much easier way to get to the information needed without the huge amount of manipulation, time lag and errors - Dashboards!
Dashboards are a simple, effective method of creating a single source of the truth. They are low maintenance (providing they are designed well!) and are incredibly user friendly. They are typically hosted securely on your network and still be easily accessible from anywhere in the world.
What you need to see can be pre-set to flow into the dashboards, using appropriate charts, drill-downs, and time-periods. Automatic data updates occur at a regular interval, which can be adjusted to provide almost real-time information.
This is great for say, in-shift production performance; loading tools that are underloading can easily and quickly be identified and tackled immediately, before impacting that particular shift's outcome.
Actively Manage the Execution of the Mine Plan
Influence the mine plan outcome in real-time
Everybody has the same plan!
Use people's time for making decisions not manipulating data in Excel
Mine engineering teams spend a significant amount of time creating mine plans, amongst other things. Careful balancing of the mine sequencing is critical to ensure a managed supply of material is delivered to the process plants, and material is exposed for future development. This plays a significant part in the efficiency and profitability of a mining operation. The reality is that unforeseen things happen; machines break down unexpectedly, severe weather stops operations, COVID-19 pandemic reduces staff availability etc. However, with or without these things, people should be aiming to achieve a single focussed plan.
We have found with many operations that the communication and execution of these plans is incohesive. Asking several key people within a shift what the plan is can result in wildly different, and possibly conflicting, information. Reconciliation may be performed at the end of each day or week (or longer) where the actual Vs plan is compared. At this point, if the operation hasn’t delivered the plan, the mine engineering team needs to understand why and then re-plan. Influencing the plan while it unfolds in real-time has been missed, and considerable time is again spent planning.
Integration and active management of the plan should form a cornerstone of the shift set-up. Easier said than done; how can this be achieved?
Capture/Integrate the mine plan
Dig maps, target blocks, benches, dump priorities etc. can be captured via exports/feeds from engineering systems alongside the Fleet Management System. Ensuring things like naming conventions, hierarchy, etc. are aligned makes this process much easier and automated.
Communicate this plan in a repeated, standardised, scheduled format.
The plan can be automatically sent to those requiring it on email, say, in pdf format. This can be reviewed prior to shift change/rotation and should form part of the pre-shift meeting.
The dispatcher(s) should be part of this discussion so they are able to set up the Fleet Management System (FMS) with the right priorities, routes/machines available, are aware of what to do if Plan B is required etc. Being able to make effective decisions in the heat of the moment can easily avoid significant missed tonnage and wasted money. To assist with this we have also found simple tools such as decision trees can help provide a framework.
Visualise the progress of actual Vs plan in real-time
The same plan and production information can be automatically visualised in a real-time dashboard, which fills up as tonnes are moved. Those items off-plan are flagged as soon as they occur and action can be taken to address during the shift.
Dig map outlines can also be loaded onto High Precision loading tool systems such as Caterpillar MineStar Terrain, if present, to provide operators in the field with reminders of where the boundaries lie.
Automated post-mortem feedback
Plan performance can be automatically sent to the relevant parties (in say, the end of shift crew performance reporting) as data exports, pdfs etc. or via data feeds. This reduces the reconciliation time considerably meaning people focus on actions rather than Excel formulas!
Plan compliance can also be integrated with crew/operator quality metrics within balanced scorecards, for example, to drive the right kind of tonnes moved.
Improve Your Shift Performance and Handover Reporting
Automatic performance reporting (with context)
Valuable context to see why things were good, bad or ugly that shift
Well informed oncoming crew/shift
In every shift there are many factors that impact how well or badly the shift performed. Things like tight loading areas, poor weather, hard digging conditions (e.g. bad blast) or intermittent asset faults can have a significant impact on shift performance.
Capturing and passing on this information, both to the management team as well as the oncoming crew, can really help avoid surprises and give people the context which just isn’t captured within a Fleet Management System - the data produced by the FMS for that shift will only reflect the fact that production was low, with none of the contexts behind why.
Rather than capturing notes in an email body, in a notepad or on a whiteboard, why not use a web form (or similar input)? See the example image below.
This standardised input (and hence output) ensures everybody knows what should be included in any shift handover notes. As this is also captured and stored digitally, there is the possibility to recall and trending the data in reporting.
For example, have there been recurring system faults reported every shift for 3 weeks with no resolution? With a system like this, then you have a mechanism available for use that is able to easily and quickly display issues like this, that previously may have been ignored.
The contextual notes can be automatically merged with production and asset performance data in the automated end of shift mails. Below illustrates one such example
Future Mining Technology for Haul Road Management
No software - review in a browser on the company network/VPN.
See where things happen, not just when.
Quantify production opportunities and make an informed decision instead of just accepting poorly performing areas.
For mobile operations, well designed and maintained haul roads, correct asset operation and maintenance practices is incredibly important for fleet productivity.
It can be extremely difficult to get a holistic view of all these potentially interconnected items and take the necessary action. To justify investment in a significant project can be difficult and/or time-consuming, and understand the actual impact once implemented, even harder.
Software such as Haul Road Explorer (HRE), automatically consolidates multiple data sources into a geospatial model which is accessed via a web browser interface - No software is required on a individual laptops.
HREs ‘layering’ of data enables patterns to be easily identified and root cause analysis to be performed. The 'Opportunity' algorithm within HRE provides users with pre-calculated opportunities for corrective action. Tasks can be assigned and a tight workflow is used to drive accountability to completion. Post task reporting includes the pre Vs post change in road performance and actual gains.
The haul road analysis performed is designed to help prompt uses to take action, including the prediction of when roads will degrade beyond acceptable limits. This can help road maintenance and project teams make plans ahead of time.
Haul Road Explorer has been implemented at several operations, and MTS have helped embed this into their daily business practices.
Relocate Mining Technology Roles from Site Permanently
Remove people from harm.
Access to a larger talent pool.
Fewer distractions from being permanently on-site.
Streamlined workflow and good communication critical for maintaining site relationships and effectiveness.
Some roles and functions aren’t critical to be housed on-site particularly support personnel not required for front line physical work. With good lines of communication and periodic site visits (like people already do on rotation), remote services can be extremely valuable. Some good reasons can be found in our previous blog [Link here].
There is the possibility to automate some roles entirely such as implementing an autonomous haulage system, robotic warehouse retrieval systems etc. but for the purposes of this section, we are referring to the retention of people and the relocation of some roles geographically.
New Technology in Mining: Asset Health Analytics
Maintenance focussed functions can include health analysts, maintenance planners, reliability engineers. Access to the required data can be easily achieved for their roles including onboard machine sensor data via telematics (IoT) devices, fluid analysis, work orders and backlogs from their ERP etc. These can be consolidated into more targeted views to help guide analysts towards higher priority items. Actions can follow streamlined workflows allowing for effective and consistent communication. This consolidated approach also allows for the tracking of response times, money/assets saved from the analysts etc.
This strategy has already been adopted by several companies including Nevada Gold Mines in Elko. They have gone even further and are monitoring multiple operations from a single location in town. Common asset types can be benchmarked and the application of knowledge, health analytics, software etc. can be easily transferred across multiple sites.
One major benefit the early-adopting companies are seeing is that “remote working” can continue to be effective from anywhere, even from home.
Although dispatchers have a high-touch role with the mine operation teams they are already relatively isolated and may have almost no physical interactions with the operators, for example.
With good internet connections, it is easy to move the dispatch team completely off-site.
As with any remote role, excellent communication is critical - Items mentioned in this blog like improved shift/short term planning and shift handover processes are just a few supporting initiatives.
Other Potential Roles
Although we have highlighted some roles above which we have previously worked with there are many others which come to mind:
Multiple IT functions
Future Mining Technology: Paperless Inspections
Clean data capture into a digital location
Easy retrieval of information
Minimal physical interaction vs. Paper
Every mine performs numerous inspections in and around their site, whether it be a pit inspection or a machine service inspection. Many are carried out on paper which is then taken back to the office, typed up/scanned in/passed around, then shoved in a dusty filing cabinet and forgotten about.
Checks that the inspection was performed at the right time and location, filling out all sections as needed are sometimes lacking, and the ability to trend or recall past inspections can be a treasure hunt in itself!
As a manager or superintendent working from home, perhaps several thousand miles away, the ability to view pertinent, structured information is a vital way to gain a timely perspective on what is happening at your mine.
There are many cell phone/tablet-based inspection apps (GoCanvas, Prontoforms, GoFormz, Cat Inspect) which can easily be used to capture the same information without the paper but with more details such as GPS coordinates, photographs, and measurements.
We have introduced several of our mining clients to working with GoCanvas, through an app to perform Haul Road inspections on a regular basis. The digital form is completed on a cell phone which contains many drop-down fields to help maintain standard inputs, and mandatory fields to prevent skipped sections. Upon submission, a pdf version is automatically compiled and sent to the subscribers (example below), and the data is captured into their database and is then available for use within onward systems such as Haul Road Explorer, or customised reporting.
We love this idea - and we think that getting comfortable with the ability to go fully paperless is the key to digital transformation in mining, and future mining technology.
Other Notable Mentions
As you can imagine this list of tips and tricks is not exhaustive, there are many new mining technology companies out there, including mining technology startups and established players.
Pit cameras - Keep your eyes on important areas of the mine whether it is from the site office or 3000 miles away.
Drones - Update site imagery (for uses in things like Haul Road Explorer), and use to survey stockpiles, face progression etc. while keeping people out of harms way.
Semi/Fully Autonomous Haulage Systems - This is a big topic and not something a site can quickly start doing without heavy investment and planning. We have not expanded on this in this blog but it is a great way to remove people from harm.
What is your biggest hurdle to remote working? Are you struggling with broken spreadsheets or understanding what is happening on the ground in your operation?
Drop us a mail on firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know what you think.