• Tom Jordan

6 Examples of How Mining Technology Has Driven Operational Efficiency in Spite of COVID-19

Updated: Sep 23

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdowns have exposed weaknesses in many of the traditional ways of doing business. The mining industry is no different - our industry relies 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 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.

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.

Better Use of 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 technology.

Production & Asset Performance Dashboards

  • At-a-glance information available

  • Always up to date

  • One version of the truth

It is important to track production and asset performance, however, many operations wait until the end of the shift/day/week to review. This post-mortem approach doesn’t allow for changes during the period to affect the outcome. We see many operations manually capturing data into multiple spreadsheets or downloading huge amounts of data that are again manipulated in Excel to produce several numbers. The results - only periodic numbers are seen, multiple Excel versions exist (as everybody wants their own) and errors crop up. There are typically several different numbers reported by multiple people for what should be the same KPI. This is only exacerbated right now as remote people struggle to see those Excel files.

There is a much easier way to get to the information needed without the huge amount of manipulation, time lag and errors - Dashboards!

Drill Dashboard Example

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 is needed to be seen is pre-set to flow into the dashboards in appropriate charts, drill-downs, periods etc. Automatic data updates occur at a regular interval potentially providing almost real-time information. This is great for say in-shift production performance; loading tools underloading can be identified and tackled immediately impacting that shifts outcome.

Real Time Production Management Dashboard

Actively Manage the Execution of the Mine Plan

  • Influence the mine plan outcome in real-time

  • Everybody has the same plan!

  • Use peoples time for making decisions not manipulating data in Excel

Example Weekly Dig Map

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.

Automated Short Term Plan Report inc. Map Imagery

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

Real Time Progress Vs Plan

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.

Shift Performance and Handover

  • 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 which impact how well/badly things went. Tight loading areas, poor weather, hard digging conditions (e.g. bad blast), intermittent asset faults etc. can have a significant impact on 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 isn’t captured within a Fleet Management System - this will just reflect the fact that production was low.

Rather than capturing notes in an email body, in a notepad, on a whiteboard etc. a web form (or similar input) can be used - Example below. This standardised input (and hence output) ensures everybody knows what is expected. Being captured digitally it also allows for recall/trending of data. Have there been system faults reported every shift for 3 weeks with no resolution?

Dispatcher Handover Form

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

Example End of Shift Automatic Email

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 users laptop.

Haul Road Explorer

HREs ‘layering’ of data enables patterns to be easily identified and root cause analysis to be performed. The gap analysis 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 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 to maintain site relationship 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.

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.

Nevada Gold Mines Asset Health Centre in Elko, Nevada

Dispatching Teams

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

  • Mine Planning

Paperless Inspections

  • Clean data capture into a digital location

  • Easy retrieval of information

  • Minimal physical interaction Vs Paper

Every operation performs numerous inspections in and around site whether it be a pit inspection, a machine service inspection etc. Many are carried out on paper which is then taken back to the office, typed up/scanned in/passed around, then shoved in a filing cabinet. 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/recall past inspections can be a treasure hunt in itself!

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, measurements etc.

An example site we have worked with uses a GoCanvas 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 onward systems such as Haul Road Explorer - More on this here.

End of Inspection Automatic Email Report

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.

Other Notable Mentions

As you can imagine this list of tips and tricks is not exhaustive.

  • 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 info@minetechservices.com and let us know what you think.

© 2020 by Mine Tech Services (UK) Limited