Skip to main content

Navigating an unpredictable future

Published by
World Coal,

Adrian Beer.

Mining has gone through various technology step-changes, from the mechanisation of key processes to the limited application of automation, which has focused on delivering increases in productivity. However, given the continued uncertainty regarding coal prices and pressures on both the demand and the supply side of the market, it has never been more important to fine-tune operations to deliver ongoing sustainable production outcomes. Combine this with the ever-changing regulatory environment and the picture becomes even more challenging to manage.

Today, best practice is achieved through the integration of production performance information across multiple processes, with greater visibility of the impact of decisions both at a unit level and across entire operations. The application of tools, such as predictive analytics, are increasingly applied to optimise performance, dealing with an unpredictable mix of changing input drivers, commodity prices and production volumes in a volatile market environment.

Mining organisations are currently focused on addressing value bottlenecks: optimising production volumes and processing systems to meet the quality requirements of their supply contracts. Using autonomous information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) integration, these organisations can track production along the entire value chain, knowing not only what quality material is coming in for processing, but also exactly when it will arrive. This allows the entire operation to optimise its production processes to maximise efficiency in meeting the market’s needs. Mines using such systems can achieve significant efficiency improvements, sometimes as high as 5 – 10%, which are results that drop straight to the bottom line.

Autonomy is readily accessible around mining’s extractive processes. More sites are beginning to use wireless communication networks to avail themselves of autonomous and semi-autonomous mining applications without human operators. These solutions typically displace routine transitional activities between higher intervention processes, such as haulage, empty LHD return, etc.

The integration of automation and control systems with enterprise asset management and production software creates a broad range of opportunities to optimise operations and meet environmental obligations. Some immediate opportunities include:

  • Feeding information from existing IT infrastructure (e.g. up-to-date customer order information, coal movements and properties) into the process control environment to ‘tune’ plant to product characteristics and quantities to real-time market conditions.
  • Combining production demand, employee availability and condition monitoring data to prioritise production and maintenance based on impact to schedule and contract fulfilment.
  • Monitoring environmental impact.

How can automation help?

Automation can offer mining operations a detailed overview of critical processes. This equips mines to better manage an increasingly complex environment governed by changing regulations and volatile pricing.

For example, various coal mines in Europe employ Intelligent Mining Solutions (IMS) from ABB to increase operational visibility and improve productivity. In particular, the geological modelling and design package, MineScape, is used for accurate reserve calculation and input into the blending process – ensuring more efficient and accurate blending to meet customer specifications. MineScape also supports short- and long-term planning and scheduling, providing visibility not only on future production, but also for monitoring environmental concerns, such as ground water tables.

IMS solutions are part of some highly sophisticated and automated coal operations in Europe where, through the use of GPS and remote steering systems at one operation, mining cut designs from MineScape are transferred wirelessly from the office to the machine for the design to be applied in the field.

However, within many mining organisations, the use of disparate systems has often led to inconsistent processes and conflicting information contributing to time-wasting disputes, errors and high overheads. Data from all supply chain points through to details of contracts, invoices and payments, tend to be owned by individuals within organisation silos.

To meet the demands of complex contracts and manage sophisticated logistics profitably, it is increasingly crucial to consolidate and better manage the spectrum of operational data, as well as make it easily visible to all stakeholders. Additionally, with companies subject to greater internal and external scrutiny, being able to efficiently track and verify commercial data trails is critical.

Mining innovation is being driven by the convergence of OT and IT. More data is flowing from connected equipment and devices reporting to operational systems in real-time. Mining IT elements now produce more accurate and reliable information that can be used to significantly improve decision-making across production outcomes. The combination of process automation and control, business intelligence, analytics and financial applications, as well as wireless communication networks, allows operations to integrate, analyse and refine this data – resulting in improved performance.

Smarter mining solutions are thus not only in use at mine sites, but also at marketing desks to coordinate the global sale and delivery. With a fully integrated view of the coal production process from mine to rail to port, for example, marketers can achieve greater efficiency and secure delivery to the global market.

Software solutions, such as MineMarket, can maximise commercial outcomes by optimising logistics, charting sales impact, while tracking and identifying operational bottlenecks. Such systems minimise data collection delays, ensuring the same information is visible organisation-wide, as well as facilitate analysis, adjustment and reconciliation. These solutions allow each operational area of the mine, and headquarters staff, to align performance with real-time customer needs, while allowing the information from various systems to be aggregated into a single source of the truth for the purposes of operational and planning decision-making.

By bringing together islands of automation and ensuring everyone has access to all information in real-time through the same viewing platform, it is easier for all functions and interface systems to agree the way forward as there is a common perspective resulting in efficiency benefits throughout.

To illustrate, consider stacking operations. Process control platforms, such as ABB’s System 800xA, can collect, aggregate and send the stacking information as a series of transactions (e.g., tonnes, position and grade) to MineMarket via integration middleware. This transactional information can then be stored using an advanced 3D stockpile modelling system, allowing users to visualise the stockpile quantity and quality in any given section. During plant feed operations, the System 800xA queries MineMarket for the material qualities of the next reclaim operation and can adjust the processing plant characteristics to optimise performance and maximise profits from the yield.

Significant productivity improvements can also be achieved through the increased use of automated equipment. Allowing underground equipment to operate in an unmanned state during adjacent underground blasting or development work, or through shift changes, provides additional production working hours. Throughput and production volumes are less operator dependent, providing higher reliability and greater equipment efficiency.

Failure of critical assets, such as a main conveyor failure, can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars per hour.

Low utilisation rates are perhaps not surprising if you consider that, historically, operators have maximised performance in isolation. Focusing solely on equipment capacity, for example, can lead to premature breakdowns and/or the unexpected failure of other assets.

When systems are integrated, predictive maintenance for critical equipment can be carried out since there is a good view of when items are not needed. With the forewarning provided by remote asset monitoring programmes, such as AssetVista™, the order in which equipment is serviced can be prioritised. Considering predictive maintenance is often seven times cheaper than that which is done reactively, cost savings here can be considerable, not to mention the increased safety outcomes of planned and scheduled work.

Robust communication networks: key for any modern mine

Reliable, timely communication between both systems and personnel is critical for safe and efficient operations. Last year’s Soma coal mine disaster in Turkey, for example, underlined the importance of having robust, non-wired communication pathways. Wire lines can be easily destroyed during explosions – at exactly the time when communication is most critical and urgent.

Operationally, successful automation depends on access to reliable information to optimise the next set of decisions based on existing parameters. This demands a real-time ‘connected state’ of information with a robust network across all processes.

To that end, wireless mining communication networks are increasingly being used to transport data, voice and video. Networks typically comprise both fixed and mobile nodes, featuring self-healing properties with enough redundancy built in to ensure communications get through. These products must be ruggedised to handle extreme temperature and weather conditions, shock and vibration, as well as dirt and dust. Additionally, an active mining site is constantly in transition, so networks must be easy to adapt, move and setup in different locations.

ABB wireless networks have been used in opencast mines in Australia for as long as it has been used within utilities. Recently, there has been increasing demand from underground mines, leading to the development of a special mining broadcast packet that enables leading fleet management systems to run over ABB wireless mesh networks.

One of the world’s largest iron ore mines spans over 25 ha. in Australia. This opencast mine operates 24/7 with 1500 – 2000 workers onsite each day. After testing several wireless solutions, the mine selected an ABB TropOS wireless mesh network as it was the only solution that met all the requirements, which included reliable high-capacity communications with the ability to operate in extreme heat and dust, plus mobile nodes capable of withstanding high vibration that is typical in mining vehicles. These ruggedised and weatherised mesh routers are mounted on fixed towers, trailers with pump-up masts and solar panels, dragline booms, trucks and other moving mining equipment – providing connectivity for control and safety equipment, sensors, video cameras, laptops, tablets, handhelds and voice services.

Future trends

The next five years are likely to focus on removing people from high-risk operational tasks, such as underground load out, while taking equipment further and deeper to more difficult-to-reach locations. This will require even more complex automation than is available today.

Longer term, enhancements of sensory technology will help provide greater certainty to recovery efforts. This can include a wide range of applications from real-time mapping of surfaces by equipment – as work is completed – to the refined detection of material and waste minimisation during extraction.

Full automation is already technically feasible but the substantial investment and extensive modifications required means the return on investment is not yet sufficiently appealing. Some tasks, such as digger operation, are more cost-effectively carried out by people than by automated machines, as the human eye remains superior to cameras in assessing rock contours and taking these factors into account to move machinery appropriately.

Rules-based automation also creates system complexity challenges. The more ‘knowledge’ the system has, the greater the repository of rules or states and the more difficult it becomes to operate and maintain. Routine operational decisions are likely to be the next target of automation. Machine learning approaches will also provide better information to the overall system about the health and performance of each discrete part and its role in the entire ecosystem to deliver against market demand.

Inputting game theory into decision-making to optimise output based on a set of known resources and a ‘contracted’ market demand will also increase. Combining this with analysis to determine trends across the traded commodity sector, it is likely that, in the future, production will tune up or down dependent on the projected profitability of production based on overall market dynamics. Companies with multiple sites will strive for asset optimisation across portfolios to ensure maximised operational profitability – similar to what is currently done in North American energy markets.

Modern mine workers will require a very different set of skills to their predecessors. As people move away from mines to remote operation centres, productivity will increasingly rely on analysing patterns in data and pinpointing key information to take appropriate action. For example, an onsite miner with incomplete information may think he needs to take shortcuts to load a train heading for port, while an offsite operator with a total system view could instead see the ship has been delayed, meaning no need for the rush is required.

Many options. Many choices. However, one thing is certain: tomorrow’s mines will look dramatically different. Those that thrive will be the ones that embrace the profit-maximising opportunities afforded by effective technology integration to ride the volatile waves ahead.

Edited by . This article first appeared in the December issue of World Coal. 

About the author: Adrian Beer is Senior Vice President, Mining & Enterprise Asset Management at ABB Enterprise Software.

Read the article online at:

You might also like


Embed article link: (copy the HTML code below):