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Digital transformation in mining and energy

As the global shift to remote work gathers pace, it is more important than ever that the mining and energy sector embraces technology. But a digital transformation offers more than flexible working arrangements. It has the potential to drastically cut down on industrial accidents, optimise operational processes and slash costs.

The mining industry has, to date, taken a relatively conservative approach to digital innovation. However, this is changing rapidly.

The Rise of IoT in Mining found that from 2018 to 2020 the number of organisations who had fully deployed at least one IoT project had risen from 2% to 65%. From autonomous vehicles to artificial intelligence and machine learning, the mine of the future is safer and more efficient than ever. Here are some of the ways that digital transformation is playing out in the sector.

 

Autonomous vehicles
Advances in artificial intelligence have allowed in-vehicle computing systems to become so sophisticated that industrial vehicles can operate autonomously. An autonomous vehicle fleet both cuts down on the potential for workplace injury, and allows operators to work remotely - something Fortescue has pledged in the Pilbara to prevent the spread of a virus such as COVID-19.

 

Electric mines
Meanwhile, battery-electric vehicles have improved to the point where battery loaders and trucks can operate underground for more than 400,000 hours with zero exhaust emissions for a decade. This minimises risk to the safety of operations and help companies reach their emissions targets.

While the benefits of electrifying mines are well known, the barriers are substantial. A fully electric mine would require radically different design, widespread reselling and huge improvements to current battery technologies. The battery-electric vehicles are an excellent starting point with further scope for transformation.
 

Remote mining operations
The ability to operate a mine remotely allows companies to enjoy business continuity even in a crisis. Fortescue is championing its remote mining control centre in Perth, which allows it to cut down on FIFO travel and make it easier to share knowledge and skills between work groups.

This is made possible in large part by improvements in software.

The mining and energy sector has long been hamstrung by legacy desktop systems using 30-year-old architecture. However, six years ago RPMGlobal and Volvo began work on new enterprise software that offered comprehensive simulation capability for mining. Versions of this software are now used by the world’s three largest OEMs. It can be tailored for miners to simulate their own mines, creating a four-dimensional and highly visual program that is entirely remote.

Another digital simulation model under production has the potential to revolutionise the way grinding mills are designed and operated. The process of crushing rocks into smaller fragments is one of the most energy intensive processes in a mine. If it can be made more efficient, there are huge benefits to the operation of the site.
 

Supply chain optimisation
An efficient supply chain is vital to any mining or energy operation. Mining stockpiles are rising steadily throughout the world, creating a challenge for companies who must maintain those stockpiles and ensure consistent supply. Simultaneously, delivery pathways must be efficient to minimise operating costs. 

MRA’s Smart Stockyard Management System uses the latest in automation technology to manage and automate inbound receipt and outbound delivery of mined material. IBM and MineHub Technologies are using blockchain technology to track high-cost minerals, increase transparency from supplier to purchaser and improve operational efficiencies.

 

As yet, digital improvements are focused on discrete parts of the mine site operation. To stay competitive, the mining and energy sector needs to embrace a true digital transformation of the entire operation. This will potentially have flow-on effects to many aspects of the organisation that means legal input and oversight will be critical to mitigate risk and enable efficient execution.  

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