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What makes a mine smart?

According to a recent industry report by Berg Insight, digitalisation profoundly impacts production efficiency and safety in mines. However, the concept of a “smart mine” continues to confuse many people. In this episode, Rob Daw, Chief Technology Officer at Hexagon Mining, explores what really constitutes a smart mine.

NJ:  Digital transformation is driving change in the mining industry. According to a recent report by Berg Insight, digitalisation of mining operations has a profound impact on production efficiency and safety. However, the report points out that there’s confusion over countless variations, expressions such as digital mine, connected mine, and smart mine. So, which is it? A philosophy? Or, a well-defined solution set? In the first of our Thought Leader series, Hexagon’s Mining division CTO Rob Daw offers his take on what makes a mine smart.

Thanks for tuning in. Hi, I’m Neville Judd from Hexagon Radio. According to a recent industry report by Berg Insight, digitalisation profoundly impacts production efficiency and safety in mines. However, expressions such as digital mine, connected mine, smart mine, and countless other variations continue to confuse people. Joining me today is Rob Daw, Chief Technology Officer for Hexagon’s Mining division, to discuss what makes a mine smart. Rob, welcome and thank you for joining us.

RD:  Thanks for having me.

NJ:  You bet. So, Rob, all mines want to cut costs, increase productivity, improve safety. What are the prevailing technology trends that you see mines pursuing to achieve these goals?

RD:  Yeah, I think it’s a really interesting topic to take a step back and look at what the mines are trying to achieve underlying. So, having conversations with a lot of our industry partners, a lot of the mining companies throughout this year, we’ve really started to see a large trend on where the industry is looking for a much more connected technology or connected ecosystem of technologies. So, through that, we see edge devices capturing some of this data, bringing that information back into the office, and being able to make more proactive decisions.

And then, within that, you’ve got the backbones of a lot of these technologies. I think, it’s IoT, there’s cloud computing, there’s the AI and predictive analytics around a lot of this information, and then ultimately moving more and more towards automation. When I talk automation, I don’t necessarily limit that to just automated haulage or automated drilling. I think it’s really looking now more at an automated connected ecosystem. So how do we bring all this data from the very beginning of the value chain? For instance, the geological modeling, all the way through to how do we actually execute tasks and operations, and ultimately reconcile that data back together. Underpinning that, I think you start to see a lot of companies really starting to have strategies put in place and starting to execute on these strategies around their data management and how they will then access and gain more insights into their data.

NJ:  I’m glad you mentioned automation reconciliation because we’ll definitely get into those themes a little later, but I wanted to ask… Your role as CTO brings you face to face with miners, mine managers, and CEOs. You travel the world and talk to these people. When you’re listening to their feedback, how do their needs differ, and what do they have in common?

RD:  Yeah, I think if you look at each individual business, they will have their own requirements. Overarching, I think you can kind of lean on the 80/20 rule. A lot of the… 80% of the issues are very similar across the mining industry, and obviously each individual site is going to have its own unique differences that we need to be able to look for and accommodate. But I think in general, most clients… And I think I’ve been, now, close to 50 clients just this year alone, speaking with a lot of the executive teams all the way down, and the common theme really is, how do we access our data? How do we get more insights out of that data? What is the AI strategy that we can put in place to help our operations become more proactive? Then, you start to see some of the other areas as well that the clients are really looking at is, how do we make sure this is secure? So, they’re starting to get a focus on that cybersecurity aspect, which is going to be a big topic, I think, going forward in the mining industry, especially as we push more and more towards autonomous, so I think they’re the common feeds. That’s on the technology front.

The other aspect really then, as well, is how do we adopt this technology into operations, actually into our organisations, not just operations, so how do we enable that sort of change management to maximise our ROI from this technology? Also, how do we bring our employees on that journey? That sort of social responsibility that mining operations and organisations have to leverage technology but also enable and bring their staff along with them.

NJ:  Yeah. Change management is obviously, sounds like a huge part of the equation. The Berg Insight report lists no fewer than 26 companies, all attempting to solve mining companies’ problems with technology, all of them trying to distinguish themselves from each other, from the competition. How do you think a technology company separates itself from all that noise?

RD:  Good question. I think that there is a couple of ways that you can distinguish yourself. So, you have the ability… The mining industry is a very niche industry, and there is niche technology needs in there. And so, the ability to really partner and work with the client on delivering value with the existing technologies they have and to be able to solve the problems and work with those clients.

I think the other big area, and I think I’m starting to see again a lot of feedback and a lot of trends from our clients is the integrated technology suite and stack. So, we’re pushing, again, for how do we connect our planning to our operations to our safety to, ultimately, into autonomy and have that feedback loop through? So, I think the ability for technology to be able to bring all of that together, or technology vendors, I should say, be able to bring all that together then really does look to differentiate themselves across the pack and ultimately is providing more value to our clients. Simpler implementations, which enables more effective change management and also process adoption when you have that sort of integrated suite of technologies.

NJ:  We’re talking about what makes a mine smart or smarter. This is a two-part question. When it comes to making a mine smart or smarter, how important is, firstly, automation and autonomous mining equipment, haulage for example? And secondly, short-interval control. Maybe start by talking about automation and autonomous mining equipment.

RD:  Yeah, I think obviously, we’ve all seen a trend in the mining industry to move more and more towards autonomous vehicles. I’ll start on that side of things. Obviously, we just try to maximise our utilisation and availabilities, getting our equipment to run 24/7/365, or as close as possible to that, really does enable us to get more out of our quite expensive assets. That’s getting us a lot more pushed towards our productivity aspect as well as also the safety aspects. So, reducing the amount of human interactions in a mine site is obviously also a high priority for a lot of our clients. There’s a big push there, and to make those operations more productive and safer.

I think the next phase of this is really then how do we focus on automation? I touched on it previously. It’s not just about having vehicles that are able to travel from A to B, but we want to make it smarter, and we want to make it connected into the full ecosystem of technologies.

So how does our scheduling impact our truck haulage, which impacts into our reconciliation and our full material flow from end to end? And how does that all loop back in together? Also then how do we have other parts of the mining value chain integrated and automated into this process? So, for instance, a user case might be if we have a geo-technical monitoring system, radar system, and we’re about to have a wall failure in a particular area in the pit, how does that automatically connect into the autonomous solution to alert those trucks to evacuate that area? So that’s what I’m starting to mean by about how we actually automate and connect all of these different technologies together to create an autonomously connected ecosystem.

NJ:  And just the importance of short-interval control, where does that fit in the equation?

RD:  Yeah, I mean we need to be able to make decisions quicker, more proactively, and have the influence and the full picture. So, I think  short-interval control really does create that bridge between a strategic plan into our tactical plan into our execution of our tasks and of our material movement in these types of areas. So, being able to control that on a sub-shift level really does then start to provide the insights. It helps us become more aligned with what are our client’s company’s strategy is all the way down to the execution phase of it. So, it is becoming a really big topic.

RD:  There is a lot of challenges with short-interval control. I think we’re starting to see, we’ve got a few examples now with working with our clients where leveraging our scheduling tool and also our fleet-management tools and having those connected. Our clients are really getting a lot of value out of that data and out of that information and gaining huge productivity increases into the organisation as well. So that’s a really important piece that we need to continue to focus on and deliver because there is massive value for our clients out there.

NJ:  Let’s talk about underground for a second. Again, the Berg report says, and I’m quoting here, “The future of mining is by many largely believed to be underground as minerals close to the surface are increasingly rare and underground mines have a smaller environmental footprint.” How important is an industry focus on underground technological innovation?

RD:  Yeah, I think the technology innovation is going to continue to evolve, as are the methodologies of the underground as well. So, I think we’re finding newer ways to extract minerals, both surface and underground. I think as we do push underground, we need to evolve those technologies to suit the different methodologies. If you look at block caving for instance, it’s probably got a few different technology needs and process needs compared to your more traditional methodologies as well.

I think if we look at the underground, the biggest challenge we’ve always had with underground has been connectivity and making sure that we can leverage… I’ll touch on it in a bit around the smart technologies and what that means, but how do we actually run our technology underground? How do we have this information to come back to the surface to make the right decisions? You’ve always had the challenge underground where you can’t just step over the edge of the pit and look out and see what’s happening. Underground’s a lot harder to do and understand where your assets are.

I think we’ve got to have a number of areas we’re going to focus on from automation to tele-remotes, more connected devices. So, we’re starting to understand where our assets are, what they’re doing, when they’re doing it, and how can we improve on those assets as well.

NJ:  The Berg report notes that half the world’s mines are simply not interested in investing in technology. Some are forced to re-evaluate that reluctance because of government legislation, et cetera. Do you think technology companies have a role to play in educating prospective customers to technology’s benefits?

RD:  Absolutely. I think this is the mantra and the real crux of when… When we talk about partnering with our clients, this is just one aspect of it. How do we educate? How do we bring our experience and our knowledge to our mining companies to be able to see where the benefits of this technology are?

As you mentioned, there are some government legislations who are seeing the value of this and that, hence the reason they’re legislating it and pushing this in. If we look at our sort of collision avoidance technologies and ultimately even pushing up into more vehicle intervention and taking control of vehicles, but it is on us, as a technology vendor, to be able to work with our clients and show them, here is this technology and here’s the value you should be able to get out of it. Obviously, every single mine is a bit different in what they are looking for and what their needs are. But ultimately these technologies, you should be able to be an enabler for their operation to make smarter, better decision making.

NJ:  Now, short questions can sometimes elicit long, complex answers. I mean, what we’re trying to get to the crux of here is what makes a mine smart. Do you have your own simple definition that sums that up?

RD:  Yes. I guess I could say it might be simple, but I think if I look back at where the actual acronym of smart came from, we look at that and it was self-monitoring analysis and reporting technologies. So, we’re now using it and we’ve evolved this into more of a marketing sort of a word that we’re using to explain what we mean by that. But for me, it kind of elicits three main technologies that we look at. It’s really around smart devices, smart connected devices, and then, IoT devices, and how we leverage that data and information back into our organisation to be able to make smart choices and decisions, so if I look at sort of smart devices, this is how do we make decisions out on the edge to benefit our operators in real time out there?

But that’s the first piece. I think that there’s a huge opportunity in the mining operations to be able to evolve that technology. We look at the connected devices. I think that’s one of the key themes, again, from a lot of our clients was, how do we get access to more of this data so we can look at it, analyse it, and make more proactive decisions? Then, the final piece is the IoT. So, it’s really pulling all of the data from all of these different areas of your organisation and then starting to look at trends like AI and these sorts of technologies over the top. So that for me, once we start to get that ecosystem put into place within our operations, we then are able to make better decisions and more proactive decisions, that’s when I think we start to get into that smart mining operation or organisation.

I’m not sure if that was a short answer for what you were chasing, but I think that… It is a big topic, and it is something that the industry is really looking to as to where do we want to take this. I think it’s evolving, we’re seeing that evolution with our clients as we go, and I think it’s an exciting and a very opportune time around that side of it.

NJ:  Right. No, I think your personal insight is what we’re after. I appreciate you shedding light on what is a much-discussed question. Rob, thank you again for joining us today. We really appreciate it.

RD:  Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate the opportunity.

NJ:  You bet.

For more information about today’s topic and for future Thought Leader series, podcasts, and blogs, visit hexagonmining.com. To listen to additional episodes or learn more, visit hxgnspotlight.com. Thanks for tuning in.