According to IMDEX Chief Geoscientist Dave Lawie, the ability to to extract and apply information in data-rich environments — and the amount of data is only going to increase, he said — is crucial to sucecess, as crucial decisions are needed at every stage in mine development.

Smart mines, proactive maintenance, early-phase visualization of crucial project stages — all concepts powered by a need to acquire, deliver and analyze site data in unprecedented volume in order to make timely, informed decisions. Several articles highlight specific areas in which data are becoming the industry’s new bedrock for building productivity. Among these: a summary of a presentation that looks at the real value of data in the exploration process; another that outlines how digitalization and the age of the smart mine will shape the future of mine maintenance; and a report that describes how 3D visualization of heavy equipment lifting, handling and transport plans can smooth project progress.

How Much is Enough?

The resources sector creates problems for itself from the first drill hole to production by not acquiring the right data at the right time, according to IMDEX Chief Geoscientist Dave Lawie. Speaking at an IMDEX webinar conducted in conjunction with this year’s Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada’s virtual conference, Lawie said that with the technology now available there were no longer any excuses for not having enough data to make informed decision at every point in the mining process. IMDEX is an Australia-based company that develops drilling optimization products and cloud-connected devices.

“The industry wants to find, define and mine, but that has to be done with speed and precision and that can only be achieved with reliable data at the right time, which is as early in the process as possible,” Lawie explained.

Lawie said IMDEX’s technology enabled exploration companies to “drill smart meters” by drilling fast, efficiently and getting early-stage data. “Doing that, which can include digital mineralogy, in the early phases allows you to get your exploration done, to test more targets and to evaluate them while you are involved in the drilling program,” he said.

At the “define” stage, resources are often not brought into production because there are complications apart from grade often related to mineral recovery, deleterious components or different levels of hardness, which stem from lack of orebody knowledge.

“Mineralogy is a key component in the define phase — it is in exploration, but it comes into its own in the define phase — because it has so many downstream impacts on mining,” Lawie said. “Push all that information upstream and you can move through the resource definition phase into mining with a lot more confidence because you won’t be trying to fix a problem with mineralogy at the mining phase.

“That sounds trivial but it’s not and it’s the causation of a lot of stranded resources. People have not acquired adequate data early enough; they get downstream and want to develop a mine plan so they conduct metallurgical tests, which reveal problems that they could already have known about.”

Shaping the Future of Maintenance

Traditionally, according to commodities expert Boris Ivanov, founder of Emiral Resources Ltd., mining has been slow to adopt new technologies that could transform and strengthen the industry. However, over the past decade, the industry has faced an increasingly difficult scenario — to improve efficiency and to reduce costs, while also demonstrating an increased environmental and social awareness among local communities. To ensure mining is resilient, productive and sustainable, innovation will play a critical role in delivering solutions that can overcome these challenges going forward.

Amid the turmoil of 2020, the pressure to get this balance right intensified and, as a result, a recent report found that 82% of the mining industry is now looking to increase investments in technological innovations over the next few years. Now that the industry is on the cusp of a new digital era, how will technological innovation shape the future of maintenance practices and planning in mining operations?

From AI and spatial visualization data to the introduction of sensor systems and automated drones, digital technologies are set to make mining operations around the world more productive, efficient and sustainable, while facilitating an industry-wide shift from reactive to proactive maintenance practices.

Smart mines are mines where the major assets are digitized via embedded sensors that transmit data to a centralized location through a wireless network. The value of a smart mine lies in exploring the robust data available from machines and equipment across the operation to provide real-time insights. AI-powered predictive models can be developed to enhance the maintenance of equipment and predict the future impact of mining operations, therefore improving productivity and facilitating the development of less environmentally damaging techniques.

Due to advances in IOT technologies, it is now possible to establish low-cost networks, which can support continuous monitoring across the mine workflow. Once analyzed, the data from IOT sensors is highly actionable and can identify planning issues, manage inventory, track production and asset performance and costs. This can help mining companies make optimal decisions to generate efficiencies across its operations, while also suggesting quick course corrections before problems arise.

Using real-time data collated from strategically placed sensors, a digital twin of an already established mine can be created.  From this model, it is possible to perform simulations and stress test potential areas of weakness in the equipment. Digital twinning is becoming an increasingly important tool to enhance operational planning and reduce overall costs, by mitigating against interruptions across the mine workflow and optimizing the maintenance of equipment.

In fact, a recent study estimated that the rise of digital twinning could contribute a benefit of $190 billion across the mining industry between 2016-2025. For example, Swedish mining company LKAB is making use of such technological innovations to future-proof mining activity in their iron ore operations in northern Sweden and so is the Syama underground gold mine in Mali.

Meanwhile, Freeport McMoRan is now using drones to establish higher gradient slope angles to reduce stripping ratios before extracting ore. Drone analysis of mine slopes mitigates against sending a geologist into a hostile environment and can also be used to assess pipeline infrastructure and retention ponds, while also providing safety surveillance in hazardous areas and asset management across multiple sites. By providing a detailed account of what cannot be seen by eyes on the ground, drones are only set to become more important to the smooth and successful running of mining operations.

Each year, the mining industry pays out billions of dollars on equipment maintenance alone. In fact, the maintenance of mining equipment ranges between 30% and 50% of total operating costs for a mine. Technological innovations from AI and automated drones to IOT technologies will not only work to deliver modern, safe and productive mines, but have the capacity to significantly improve maintenance practices and planning across the mine workflow.

Making Moves More Efficient

Digital technology allows organizations to collaborate earlier, enabling new, more efficient or safer ways of working. Mammoet, a global engineered heavy-lift and transport specialist company, describes technology that can make planning a heavy lift project as simple as walking around a site — months or years before it even exists. By establishing early on how loads can be lifted, transported or even divided, decisions can be made that pay out many times over throughout the life of a project.

The company lists some of the digital tools that engineers have at their disposal: LiDAR route surveys can establish whether roads have the necessary clearance during the course of a single drive. Digital mapping integration can establish the shortest overall transport route. On site, load cells can calculate a module’s center of gravity to minute accuracy.

But things weren’t always this easy; 40 years ago, lift preparations were a painstaking manual process, undertaken by engineers wielding pencils at drawing boards. Leon van Tiel, director of engineering for Mammoet Europe, explained.

3D CAD modelling, using static images, has been an important part of engineering planning for some time, but even it cannot offer the type of immersive, interactive project visualization that can help to improve on the traditional blueprint approach. Though computer-aided design is less wasteful of physical resources, it can still offer customers only a single viewpoint of a project at a time. It also provides no avenue to integrate heavy-lift planning with the overall project.

Mammoet began exploring how the latest 3D technology — moving beyond CAD modelling — could help in communicating project plans and align more closely with its customers’ digitalization work.

In 2018, Mammoet determined that the right technology was available to make regular 3D project visualizations a reality. This project became known as Move3D and was led by van Tiel, who explained that “Move3D is a 3D engineering platform that combines business intelligence, such as crane charts, with Mammoet equipment and client data. It is independent from crane manufacturers and has been developed with the end-user in mind.”

The Move3D system complements customers’ own digital systems and methods. Information including LiDAR scans and point clouds, or third-party data such as satellite maps, can be easily incorporated into visualizations for accuracy and consistency with wider project planning. Data from the Move3D system can be exported for use within, for example, Building Information Modeling (BIM) tools, and can be communicated in a variety of forms.