Seamless connectivity and information sharing can improve business performance, increase yield and reduce safety risks
Network Plugs

A volatile commodities market has impacted mining companies’ profitability and sustainability in recent years. Whether this situation continues for the foreseeable future or a turnaround is just around the corner remains to be seen, but the fact is, it’s having a transformative effect on mining operations and business priorities.

Today, mining companies are focusing their operational investments on areas that can help them maximize yield recoveries and improve operating efficiencies while still meeting regulatory requirements and maintaining safe or “zero harm” working environments. They’re also seeking opportunities to better utilize their shrinking pools of skilled workers, and to gain new flexibility to meet future supply chain demands.

Connected or “smart” operations can help in all of these areas. Greater connectivity and information sharing can help mining companies better understand their operations, improve their performance and reduce safety risks.

However, the legacy systems in place at most mining companies today lack the connectivity and embedded intelligence to realize these benefits. Instead, companies must incorporate new systems and technologies that enable seamless connectivity across people, processes and technology, and that provide scalability for future growth and expansions.

The Power of Information

Some of the largest mining companies in the world are already harnessing the power of connected operations to significantly transform their operations.

They’re using connected devices and smart machines to capture real-time process information and make better business decisions. They’re gaining deeper insights into their equipment to improve asset productivity. They’re identifying and reducing variability across their processes. And they’re using greater connectivity to establish remote-operations centers and support autonomous material transportation.

Beyond these operational benefits, companies are using connectivity to help better track employees for enhanced safety, improved metal accounting and to achieve significant energy savings.

This is the connected mine. It’s created from the convergence of traditionally separate information technology (IT) and operations technology (OT) systems into a single, unified network infrastructure that allows for seamless connectivity and information sharing across the mining enterprise. It’s enabled by emerging technologies for the mining sector, such as advanced diagnostics, cloud computing and remote access. Cloud solutions, for example, can be used for important safety and security communications such as underground ventilation information to keep workers appraised of environmental conditions.

Companies can harness the power of a connected mine to capture greater value from their operations in three key ways:

• Operational intelligence;

• Reduced safety risks; and

• Remote and autonomous operations support.

Four Tips for Creating a Connected Mine

1. Modernize and standardize control equipment and software for system interoperability across the entire mining enterprise and consistent performance measurement across sites. This also can help future proof operations as new technologies come to market, and as additional capacity is needed for expansions or upgrades.

2. Use production intelligence software to obtain a cohesive view of seemingly disparate mining data. Such software can provide context for relationships among mining equipment, raw materials, ore, and people to help optimize process control and maximize production. A modern distributed control system with integrated control and information-gathering capabilities provides the means for collecting the intelligence and acting on it.

3. Use model predictive control (MPC) software to help operators push equipment to its limits. MPC software has been shown to successfully increase throughput by up to 8% in mining applications, as well as reduce variability by 45% and emissions by 35%.

4. Deploy a defense-in-depth (DiD) security approach to mitigate potential risks. While the connected mine promises tremendous benefit, it also brings security concerns to the forefront. DiD is a recommended best security practice that uses multiple layers of protection through a combination of physical, electronic and procedural safeguards.

Operational Intelligence

The controllers, smart devices and software within a connected mine’s operations can access and collect data that historically was trapped in a mining company’s machines and processes. This data can be integrated both horizontally, such as with other machines, and vertically, with operational and enterprise systems, to help streamline data management and reduce islands of automation.

Analytics software in a connected mine can collect data from thousands of points and contextualize it into actionable information, enabling operators to have complete visibility on plant conditions and act on it. This information can be shared across the enterprise on role-based reports, dashboards and KPIs to help drive better decision making across multiple job functions:

Mining equipment operators can track KPIs such as overall equipment efficiency (OEE) and mean time between failures (MTBF).

Maintenance technicians can monitor asset health to support predictive maintenance and reduce unexpected downtime occurrences.

Quality managers can review ore grade and monitor product quality.

Site managers can view cross-operations data and metrics areas such as the real-time cost of production.

Executives can compare operations in real-time against commodity prices and make adjustments accordingly.

Unearthing Better Insights

Data can be collected from virtually any aspect of a connected mine’s operations, providing numerous insights into how and where improvements can be made. Some examples include:

Daily targets – Predictive visibility on delays, real-time tracking of performance against plans, and visibility into emerging machine health issues to help meet daily targets.

Production variability – Feed and processing rates enable managers to compare each work shift’s performance against daily and hourly production targets, or for their conformance to specification. This operations visibility can help identify and reduce production variability.

Predictive monitoring – Reporting and information models use real-time data to create leading indicators that can help predict production outcomes, chokepoints and equipment failures.

Asset performance – Throughput sensors that measure feed and processing rates, flow, viscosity, and other variables can help maximize asset performance.

Condition monitoring – Equipment sensors that monitor vibration, wear and heat can provide valuable conditionmonitoring insights to help companies stay ahead of costly unplanned failures.

Throughput – Intelligent systems with abnormal-situation-management capabilities can allow workers to focus on high-value non-repetitive tasks and operational process improvements to help improve productivity and throughput.

Key Business Benefits

The benefits of greater operational intelligence can add up and have significant business impacts.

For example, mining companies are required by law to conduct metal accounting to calculate the amount of saleable metal being recovered during a specific period of time. Control systems in a connected mine play a crucial role in predicting recoveries, calculating the amount of metal produced and generating data—and then delivering that information to the financial side in real-time to provide the latest and most accurate information available. The result is better record keeping for regulatory agencies.

Energy management is another key area. Mining operations in Australia have experienced a 70% increase in energy consumption in the last 30 years, and energy costs now account for up to 15% of total input costs, according to the Australian government’s Energy Efficiency Exchange initiative.

A connected mine can collect data from various equipment and distributed points across a mining operation to help operators and managers receive more accurate energy reporting and forecasting, identify leading causes of energy inefficiency, and optimize asset utilization and energy efficiency without impacting outputs. It also can help operators make critical adjustments on the fly, such as keeping a mine running at reduced capacity following failure of a major piece of process equipment such as a ball mill.

Greater connectivity and information sharing in a connected mine also can open the door to IT savings. For example, virtualization decouples physical computer assets from their operating systems and software. This can allow multiple virtual machines to run from one computer to optimize server and workstation assets, and reduce industrial-computing maintenance demands. It also allows the same software to remain in place even as computer assets are replaced or upgraded, which can help reduce engineering expenses and avoid downtime.

Reduced Safety Risks

A connected mine offers new opportunities to enhance safety and reduce risks for workers. RFID tags and wireless technology can help managers keep track of how many workers are underground or located on a mine site at any given time. Should something happen, they can immediately identify how many people are on-site and who’s where.

Video camera, voice and display technologies connected to a network also can be used to monitor and communicate with employees should a safety incident occur. Wireless cameras can be placed nearly anywhere within a mine to help track employees in even the most rugged environments, while digital media sign-
age systems can deliver safety warnings or emergency instructions to workers.

From an analytical standpoint, the ability to collect and analyze data surrounding safety-related events can help teams better understand the factors that led to these incidents or identify particularly incident-prone processes. From there, processes can be adjusted or safety training can be refined, as needed.

Moving to Remote and Autonomous Operations Support

Remotely connected operations have the potential to transform how companies operate their mines, enabling them to monitor and run processes for dispersed operations that are located hundreds or even thousands of miles apart from one central location.

BHP Billiton is doing just that with its Integrated Remote Operations Centre (IROC). Situated in Perth, Australia, the IROC houses the company’s planning, scheduling, controlling and analysis teams to coordinate all activities across its iron-ore operations in Western Australia. A purpose-built control floor gives workers real-time visibility into the iron-ore network and hosts mine control, plant control, rail control, port control and on-the-day scheduling.

Remote-access technology also offers new ways for experts to support dispersed operations from a single location. This could include remote monitoring of equipment and alerting on-site workers should an issue arise—or even virtually logging in to help address the issue. It could also include remotely connecting with on-site employees through a mobile-based video feed for maintenance and troubleshooting, which can reduce travel burdens put on a company’s experts and help resolve downtime issues faster.

Extending a connected mine’s reach into the supply chain can help companies better coordinate the transportation of mined metals. Global mining companies already are transporting materials using autonomous trucks and trains that can be tracked and controlled from a central location, achieving true “pit to port” connectivity.

The Data’s Already There

A connected mine is transformative but it does not need to be a complete overhaul of a company’s existing infrastructure. Much of the data sought already exists within a company’s systems—it just lacks a means of being collected, analyzed and shared. Taking the necessary steps to migrate control systems and pull together historically disparate systems will create the foundation to mine this data, reduce safety risks, and achieve a new level of operational intelligence to improve productivity and global competitiveness.

Additional information from Rockwell Automation about designing and creating connected operations is available at

Paul McRoberts is regional manager, industry–mining, metals and cement at Rockwell Automation.

BMT WBM offers a recent example where RCM principles were employed to significantly improve reliability on a Marion 8200 dragline; the solution involved a substantial revolving frame floor upgrade that required a design approach aimed at eliminating ongoing structural cracking issues.
BMT WBM offers a recent example where RCM principles were employed to significantly improve reliability on a Marion 8200 dragline; the solution involved a substantial revolving frame floor upgrade that required a design approach aimed at eliminating ongoing structural cracking issues.

Use Technology to Tackle Mounting Maintenance Challenges

To remain competitive—or even just solvent—in today’s mineral commodities markets, miners are often putting greater pressure on their assets in an effort to increase revenue through higher production. However, the tough economic climate also means that many mining companies are not able to justify capital expenditure for the purchase of newer, larger machines; consequently, much of their focus has been on devising upgrades to existing machinery to help improve production capacity through increasing payloads and reducing cycle times. This often has the effect of reducing the service life of machine components and structures due to increased duty.

In the following excerpts from a recent white paper released by BMT WBM, the engineering consultancy’s Ryan Sharp and Arnold Williams highlight how technological innovations can help optimize and reduce maintenance and inspection workloads under these stressful situations:

Too often, payloads are increased and cycle times reduced without the required machine upgrades being installed, based on the expectation that the increased maintenance cost and effort required would be more than justified in consideration of the increase in production.

Typically, maintenance has often been approached as an ad-hoc activity with maintenance plans for a piece of equipment often simply put together on the basis of recommendations or instructions obtained from the Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) for the operation in the original machine configuration. As a consequence, certain preventative maintenance tasks have become standardized, remaining unchanged and unreflective of the change of duties or increased loads handled by the upgraded plant and machinery.

With strong emphasis on mining machinery availability and the continuing trend toward operating at increased rates of production, this “conventional” approach is no longer sustainable and mining companies must now look at utilizing every available tool and technique to improve maintenance practices. Although the OEMs will provide maintenance departments with guidelines for servicing based on the specification on which the equipment left the factory, what many operating companies do not consider is the effect that increasing the machine’s capacity or duty cycle will have on reliability and the required maintenance.

Often, machines will be upgraded to operate significantly above their original design loading. Such upgrades create specific issues that cannot necessarily be dealt with in the traditional way; i.e., when something breaks, you simply replace it, or when it cracks, you weld it. This approach simply does not work when a machine has been pushed beyond the original design specifications as it leads to an unacceptable “mean time between failures” (MTBF). When increasing the load, it’s important that the implications of this change are duly considered and thought is given into how you ensure the original design reliability is maintained to avoid future issues. Otherwise, failure rates will increase and availability will begin to fall. A smarter approach to maintenance is needed.

Advances in technology are noteworthy and have certainly impacted the way in which maintenance departments operate. The tools that are available for engineers are getting faster and more accurate. In the past, if there was a structural failure it may have taken two to three weeks before a decision could be made as to whether to shut down production to fix the problem or continue operating the machine; with today’s structural modeling and analysis tools such as ANSYS, Femap, IDEAS, LS-DYNA and Abaqus, these decisions can be determined much more effectively and efficiently.

While maintenance planning in mining has been systematized for many years, techniques such as Reliability Centered Maintenance (RCM), which have been used over the last 40 years in other industries including aerospace, are being increasingly applied to mining machinery maintenance. RCM techniques can help identify the component failures that impact availability most significantly and thereby, enabling appropriate solutions to be devised.

For example, BMT WBM has been involved with dragline maintenance issues and improvement strategies for more than 40 years. Key areas of failure include boom, mast and roller circle. A more sophisticated approach to maintenance can, in some cases, reduce maintenance and inspection workloads and extend the fatigue life of these structures. BMT WBM has completed numerous Finite Element Analyses identifying high stress and fatigue prone areas of dragline structures. A map can then be created to guide maintenance inspectors on where to focus their attention, ultimately reducing the time needed for the inspections.

One recent example where RCM principles have been followed to significantly improve reliability on a Marion 8200 dragline involved a substantial revolving frame floor upgrade that we needed to design-out ongoing structural cracking issues. The cracking originated from large floor penetrations and propagated across the machine. The maintenance efforts required to keep up the repairs were onerous. The problem stemmed from a deficiency of the original design in this area and the accumulation of fatigue damage from long service. Further, in an effort to increase production, the mine intended to increase the suspended load and was concerned about exacerbating the problems. BMT WBM used a combination of field measurements to obtain the actual working stresses and analysis to propose a substantial design upgrade for the floor. The upgrade was implemented during a major maintenance shutdown for the machine. This upgrade has been in place for approximately six months.

In another example, the long booms of draglines comprise a number of tubular chords with interconnecting lacings welded to the chords at cluster joints. Stresses are concentrated at the cluster joint weldments and over time, fatigue cracking becomes endemic. BMT’s DuraCluster methodology prevents the need to cut and replace windows in lacings by removing the problematic design detail and improving load paths. Furthermore, DuraCluster can dramatically extend the fatigue life of dragline booms by reducing the stress concentrations.

A boom replacement can cost in the region of $20 million and would require a three-month machine outage. With BMT’s modification and repair, the cluster design can be upgraded in around one week per cluster, depending on the extent of chord repair required, while multiple clusters can be modified simultaneously. With equivalent repair costs reduced to approximately $2 million, this is an extremely attractive incentive for mining companies. While DuraCluster provides a step change in life to cracking for tubular boom construction, it is equally applicable to tubular masts.

Working closely with Westmoreland Coal Co., BMT recently carried out a modification and repair scheme, which involved replacing a number of fatigued dragline boom clusters with DuraCluster to demonstrate both ease of installation and operational suitability. Once implemented, this modification for tubular boom draglines significantly reduces maintenance and inspection workloads and dramatically reduces the problem of long-term fatigue cracking associated with the existing cluster design.

The DuraCluster approach allows lacings to be cut away from the chord, providing easy access to remove damaged or previously repaired material. The exposed chord can then be inspected and fully weld repaired before installing the plate. As a result of the modifications, BMT was able to offer the customer both reduced downtime and outage costs. Once installed, DuraCluster also reduces the risks to operators and maintenance teams in having to lower the boom and carry out complicated weld repairs with limited access. Installation for Westmoreland was successfully completed in the allocated time frame and the dragline returned to duty.

Another area of significant dragline improvements made over the past 15 to 20 years involves the slew bearing, also known as the roller circle. The roller circle and the supporting structures immediately above and below are vital mechanical and structural components of the dragline. Installation and maintenance activities in these areas carried out to inferior standards can lead to extensive cracking in the tub and revolving frame and shortened bearing life. BMT has developed supporting and repair techniques ensuring that the welding and machining of the upper and lower rail pads are done to a very high standard resulting in good bearing load distribution and long roller circle service life.

Although there is optimism for the long-term future of the industry, mining companies are focusing heavily on cost efficiencies and productivity gains in the short to medium term. Pushing innovation and embracing the technologies that are available can play an integral role in realizing these efficiencies, but this is only one part of the puzzle. Effective maintenance strategies, which consider tools and techniques such as RCM and are simultaneously aligned with the need to be production focused will create a step change in maintenance management, helping to improve productivity and availability of critical assets and in many cases, reduce the overall cost of maintenance in the long term.

Throwing the Switch at S11D

Vale announced in late July that the S11D project had been “powered up,” lighting the way for the $14 billion iron-ore complex to start operations later this year. The project, which encompasses a mine, plant, and railway and port logistics, was reported as 79% executed in July—with the mine and plant 90% complete, while the logistics side (including the railway branch line) was at the 70% mark. Of the company’s total investment estimate for S11D, $6.5 billion will be spent on the mine and plant, and $7.9 billion on constructing the branch line, double-tracking the Carajás Railway, and expanding Ponta da Madeira Maritime Terminal.

Vale Taps Simulators to Teach Truckless Mining Methods

Vale’s S11D iron ore project in Brazil is attracting the industry spotlight as large-scale truckless mining production is slated to begin there in 2016, eventually ramping up to an anticipated annual output of 90 million metric tons per year by 2019. S11D will be one of the biggest mines in the world and its novel production scheme requires an advanced technological solution for operator training. The operation’s truckless system represents a significant change in the role and skill set needed by loading equipment operators, and Immersive Technologies reported that it will provide high-tech simulators to provide customized virtual training environments for operators, enabling implementation of new procedures to ensure a safe and productive operation.

The truckless concept of the operation, according to Immersive, required a custom training approach. In conventional mining operations, trucks are spotted in position to suit the loading equipment, but when operating with mobile crushers—as is the case at S11D—auxiliary equipment is needed to periodically move the crushers, which otherwise remain static during the loading operation. Through advanced training methods using the latest technology simulators, the mine’s auxiliary equipment operators will be prepared to handle these duties.

Employing customized scenarios, the Immersive Technologies simulators are expected to facilitate the development and implementation of correct procedures for truckless-system excavator loading, positioning and management, while allowing trainers to capture and analyze data to optimize operator skills.

“Truckless mining is definitely something the industry is paying attention to, and just like any new method the training element is a large consideration of the deployment. We’ve worked closely with customers and the leading OEM’s for 20-plus years building our capability to be in a position to deliver the best solutions. This is a unique development and we are pleased to partner with Vale to prepare the safest and most productive operators at S11D,” said César Guerra, regional vice president—Latin America, Immersive Technologies.

S11D will employ seven huge mobile crushers that will be the heart of the mine’s truckless mining system.
S11D will employ seven huge mobile crushers that will be the heart of the mine’s truckless mining system.