Achieving smarter mining through digital transformation is a journey that requires a pragmatic strategy with six key steps. Reaching out to experienced business partners can help avoid pitfalls along the way.

A disciplined development strategy can help advance digital initiatives through analysis, planning and understanding of a company’s business needs

By Jeff Botsch

There’s no question that the mine of the future is digital — with connectivity, data and digitalized processes driving results like greater productivity and enhanced safety. The more pressing question is, when will this future arrive for you? And when it does, will it be too late?

Today, mining lags behind other industries when it comes to implementing digital initiatives. A recent Rockwell Automation survey found that only one in 10 mine executives said they have implemented at least one digital transformation initiative — compared to more than one in five in other industries.

Mines present no shortage of challenges for digital transformation — from remote and harsh locations to technical and security challenges to the new skills that needed in the connected mine. But with the right strategy, digital initiatives can be created that are meaningful to a business and manageable in their implementation.

Roadblocks Slow the Journey

For the last two years, digital effectiveness has been one of the top three business risks for mining and metals companies, according to EY. But a wide range of factors can impede a journey to the connected mine and a company’s ability to capture value from it.

It could be that the mine’s digital strategy doesn’t support the overall business strategy or specific market needs. When this happens, the users can become too focused on the technology itself and not on what the technology should be doing: solving business problems.

Equipping the workforce with the right skills is another challenge. Digital technologies can redefine roles in the mines and require entirely new types of workers. At the same time, just finding workers to fill skilled positions can be difficult, as experienced workers retire and create an industry-wide skills gap.

It may be a struggle to deploy new technology. For example, if you develop custom software in-house, you may find it’s difficult to maintain and expand across your operations.

A rigorously developed strategy can help guide the digital transformation, maintaining focus on achieving better business results rather than solving problems along the way.

What’s Needed

Achieving smarter mining through digital transformation is a journey. And that journey requires a pragmatic strategy with six key steps:

Conduct an Operational AssessmentA mining company may have a vision for where it wants its operations to one day be in terms of connectivity, analytics and production capabilities. But just as important as knowing where it wants to be tomorrow is knowing where it is today. An operational assessment will help a mine understand the current status of its operations and the gap between the current status and the desired results. The assessment looks at how operations run and the full suite of IT and production technologies that are used to keep it running.

Verify Corporate Alignment Digital transformation isn’t about changing technology infrastructure. It’s about changing the business to improve things like safety and environmental performance, operating efficiency and the bottom line. This is why digital strategy must align with corporate strategy — and is ideally part of the corporate strategy. First, define the business vision as well as the strategy and objectives you bringing that vision to life. Then a digital strategy can be developed that supports these efforts.

Build a Business Case Each digital initiative should have its own business case. And each business case should clearly define ROI and how a new technology will address a current problem or challenge. Common business cases in mining include optimizing equipment usage to reduce operating costs, anticipating equipment failures to reduce or avoid downtime, and using greater connectivity and mine visibility to help protect people.

Define Your Business Architecture Once business cases have been defined, they can be turned into actionable objectives. The first step in this process is to define the enterprise in terms of governance, people, processes, technology, partnerships, strategic goals and capabilities. This assessment shows how the organization works today and stands as a reference point to how it will change as a result of digital initiatives. An enterprise-wide approach will prevent the creation of isolated initiatives or “pet projects” that cannot be applied in other areas or expanded.

Specify a Technical Architecture After the business problems have been identified, cases have been made for solving them and the business architecture to solve them has been developed, then the technical requirements and products can be defined. There are crucial decisions to make at this stage. For example, proven and scalable digital solutions can be less risky than homegrown solutions, because they can expand over time and support multiple initiatives. Also, some digital solutions like advanced analytics platforms embed machine learning at the device level. This can help achieve outcomes like better mine visibility with less reliance on hard-to-find data scientists.

Develop a Digital Roadmap Finally, create a roadmap for implementation. This involves not only charting a course for when and where to implement each of the digital initiatives but also how to sustain them and continuously improve results over time.

As initiatives are planned, remember that this is a journey. Everything doesn’t need to happen at once. It may make the most sense, for example, to implement initiatives incrementally, with each new initiative helping fund the next.

The Benefit of Experience

This six-step strategy can help keep digital initiatives focused and moving through careful analysis, planning and understanding of your business needs. But there may still be aspects of digital transformation where operations may need help. Some lack experience, for example, in areas like integrating siloed systems or standardizing data, or struggle to find time and people internally to see the transformation through.

That’s why the right partners are essential. They can bring valuable expertise from other digital transformation projects to help you identify and build business cases for your digital initiatives. They can also help you get the most value from concepts that are still new to most mines, like digital twins, predictive analytics and connected workers. And they can help apply best security practices to protect people, processes and intellectual property from cyber threats.

Jeff Botsch is consulting services manager, Mining, Metals & Cement, Rockwell Automation.