Digital technology holds huge potential for equipment performance in the field of mineral processing, but equipment suppliers will make little progress if they work only on their own, according to Thomas Holtz, group chief executive officer of Multotec, a mineral processing equipment supplier based in Johannesburg, South Africa.
“The inclusion of today’s technologies in mineral processing equipment demands collaboration on an unprecedented level,” Holtz said. “To begin with, we need outside specialists to help build digital technology into our existing products. But we also need to cooperate with other process equipment suppliers to ensure that we feed into common systems that make customers’ plants more efficient.”
He highlighted the power of sensors, digital data communication and computer analytics to transform how mineral processes are monitored and optimized. Technology can make the plant a safer place and can run processes more efficiently. This includes monitoring wear life, helping mines plan for better maintenance and improve uptime.
“At Multotec, we have invested considerably in applying sensor technology — especially the use of accelerometers,” Holtz said. “The real work, however, comes with the management and interpretation of the data these sensors generate.”
For this reason, data analytics becomes the real value when applying this monitoring technology. He noted that this aspect of product development must generally be conducted with a specialist service provider over a long period of time. Even then, the process is usually arduous.
“Our technology journey to date shows how challenging it is to analyze the data we collect in a way that we can draw conclusions that are useful for our purposes,” he said. “It is relatively easy to monitor vibration levels on a bearing and to generate a trend line on a graph. It is less ,\simple, for example, to automate an operational response to that information.”
Much progress has indeed been made, he said. Through collaboration with a technology partner, Multotec is developing a machine learning process to analyze vibration data from a cyclone. Based on this real-time data, an artificial intelligence server generates alerts related to predefined condition levels. He pointed out, though, that each equipment supplier can only monitor those functions within a process circuit in which their equipment performs.
“To fully leverage today’s digital technology, a plant manager needs equivalent information from every item of equipment operating in the circuit,” he said. “This full range of data — coming in from all the equipment — then needs to be synthesized to fully optimize the running of the plant.”
One immediate challenge is that most existing process plants were not built to accommodate the latest technologies. Especially under current cost pressures, retrofitting entire plants is seldom an option. And, there are fewer greenfield operations being opened that could provide an opportunity to apply new ideas and equipment from scratch.
Prevailing mindsets are also an obstacle, Holtz said. Most suppliers jealously guard their intellectual property, frustrating any attempt at collaboration.
“We need to work toward a new approach, in which each player brings some input based on their area of expertise,” he said. “Many small innovations, when combined, can produce significant progress and generate a meaningful advance for our mining customers.”
He noted that all the equipment in a plant needs to talk to a central system that will drive the innovation that mines are looking for. Only in this way can mines gain efficiencies through technology and become more sustainable. This, in turn, provides the foundation of success on which their service providers can thrive.
In conclusion, Holtz emphasized the importance of gradual and sustained technological progress. Many new technology ideas are met with unrealistic expectations, and people are disillusioned when these are not immediately realized.
“Closer and ongoing collaboration with all stakeholders, including mines and design houses, will allow us to achieve the important long-terms benefits that technology can and must deliver to our industry,” he concluded.