Suppliers and software experts offer advice on building a system that provides maximum value
By Russell A. Carter, Contributing Editor
What is a digital ecosystem? Like many other technological buzzwords and catchphrases, it’s a concept that’s widely promoted but not always well explained or completely understood. At its most basic level, it represents interconnected sets of digital services and technologies intended to provide frictionless interactions and, in the long run, create value for a company and its customers. In a mining environment, an idealized example might be a centralized facility for a large, multinational producer where employees work in a safe, comfortable environment as they monitor and control multiple unmanned machines at remote locations, observing and acting on structured data collected from myriad sources, while colleagues in the exploration and logistics groups employ sophisticated satellite-aided mineral search technologies, Artificial Intelligence and blockchain tools to locate new deposits or ship finished product more efficiently. Procurement experts maintain constant surveillance of supply chain status and make well-informed adjustments to assure the company gets what it needs, when it needs it, to maintain production.
Or it could be a chaotic, tense situation where the staff has to wade through vast pools of questionably useful data, legacy programs refuse to interact with next-generation software platforms, and investors wait impatiently for a financial payoff from a company’s hasty IT/OT and automation investments.
As the industry’s move towards digitalization gains momentum, producers face a bewildering menu of choices on platforms, services, equipment and desired outcomes from their digital initiatives. They’ll be challenged to directly link the merit of high-tech investments to shareholder value, find ways to simplify complex systems and relationships and consistently make the right tech decisions at the right time.
It’s easy to take a wrong turn along the way: Haphazard planning of goals, lack of change management strategies, or internal resistance to disruptive concepts can sidetrack any digitalization project. In this article, E&MJ samples the latest technology available for miners to keep their digital transformation on course. And, for a detailed look at how one major process-equipment OEM has structured their intelligent data platform to meet the industry’s demand for digitally-based solutions, read our sidebar interview with Weir Minerals’ director of digital business, Ole Knudsen.
Connectivity is the foundation of digitalization and a connected workforce is one of the pillars of success that rest on it. However, the origins of a digitally adept workforce generally lie beyond the boundaries of the mine, usually starting with school programs. But while younger workers have been looking at screens and using apps for most of their lives, that doesn’t mean they’re knowledgeable or confident in a business-tech environment. A recent study by Dell Technologies involving more than 15,000 Gen Z’ers (18 to 26 y/o) in 15 countries indicated that 37% think schools didn’t give them the digital skills needed to excel in their career path, and 56% reported they had very basic to no digital skills education.
Against that backdrop, a company that advances its technology without upgrading its workforce might be asking for problems, and some are already taking significant steps to avoid this pitfall. Last year, global miner Anglo American began rolling out a comprehensive information and communications technology (ICT) program in 109 schools around its mining operations in South Africa, to give thousands of students and community members skills they need enter the digital job market.
The program includes installing technology infrastructure and devices in all the schools, providing ICT courses and training to improve digital literacy and skills, a student engagement platform to support primary and secondary learners, and ongoing support to ensure the sustainability of the program. The $3.8-million initiative is part of Anglo American’s broader education program being piloted in South Africa in partnership with JET Education Services, and then implemented globally. Schools will receive computers and related equipment, and dedicated IT labs will be installed in eight of the schools.
The process of developing a workforce capable of operating efficiently in a digital ecosystem doesn’t end at the schoolyard, however. Workers still need to know what they’re supposed to be doing on the job, and managers need to envision the eventual changes in company operations and structure that could either make or break a digital initiative. Industrial technology systems provider Honeywell points out that possible problems could include:
• Integrating siloed operating systems. Generally, mines have several industry-specific solutions at each site. This makes it difficult to achieve efficiencies through an integrated view across the mining company.
• Overcoming enterprise complexity. The technology footprint at each mining company has evolved over time, and custom systems requiring constant upkeep may have been implemented. The need to continuously attend to custom projects delays return on investment.
• Replacing manual control with increased autonomy. Human decision-making can’t keep up with the pace of business. Having manual processes and controls also results in lost opportunity to realize value.
Marc Poualion, senior industry marketing manager, Metals & Mining, at asset management software developer AspenTech noted that training with new solutions themselves, as well as continual updating of the business processes that use the technology, must also be accounted for to support long-term success of the technology and maintain employee retention.
“Ensuring that the skills within the business are kept up to date, practical and proficient is key to ongoing success and helping to mitigate employee turnover,” he explained. “Similarly, resources must be made available to enable mining companies to conduct their own in-house training and employee development programs. Mining companies will find that by training their workers and bringing them along on their journey to more digitally enabled mines that are safer, more efficient, and more sustainable, they’ll have an easier time retaining staff that not only have critical specialized knowledge but are excited to work at a company that shares their values.”
The Human Element Endures
Even as the industry slowly eases away from worker presence on-site in favor of increased automation or remote monitoring and control, human interaction with digital assets remains an integral component in digital ecosystems. For example, industrial software developer AVEVA now claims that with the recent integration of its Point Cloud Manager and Asset Information Management in the cloud, customers can develop a complete digital twin within a few months’ time, even in the absence of existing models, with new user-wearable scanning technology and improved records and document management contributing to faster data collection and better information transfer.
AVEVA said its engineering information management solutions have been combined with the Assai integrated document management system and powered by data captured using NavVis’ wearable mobile mapping systems. As a result of the NavVis partnership, laser scans can be delivered much faster than with existing stationary scanners, while Assai’s Document Control and Management Solutions expand AVEVA’s digital twin capabilities with more robust document information. AVEVA said the NavVis wearable mobile mapping system scans up to ten times faster than traditional laser scanners with comparable accuracy.
According to the company, the expanded engineering information management solution portfolio is well suited to digital twin creation and throughout the complete project lifecycle, for both capital projects and existing facilities in mining and other industrial sectors. AVEVA said companies can achieve a fully functional digital twin in less than sixty days by publishing and integrating laser scan data within their engineering and operational performance data on AVEVA’s cloud platform.
Recent industry announcements reinforce the perception that the historically tech-conservative mining industry is moving quickly to adopt speedier data-collection technologies, particularly those that offer the added benefits of
improving worker safety and efficiency. For example, Mine Vision Systems recently announced a multi-year agreement with Hecla Mining Co. to implement FaceCapture mapping into two of Hecla’s mines in North America.
According to the developer, the FaceCapture system provides real-time insights at a level of precision not previously available and will enable Hecla to map and georeference a mine face in real-time, reduce production downtime, and deliver higher quality information to its geologists in a shorter timeframe. FaceCapture was launched at the 2021 MINExpo trade show by Mine Vision Systems, a spinoff of Carnegie Mellon’s National Robotics Engineering Center.
Matt Blattman, corporate director of technical services at Hecla, said, “FaceCapture will allow us to process high quality 3D mine face data in real-time, permitting our team to make critical production decisions and with reduced exposure at the mine face.”
The advantages of using FaceCapture claimed by Mine Vision Systems include:
• Pick-and-click georeferencing aligns data to mine coordinates in the field and on the fly.
• Ability to generate georeferenced meshes without the need for a survey at each face.
• Improved productivity and safety with longer advancements and larger blasts through more accurate face mapping.
• Improved ore body modeling inputs enable more-efficient mining.
• Immediately viewable results – live or export directly to general mine planning and geology modeling software.
Australia-based mining tech company RPMGlobal launched its next-generation mobile asset management solution, AMT Mobile, designed to provide field technicians, managers and supervisors the ability to digitize forms and processes while operating remotely. The application is designed to automate and digitize inspection and checklist processes required for asset management. It replaces paper-based systems and manual post-activity data entry. Real time data capture and entry in a structured manner provides more accurate reporting while satisfying a company’s audit compliance and data storage requirements, according to RPMGlobal.
The app, said the company, seamlessly integrates with SAP and can be used both on and offline, making it useful at underground operations or sites without blanket Wi-Fi coverage. Workers simply go about their tasks and when they reach connectivity again AMT Mobile synchronizes the data entered throughout the shift. The solution provides notifications where a potential issue or observation about an asset has been identified. Notifications can include items such as breakdown, priority, what may have caused the issue or what damage has already occurred. Workers use a handheld mobile device to scan QR codes to reach equipment and employ the device’s camera to add photographs as supporting evidence or add voice to text, streamlining the corrective processes that follow.
AMT Mobile builds on the company’s AMT asset management software solution, the first generation of which used HTML technology to access a webpage where a field worker could enter data. However, the latest release of the application works natively for both Android and iOS systems.
Mining industry service providers are also restructuring to accommodate their customers’ digital preferences. Recently, drilling service and equipment supplier Boart Longyear announced that its Geological Data Services division will now operate as a separate entity called Veracio, which will combine science and digital technologies in a single, integrated platform intended to help mining companies get more value from their orebody data.
The company said Veracio is the result of a decade of testing and development in sensing and automation and is based on Boart Longyear’s Geological Data Services integrated technology platform. It leverages key digital sensing platforms and AI that “helps miners move beyond the borehole and see the entire orebody in fine detail.” Claimed benefits include:
• AI solutions that improve and automate improved understanding of the earth and orebodies, and deliver improved solutions for mining activities across the value chain;
• Data capture and intelligence platforms including TruScan, an in-field sample sensing platform; TruSub, a rod string system; and TruProbe, which allows for driller deployable downhole sensing without a logging truck; and
• A foundational, integrated cloud platform that gives teams at any location access to these technologies, enabling them to access orebody data in near-real-time, at a higher definition, and with lower sampling error.
Ambitious projects such as transitioning to a digital ecosystem run the risk of increasing the level of complexity incorporated into the mine value chain to a point where focus on important individual elements is lost. This concern was addressed in a recent blog post by Christopher Blignaut, automation manager, Surface Mining at Epiroc, which described the problem: “It is known within the industry that there is a mining value chain acting as an envelope to all major decisions at a mine, yet it is so often diluted by day-to-day operations within individual components. To mitigate this dilution, mines ask for a strong degree of interoperability in the value chain, spanning from equipment control through to data. At the same time, each process and piece of equipment is getting smarter, more efficient, and thus producing more data; all of which can effectively use the context of the value chain to improve productivity and safety.
“The problem arises as system integration solutions are developed to be interoperable within this value chain, but consequently lose focus in their individual layer. These solutions individually expand out of a particular focused scope into the wider value chain, creating large yet poor overlap. Simply put, the systems which are solving the interoperability problem are not leveraging the depth or focus within individual layers at a mine,” Blignaut explained.
He said Epiroc and ASI Mining, which Epiroc partially owns, have attempted to solve this problem in several ways, and it’s one of the major goals of the recently released Mobius for Drills product. It is designed to provide standalone, focused control and data layers of drills, yet exists as part of the overall Mobius automation platform where fully scalable interoperability is inherited.
The Mobius platform allows Epiroc and the customer to not only combine focused layers of the value chain but continue to scale automation into each layer in a clear and effective way, Blignaut explained.
Mining employment studies indicate that the industry’s potential labor pool is getting shallower as younger entrants prefer employment elsewhere in safer, more convenient workplaces. Older workers are retiring, taking with them decades of institutional knowledge. Producers want to focus their existing workforce and plant assets on optimizing their ‘core’ competencies – finding, extracting and selling mineral commodities. Will these trends lead to a golden age of mining technology advancements based on digitalization and automation, or produce a prime environment for confusion and wasted investment from hasty attempts to implement the “right” combination of technologies for success? How can companies empower workers and managers to thrive in an increasingly digital ecosystem?
AspenTech’s Marc Poualion commented on the issues: “At times there can be risk associated with the implementation of technology. However, it’s important to consider where the risk comes from and determine the right questions to ask to help mitigate that risk.” He recommended companies take a look at several potential concerns:
• Problem-solving abilities – can the technology solve the problem in the way you want the problem solved?
• Value chain – once you’ve solved the problem, can you connect the results of that solution to other parts of the value chain that need that information in an actionable timeframe?
• Vendor commitment – what level of commitment and investment will the vendor play in the implementation of that technology? In addition, what level of ownership is the vendor willing to adopt to ensure their customers’ experience will ensure the highest level of success on an ongoing basis?
• Technology integration – how does that solution connect with other solutions from that same vendor? And, more commonly, how does that solution connect with solutions from other vendors?”
Mining companies will be tasked with reviewing and implementing new change management and internal processes at their organization that are conducive to technology adoption. Implementation cycles could be up to a few years, but the quicker mining companies are able to adopt change and gain buy-in all the way up to the executive level, the higher the chances are of the technology’s organization-wide success. In addition, accelerated adoption will help retain employees that are eager to champion technology that is improving the efficiency, safety, and sustainability of mining operations, he concluded.
Building a Productive Platform
Any major mineral processing OEM that serves the mining industry now offers some version of an ‘intelligent’ platform that typically uses enhanced sensor capabilities, AI and deeper data analysis to provide better user and vendor insight into asset health and overall plant performance. Weir Minerals announced the launch of its Synertrex platform in 2018. We asked Ole Knudsen, director, Digital at Weir Minerals to sketch out the role that Synertrex – as a mature yet still evolving product, as witnessed by the recent release of its latest version based on AVEVA’s PI data management and XMPro’s digital twin composition systems – can play in building an effective digital ecosystem.
E&MJ: Where does Synertrex literally begin and end? Can a mine be outfitted to make use of Synertrex as far upstream as blasting/fragmentation monitoring, or as far downstream as concentrate storage and transfer, or tailings management?
Knudsen: Weir recently acquired Motion Metrics, a developer of artificial intelligence and 3D machine vision technology, capable of delivering a range of products and solutions for particle size data analysis, among other things. It integrates several key data solutions at every stage of the mining process, starting as far upstream as the pit. For example, BeltMetrics Gen 2 camera uses AI and stereo imaging to analyze particle size, monitor volume and profile loads on conveyor belts. This data provides valuable, real-time insights on material flows and PSD, which can then be fed into Synertrex optimization algorithms. Then, depending on the specific application, control actions will be executed or the operator will be advised about the optimal control setpoints of the equipment and/or process.
We’re currently in the early stages of developing a series of next-generation Synertrex optimization solutions for our Trio crushers and Enduron HPGRs and screens. These solutions will combine the best elements of the Motion Metrics real-time AI particle size analysis with the Synertrex intelligent equipment solutions. These will deliver new AI-driven digital solutions to increase productivity and reduce environmental footprint, while also decreasing equipment downtime.
The future phases of the Synertrex 2nd generation ecosystem will also include ‘intelligent’ equipment that talks to other equipment in the flowsheet to for example, intelligently optimize load distribution and reduce recirculation.
Further downstream, Synertrex digital solutions is already delivering analytics for equipment – pumps, piping and hydrocyclones, for example – in milling and tailings applications. The requirements obviously differ. In the mill circuit, the objective is operational stability and maximizing throughput and value recovery from the orebody. This means pumps are tuned with Synertrex IntelliPump solution to maintain efficiency, while the Synertrex IntelliCyclone solution prevents roping and Synertrex IntelliWear monitors pipeline and hose wear to ensure there’s no unplanned downtime.
In tailings, the Synertrex equipment, sensors and infrastructure is virtually identical to that required in the mill circuit. However, in tailings management, the objectives are slightly different. While operational stability remains critical, certain crucial applications – for example, sand extraction from tailings or maintaining flow in the pipeline – require different control regimes to ensure efficiency and product quality. The Synertrex ecosystem can be readily adjusted or adapted to either situation or, indeed, to any other application in the fixed plant.
E&MJ: Can Synertrex interface with popular legacy ERP, asset management or predictive maintenance software platforms? Is it compatible with non-Weir equipment?
Knudsen: The Synertrex 2nd generation ecosystem was released this year and the technology partnerships it is built on has been designed for the purpose of easy integration with our customers’ systems and platforms. It uses the AVEVA PI System, which collects, contextualizes and analyzes data streams. This is the data foundation of the Synertrex digital ecosystem. With AVEVA PI already close to being an industry standard – currently used by nine of the top ten Fortune 500 mining companies – data integration and sharing with historical and real-time operational data is made as simple and secure as possible. The feedback from our customers has been positive – they’re pleased to see this simplified way of sharing data with Weir Minerals as both the OEM and service provider.
In terms of hardware, Synertrex technology is essentially equipment agnostic, particularly when it comes to asset health related solutions. However, the value propositions will be different for non-Weir equipment. A large portion of our digital solutions are based on proprietary specifics – we are building all our digital solutions using a ‘composable’ digital twin and machine learning to deliver availability and performance. For instance, the equipment digital twin – say, a Warman slurry pump – is built on and directly connected to specific Weir Minerals proprietary details, such as pump curves and master and maintenance data. This approach obviously isn’t possible for non-Weir equipment. So, together with our customers, we evaluate these requests on a case-by-case basis to ensure they are getting value for the money they are investing into digital.
E&MJ: In a digital ecosystem which gathers vast amounts of data that, in some cases, may be sensitive or proprietary, how is data security and ownership handled?
Knudsen: The safety and security of all data gathered through the Synertrex intelligence platform is the highest priority for Weir Minerals. By working hand-in-hand with our industry-leading partners, we are committed to ensuring the highest standards of cyber security are implemented across our digital solutions. Our Synertrex ecosystem is hosted on Microsoft® Azure, a leading cloud service provider with a suite of security features designed to protect data and applications, including physical and environmental security; network security; data privacy; and security controls, amongst others.
When it comes to data ownership, we make a clear distinction between customer data and Weir Minerals data. At Weir Minerals, we believe the raw data gathered at the edge is our customers’ property and they will always be able to get it back. Once we take this raw data and apply our extensive industry IP, analysis and modelling, it then becomes Weir Minerals’ data which our Synertrex intelligence platform and machine learning models then use to support the optimization and efficiency of our customers’ processes and production.
E&MJ: Does Weir Minerals have a strategy for assisting clients to help their workers understand, use and refine the digital tools that Synertex makes available?
Knudsen: The Synertrex 2nd generation ecosystem is the evolution of data and analytics to actionable insights. This means our customers aren’t being loaded with more data; instead, they are actively being told what to do in a specific situation. In other words, through the Synertrex ecosystem our customers are not just getting plenty of data and insights, but more importantly prescriptive actions, something other digital solutions lack.
In addition, Synertrex solutions are used internally by our service teams as a digital tool to replace the traditional way service and maintenance are performed. So, we understand that these digital solutions require changes in both the way people think and operate. And we are now seeing the benefits in our own business. Our global service teams are moving away from collecting data and doing wear predictions manually; increasingly, they rely on sensors and AI for predicting the wear life of critical components. We have initiated a number of change management programs to support the transformation of becoming a truly digitally-enabled organization. And we foresee many of these same programs being rolled out to our customers in the future.
Weir Minerals also has regional Synertrex monitoring centers, which provide digital services to our customers. These are manned by teams of experts – engineers, data analysts, etc. – who monitor and analyze data generated by Synertrex-enabled equipment and processes. They provide real-time operational insights to ensure optimal equipment performance, process efficiency and production optimization. They also provide proactive recommendations for maintenance and repairs.