Data standardization and system collaboration are necessary to achieve maximum visibility and control of mining operations

By Russell A. Carter, Contributing Editor

Mining, like almost any other specialized activity, has its own jargon that allows engineers, geologists, maintenance and operations personnel to communicate quickly and concisely without need for detailed explanations of common concepts. Adit, winze, hanging wall or grizzly, for example, are peculiar terms that are mostly meaningless or confusing to anyone outside the industry, but are immediately understood by miners. Mining jargon is rooted in the history of the industry, some terms dating to centuries ago and drawn from various cultures and traditions.

The newest entries in the mining lexicon, however, will likely have a futuristic tone, pulled from the high-tech domains of networking, artificial intelligence and automation. So, it’s somewhat ironic that two of the most important words pertaining to mining’s future have Old World origins and achieved common usage in the early 19th century: reliability and collaboration.

In order for the industry to achieve the technological advances necessary for future growth, data flow must reach an unprecedented degree of reliability. At the most basic level, this means the design and performance of “edge devices” used to collect and deliver data from mining equipment will gain additional importance. The protocols suitable for handling data, voice and video in remote, harsh environments will have to be increasingly robust, scalable and flexible. And, the dozens of software products and platforms used to analyze and manage mining and enterprise data must be capable of sharing information with each other.

In other words, there’s going to have to be an extraordinary level of teamwork among people, software and machines. In this article, we’ll look at some of the technological developments that are guiding the industry along a collaborative path to the mine of the future.

Terms of Reference

The technical term for data collaboration is interoperability, broadly defined as the ability of systems or software to exchange and make use of information. It’s a concept that’s strongly challenging “digitalization” for top billing on the current list of mining’s high-tech buzzwords, but in reality, the two are tightly linked and essential for progress. Without digitization — changing information from analog to digital format — data exchange would be cumbersome, and digitalization — the act of changing to a business model based on digital technologies — would be impossible; and without interoperability, mining equipment and software will be locked into the data-silo structures that have hindered system-efficiency initiatives for years.

To get a better idea of how industry suppliers view the scope and underlying reasons for increased human and machine collaboration, E&MJ turned to Modular Mining Systems, an Arizona-based subsidiary of Komatsu that has developed a range of products that include the DISPATCH fleet-management system, the Autonomous Haulage truck-control system (jointly with Komatsu Ltd. and Komatsu America),  and other solutions in its Intellimine suite for improving loading and haulage productivity and safety. In the sidebar article, Simon van Wegen, product manager–data solutions at Komatsu, offered a detailed explanation of how Komatsu and Modular believe interoperability will drive sustainable improvement.

van Wegen told E&MJ that, “From a customer perspective, it’s very important that data isn’t just disappearing off into a black hole. Data collaboration also requires a cultural change, which must be embraced by the entire mining industry to be truly effective. This, again, requires a careful balance of people, processes and technologies — with a carefully thought-out and very specific end goal. Ultimately, those looking to implement data collaboration will get out what they put in.

“The more you collaborate, the better you become at collaborating, and that’s where you really build momentum,” van Wegen said. “It creates this flywheel effect, where it opens up not only collaboration within our own industry, but others as well.” 

Industry organizations, vendors and mineral producers are seeking alignment at various levels to advance the concept. Rio Tinto and BHP, for example, are funding the Global Mining Guidelines Group (GMG) Interoperability and Functional Safety Acceleration Strategy (IFSAS) initiative, launched earlier this year. GMG held the inaugural roundtable conference for implementing the strategy in August, hosting presentations on initiatives from AMIRA, CSIRO, Enterprise Transformation Partners, GMG, IIC, ISO, Interop, IREDES, METS Ignited and MI4.

More recently, GMG announced it had formed a liaison agreement with the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC) aimed at furthering development of the Industrial IoT (IIoT). Under the agreement, the IIC and GMG said they “will work together to align efforts to maximize interoperability, portability, security and privacy for the industrial internet.”

Joint activities between the IIC and GMG will include:

• Identifying and sharing IIoT best practices.

• Collaborating on standardization.

• Collaborating on interoperability in mining through the two organizations’ respective committees, working groups and task groups.

• Collaborating in IIoT adoption by co-creating reference architectures, methodologies and guidelines.

• Participating in a joint workshop to exchange ideas and information.

GMG also is in the process of developing Version 2.0 of the Open Mining Format (OMF), an open-source file specification for 3D data interoperability. Francine Harris, a GMG staff member, recently noted in an article that the first version of OMF, launched in 2017, “…supports basic structures including points, lines, surfaces, meshes and volumes. The second version is extending that support to block models, computer-generated representations of ore bodies that contain valuable data about them. Block models are widely used and are a central artifact in the mining value chain, acting as the bridge between geological interpretation and mine planning and other processes. It was therefore not surprising that users identified block models as a critical pain point in GMG’s August 2018 end-user survey.

“On its current schedule, OMF 2.0 will launch in Q4 2019,” she explained. “To date, the project group has done significant work on the Python implementation. Once that implementation is complete, it will be translated to C++ to make it accessible to more software companies. Next steps include developing more extensive documentation, changing the file format to use a zip-based container and investigating supporting more parametric types.”

In a recent blog post, Jayne Kato, product manager for Deswick’s .CAD design and solids modeling software, touched upon a few of those “pain points” mentioned in GMG’s 2018 survey; e.g., “…that sinking feeling when you realize the data you need is available in another computer system but not in a format you can access. You may need to map it to another format before you can import it and to do that, you may need to have a bespoke data translation program written.

“Alternatively, you may decide you don’t have time or it’s too much trouble and you’ll work with what you have — less accurate or relevant data that doesn’t have to be turned inside out and shaken before it’s able to be used.

“For professionals working in the resources sector, this scenario is all too familiar,” Kato explained. “Many mining companies operate with a selection of best-of-breed solutions that perform specialized functions extremely well and communicate with other best-of-breed solutions poorly, or not at all.”

Kato, who is part of the working group putting Version 2.0 together, said the end goal of the effort is to “…to see the OMF incorporated in all 30-odd mining software packages currently in use across the industry.”

As devices such as this video server mounted on an Epiroc ST14 ScoopTram proliferate, mine networks will have to become capable of almost infinite capacity to handle the increased data traffic, according to a white paper from Nokia Bell Labs.

Seeking Standardization

According to GMG, four major software companies — Seequent, Dassault Systèmes, Deswik and Micromine — have publicly committed to OMF, and several others are also contributing. Australia-based Micromine, for example, listed “the ability to easily import and export Open Mining Format (OMF) files from or to other GMPs (General Mining Packages)” as one of the new features in its 2020 Beta version.

Also, late last year, the company said it joined a group of mining software and machinery providers to offer technology solutions integrated with the International Rock Excavation Data Exchange Standard (IREDES). Micromine said it was one of nine companies globally to integrate its products with IREDES, which was developed to streamline data exchange between machinery and office IT systems. The company has integrated its latest fleet management and mine control solution, Pitram, and its latest 3D mine design and exploration solution, Micromine, with IREDES.

Micromine Chief Technology Officer Ivan Zelina said Micromine accomplished the IREDES integration to provide customers with more streamlined mine digitalization processes.

“By utilizing IREDES, we have removed the e-language barriers that often exist between machinery products and office-based software systems,” Zelina said. “IREDES provides a standardized information exchange interface, which allows different machinery databases, simulation tools and other enterprise level software to exchange data and information.

“This avoids the need to develop and install individual and expensive software workarounds and development projects and also streamlines and enhances data sharing and reporting.

“In our Micromine product, for example, a ring design can be easily converted to an IREDES file format so that it can be accessed using other software and systems. The integration of IREDES into MICROMINE’s software solutions reduces the time and cost of interface development during installation and maintenance of systems and products.”

IREDES uses the eXtensible Markup Language (XML), a popular format used by commercial standard software and database systems. IREDES builds on this language though XML schemas — the building blocks of the XML file — which describe hierarchy and data exchange parameters. The information is then transferred using XML data sets, which can be accessed by users and transferred between programs.

Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology published its Interoperability Policy in April 2018, outlining the principles by which Sandvik systems can communicate within a digital ecosystem including data accessibility, fleet data compatibility, data rights and control, and data privacy. Earlier this year, the company said it would promote development of an interoperable platform for its AutoMine control system for underground loaders and trucks at the 2019 #DisruptMining conference by introducing the AutoMine Access API (Application Programming Interface) to provide standard, predefined interfaces for connecting third-party loaders and trucks for control by the AutoMine system.

ABB’s Operations Management System (OMS) for mining illustrates the scope of potential benefits that interoperable systems can provide. Developed in collaboration with Boliden AB and ArcelorMittal Mining Canada, OMS is an integrated system designed to connect and coordinate mine operators, workforce, equipment and all mining activities in real time, from face preparation to crusher.

ABB explained that mine planners often have to build a short-term plan with limited visibility of ongoing activities in the mine. Making decisions to accommodate the ever-changing situations common in mining operations with less than full knowledge of conditions can lead to errors. This can impact operational efficiency and raise costs.

By integrating short interval control and closed-loop scheduling into a single-digital platform, ABB said OMS improves responsiveness to unplanned events and reduces production variability through all the mine stages. OMS can present “what-if” scenarios in case of task failure or operational change. This helps mine operators and planners make better decisions faster. Equipment availability is also improved by moving from a reactive to a predictive maintenance model. Through all the stages of the production cycle, the production flow from the mine is maximized, according to the company.

“Although it may seem simple, coordination between the tactical plan and the operational plan is one of the top challenges faced in modern mining,” said Eduardo Lima, product manager for integrated mine operations at ABB. “By offering advanced short-term planning and increased automation, ABB Ability Operations Management System enables the mine to act as an ore factory.”

“Ore inventory can be tracked and controlled to allow maximum flow and optimal grade. By integrating operational technology and information technology, operational awareness is increased for all personnel,” he added. “Staff see the same information at the same time and can jointly decide what actions to take in real time with no need to wait until the end of the shift.”

Another example comes from Epiroc, which recently rolled out its 6th Sense solution as a way to optimize processes by connecting machines, systems and people using automation, information management and system integration. Epiroc said it will provide “a great focus on system connectivity, using interoperability to unlock the full potential of automation for production gains at lower operating costs.

“6th Sense is a formula we have developed for getting the right solutions in place and achieving operational excellence in mining and infrastructure operations,” said Helena Hedblom, senior executive vice president–mining and infrastructure. “The name 6th Sense implies that the solution brings something extra and that is just what it does, providing a significant advantage such as track and respond to real-time working conditions and equipment needs.”

Mines Need Five 9s

In a white paper titled, Mining and Mission-critical Wireless Connectivity: Laying the Foundation for the Digital Transformation of Mining, authors from Nokia Bell Labs pointed out that as mining operations evolve to incorporate significantly expanded sensor arrays and much higher levels of machine autonomy, a mission-critical network that provides at least five 9s (99.999%) availability will be essential. This network, according to the study, will be called upon to provide connectivity for massive numbers of fixed and mobile sensors, precision localization and tracking of humans and machines, seemingly infinite capacity for near-real-time backhauling of data and low-latency remote control of equipment. The network needs to be rapidly reconfigurable to adapt to changes in mine operations. Self-organizing capabilities will be needed to ensure the network adapts to changes in the terrain caused by blasting while also healing itself from any failures of equipment. These are tasks beyond the reach of current networks, but the prospect of future 5G implementation at mine sites — or perhaps the 4.5G and 4.9G/LTE intermediate stages that will likely precede full 5G realization — will bring the potential benefits of this technology into closer focus.

Nokia said current IT wireless networking technologies, such as Wi-Fi and Wi-Max, aren’t designed for industrial-scale business-critical connectivity. “Wi-Fi was designed for local area best-effort networks in the office or home, exchanging emails and browsing the Web. These technologies have been adapted to industrial applications in the past with limited success, but they do not provide business- or mission-critical support for most industrial digital transformation projects.

“Fortunately, most of us carry much better wireless technology in our pockets today,” the Nokia paper pointed out. “Used for a decade in public mobile networks worldwide, LTE cellular technology has all the features and characteristics required by the vast majority of mining applications.”

Until very recently, LTE technology was reserved for mobile operators because they had a monopoly on LTE radio spectrum. But governments around the world are releasing new spectrum specially designated for private networks  and Nokia believes private LTE networks can provide the mining industry with an attractive long-term solution for high-performance networking.

Nokia maintained that private LTE networks, designed with an evolution path toward 5G, can support all mission- and business-critical applications on a single network. These applications include TETRA and P25 communications with both push-to-talk and push-to-video applications, high-definition video, low-latency edge computing for remote and automated operations, and support for low-power sensor networks and telemetry applications using NB-IoT (Narrowband IoT) or LTE-M (LTE-Machine Type Communication) device categories.

In addition, according to the white paper, the recently introduced concept of network slicing is especially important in the context of the mine of the future. Instead of overlaying disparate dedicated networks for PTT, enterprise connectivity and operational technology, slicing allows the networking, storage and computational needs for all these services to be dynamically managed with a single network.

The authors concede that the vision of 5G possibilities outlined in the white paper “may seem somewhat futuristic” at this point, but note that there already are several access technologies available or being developed in the 4G LTE to 5G cellular evolution path, such as PTT, NB-IoT, multi-antenna processing, carrier aggregation, multi-connectivity (allowing integrated operation with Wi-Fi), and unlicensed LTE (MuLTEfire), that can be leveraged in conjunction with new edge/core cloud and analytics capabilities. Connectivity for autonomous equipment such as haulage trucks and drills, field force automation, sensors, digital PPE and connected and autonomous trains is now possible with 4G networks. For mining companies that already own spectrum licenses or operate in remote areas where interference in unlicensed spectrum is not a significant problem, private networks based on LTE are already being deployed.

For example, Nokia and Telefónica Peru recently signed a contract with Minera Las Bambas, the world’s ninth largest copper mine, to enable digitalization and automation projects at its site in Apurimac, Peru. The contract will build and deploy a private LTE network 4,600 m (15,000 ft) above sea level, then perform an assessment of the mine applications in order to begin services migration to the new network. The contract includes planning the site’s capacity and providing technical support for the next five years.

As part of the deal, Nokia will deploy its LTE Radio Access Network solution, including base stations, technical support and training services to enable more reliable communications between machines and people. The long-term goal at the site is for evolution to full 5G capability, according to the company.

Elsewhere, Telstra Mining Services signed a contract with mining company South32 for installation of a private LTE network at the Cannington silver-lead underground mine. It also has installed private 4G/LTE networks at the Roy Hill iron ore mine in Western Australia and Newcrest Mining’s Lihir gold mine in Papua New Guinea. The 4G installation at Lihir includes functionality that allows the vehicle fleet to seamlessly switch between LTE and existing Wi-Fi networks.

According to Jeannette McGill, head of Telstra Mining Services, the Cannington installation comprises an initial 6.5-km-long (4-mile) underground network using a private, virtualized core and LTE radio technologies distributed over leaky feeder cable using LTE-capable bidirectional amplifiers. McGill explained that Telstra believes this setup to be the most effective solution for underground miners and is capable of adapting to the unique geology and composition of the Cannington mine. It enables access to the latest advances in 4G LTE and NB-IoT and is also upgradeable to 5G in the future.

In late April, Ericsson and Ambra Solutions announced a global cooperation agreement with Ambra naming Ericsson as a radio partner of choice to provide 5G-ready network solutions for underground mines. The companies said the 5G-ready Ericsson Radio System portfolio will enable Ambra, a turn-key engineering services systems integrator, to simplify mission-critical private LTE network deployments and replace up to 60 Wi-Fi access points with a single Ericsson product.

Ericsson and Ambra partnered last year to deliver what they described as the world’s deepest underground LTE network, at Agnico Eagle’s LaRonde mining complex in Abitibi, Quebec, Canada. Located 3.5 km below the surface, the private network provides data and voice services across the mine site and enables several IoT use cases to improve safety and mining operations. Since then, several applications have been deployed using Ericsson solutions to deliver automation of ventilation systems, real-time personnel and vehicle tracking and remote controlling of machinery such as LHDs, haulage trucks, drill rigs and other equipment.

 


Access the Advantages Offered by Data Collaboration

By Simon van Wegen

When it comes to exploring the information available from smart equipment, “all data, all the time” sounds great in theory. But focusing on a vast array of data makes it hard to determine and focus on what matters most, even resulting in tunnel vision. Through data collaboration, we can introduce new perspectives — even from different industries — that may otherwise have been overlooked. Collaborating and sharing data between equipment, onboard systems, and the people who use them brings several advantages to both mines and technology partners, including the ability to deliver customized, holistic solutions that will drive sustainable improvement.

For the mines, data collaboration facilitates:

• Decision making – utilizing reports, dashboards and other metrics to help facilitate logical, timely decisions;

• System optimization – leveraging technology to monitor assets in real time, manage service lifecycles and reduce costs per ton; and

• Continuous improvement – relying on operator feedback and industry benchmarks to optimize system support and enhance system usage.

For technology partners, data collaboration drives:

• Mine learnings – essential partnerships empower technology companies to understand how their systems are being leveraged as a whole and individually. This understanding also helps align advanced solutions directly to customer goals.

• Improved logistics – data collaboration enables supply chain optimization and improved inventory management to help ensure parts are available as needed.

• Product development – as mining conditions become more challenging, visibility into data helps identify areas of future need.

Keys to Successful Data Collaboration

Three things are required for successful data collaboration: a diverse group of people with a variety of skills — even across industries — to gain new insights and see things from more than one perspective; a process of delivering and developing new insights; and the technology to transform manual processes and enable people to take action. These three essential parts require careful balance. However, like baking a cake, if you have too much of one ingredient, add ingredients in the wrong order, or don’t follow the recipe, things don’t work out how you expect.

People

This is, arguably, the most critical of the three required areas. Encouraging cross-functional collaboration and the breakdown of silos should be driven by leadership, who must stand behind the concepts of collaboration and teamwork and should be able to communicate a common goal that is well understood, worthwhile, and that the entire organization can willingly adopt. Leveraging the diverse strengths of people and roles throughout the organization and mining industry, encouraging their feedback, and incorporating that feedback helps put the right people in the right roles, to better deliver on strengths. Conversely, if a group of people with valuable skillsets continues to work in silos and does not collaborate, organizations may experience escalating costs, results far less than what they could achieve, and a confused workforce.

Data collaboration can drive additional value when operations leverage experience from outside the mining industry, as experts from governing bodies, educational bodies, and other industries can provide perspectives and insights a mining organization may have previously overlooked.

Process

The process requirement can be broken into three tiers: data integration, information and action.

“Data integration” is often confused with “data centralization,” but really, it’s a matter of democratization — making data easier to access. Revisiting the cake analogy, we liken data to the individual ingredients necessary to bake a cake; while these ingredients or data streams might be interesting on their own, they produce a much more complete result when combined together. Through data integration, we can make data easier to access, thereby allowing teams to more successfully translate that data into information.

The information tier allows mines to utilize the data collected by equipment sensors and onboard systems to provide actionable insights via reports, analytics and other metrics. This information tier helps to drive action by identifying true improvement opportunities and uncovering unforeseen or unexpected issues that could result in higher costs, equipment downtime and even safety risks.

The action tier drives actionable results through process optimization. Data is great, but unless we get it to the necessary people, at the right time, it’s very difficult to drive action or positive results. Once action is engaged, organizations can implement a continuous improvement loop: evaluate the action and resulting effects, then assess the data integration and information layers again to determine the success of that action.

Technology

Rather than automatically being drawn to the latest and greatest technology, mine sites should first identify the key problems they need to solve, then select a technology that’s fit for that purpose and will solve those problems efficiently and consistently. Chosen technologies should also fit with the people and processes in place. Once a technology is logically chosen, it can be leveraged to carefully organize collected data based on its intended usage — data that is used or needed more frequently should be especially easy to access.

Technology also facilitates test environments before delivering products to market. Customer feedback in early stages can help improve the development and performance of the final product. A baker would likely provide cake samples to customers and use their feedback to tweak the ingredients or recipes to better satisfy their needs and cravings. A mining organization wanting to get the most value from their technology should be able to do the same.

A Unified, Cross-functional Approach

Komatsu has a Data Solutions team in place to help refine its approach to tackling data collaboration. The team marries Komatsu’s OEM (original equipment manufacturer) strengths with the OTM (original technology manufacturer) strengths delivered by Komatsu’s subsidiary companies Modular Mining and MineWare. Working as one customer-facing entity, the company leverages OEM expertise, especially related to equipment design and common failure modes, and OEM-agnostic technology solutions from Modular Mining and MineWare to develop a better understanding about how to optimize and improve the mining operation.

The Data Solutions team leverages both edge and cloud computing in its digitization approach. Edge computing delivers data directly to a mining organization’s front line to change the way mining is done. Since edge computing occurs instantly or near-instantly at the equipment level, it also helps improve the technology experience for users on the front line; edge computing provides operators with insight to their performance and treatment of the equipment, while also providing maintenance personnel with the information they need to perform key tasks.

Cloud computing enhances the way we look at mining and helps create a sort of exploration environment. Since it occurs at the cloud level, which facilitates the storage and analysis of the copious amounts of data being collected, the Data Solutions team utilizes cloud computing to holistically leverage the big data we’re collecting from equipment and onboard systems to identify bigger-picture improvement opportunities.

Unifying the data from various onboard systems, equipment units, and computing approaches into one single, normalized dataset helps improve understanding of both the equipment and organizational or industry performances, and ultimately can be used to further increase the performance at mine sites.

What Does it Really Take?

If done effectively, data collaboration can truly revolutionize the way mines operate. The first step for effective data collaboration requires being open about how data is being used, and the value it can unlock. It’s important that mining customers understand what the technology providers are doing with their data, and it’s important that technology providers be transparent about the data they collect and their intended purpose for it.

Through data collaboration, we can convert data into value, to truly have our cake and eat it, too.

Simon van Wegen is product manager–data solutions, Komatsu.