Some say the mining industry was late to the party when it comes to innovation, but they’re catching up at a rapid rate. There has been a wave of digital transformation in the mining sector in recent years, with Australian mining companies among some of the world’s most technologically advanced. Data and information have proved to be some of the most valuable assets to mining companies across the full mining lifecycle, and technology has even been attributed as a reason why Australian mining companies were able to continue operating during the pandemic. Innovation has set a new standard of operations for mining companies to meet, otherwise they risk losing their competitive advantage.
Innovate or fall behind – why smart mines have become so popular.
GWI has analysed the various internal and external factors driving innovation across the mining industry and what technologies are emerging in the coming years.
The competitive nature of the industry and the pressure to improve efficiencies whilst reducing costs has contributed massively to the use of data in the industry. Mines produce a large amount of data each day from machines, trucks, drills and ships. Having quality data is crucial to maintaining competitiveness in a market where many companies are willing to compromise their cost to increase production.
Implementing Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML) and automated reporting allows for the seamless collection and interpretation of large data sets and transforms it into actionable insights which contribute to improved productivity. Real-time analysis of data and information helps to identify of areas for improvement, operational pain points and solutions, reduce maintenance costs and improve resource capabilities. Data and technology have also improved productivity by revolutionising how different units and teams communicate when onsite, allowing for timely information sharing and decision-making.
Social concerns and compliance
Amplified social concerns and awareness amongst the community as well as strict regulations have forced mining companies to develop more environmentally friendly ways of operating. Consumers are demanding greater transparency from organisations as well as obvious efforts to minimise environmental impact and data has played a large part in meeting these expectations.
To reduce emissions, energy, water use and waste, automated vehicles or machines, drones, wearable technologies and smart sensors are being used to monitor site activity instead of resource heavy machinery that use diesel fuel. A fleet of 141 autonomous hauling trucks, are already being used across Australian mines. Automated trucks send information to Remote Operation Centres (ROC) for interpretation decreasing the need for tools that are more harmful to the environment. Internet of Things (IoT), which allows equipment including machines and sensors to share information and communicate in a coordinated way, has been instrumental in maintaining compliance with strict environmental and government regulations. IoT has streamlined the reporting process and mitigates some associated risks for what is a highly regulated market.
Environmental challenges and safety
Innovation in the mining sector is also driven by the need to overcome changing and challenging environmental factors. Decreasing ore grades, extreme weather conditions and harder rock mass along with natural disasters and the global climate crisis have all made mining conditions more challenging and can put workers in hazardous situations.
The transformation of human-run processes to digitally driven AI, ML and robotics also significantly improves the safety of the mining workforce by minimising the need for workers in remote and potentially dangerous locations. Australian mining companies have utilised advanced 3D visualisation technology, augmented reality and digital twining to create clear images of potentially dangerous underground deposits, predict failures and devise the most efficient and safest solution to overcome them. This not only protects workers from potential harm but also improves resource capabilities, operational planning and reduces the variability of production outcomes.
Predicting the next wave of innovation for mines
When implemented correctly across the entire mining lifecycle, data supports business functions by ultimately taking the guesswork out of the decision-making process. As we enter the 4th industrial revolution, it’s crucial that mining companies who want to remain competitive embrace digital transformation and stay ahead of the current and emerging technologies. GWI has identified key trends in the next wave of innovation in the mining industry to include:
Cybersecurity – increased use of technology calls for robust data security measures to be established across the entire mining lifecycle.
Invisible zero-waste mining – mining with little to no impact on the surface. This involves using waste material to backfill open cavities, often referred to as in situ leaching (ISL) or in situ recovery (ISR).
Continuous mining – designing and developing new and more efficient ways to operate. For example, combining the action of bucket wheel excavators for the extraction and conveyor belt systems for the transport products and waste.
Written by Mark Salmon
GWI Associate Director