By Kevin Shikoluk
Mining operations everywhere are experiencing constant profitability pressures from two directions: continued commodity pricing volatility and global demand variability. Africa-based miners are no exception.
These dynamics have caused mining companies to re-evaluate business models and seek smarter, more efficient modes of operation that focus on sustainable cost management practices and improved productivity.
The mining sector isn’t unique in this regard. Many of the world’s leading industries – manufacturing, oil and gas, healthcare, and others – have also recognised this need for change. While the exact improvements vary from industry to industry, the path to transformation is similar: an emphasis on improvements at both the asset and process levels through the application of leading-edge digital technologies across the Industrial Internet value chain.
By harnessing the combined power of machine sensors, edge-to-cloud connectivity, advanced data capture, and powerful analytics, the Industrial Internet can deliver deeper insight into mining operations than ever before.
These insights can then be used to drive intelligent recommendations for improvement – from asset lifecycle management to condition-based, prescriptive maintenance programs and strategies to optimize performance within the plant. This approach has already yielded breakthroughs in improved efficiency, increased asset availability, and optimised processes in many other industries and there’s a growing track record of success in mining.
Condition-based maintenance can help reduce total maintenance costs by guiding the timing of maintenance, avoiding over-maintenance when not needed, and triggering maintenance sooner than might have been scheduled, ultimately avoiding expensive repairs from a more serious failure.
Even switching to usage-based predictive maintenance can help lower maintenance costs by avoiding performing unneeded maintenance on idle or lightly-used assets.
The incremental cost to instrument a critical asset is dropping rapidly thanks to the introduction of digital solutions within the mining space. Asset Performance Management, for example, can make a significant impact by giving real time visibility and actionable insights around the data that is captured within the mining operation. This data from smart connected devices allows for much more precise and focused service that not only increases asset availability, but also reduces overall maintenance costs.
The power of vertical integration
The real power of these connected technologies, however, is the leverage they provide when integrated vertically across the mine.
For example, Wabtec worked with a South African operator to deploy a collision awareness system on a contractor’s fleet at their above ground mining operation. This in itself is not unique as many companies across South Africa are doing the same in order to comply with safety legislation.
What’s unique in this case is that the customer is using other solutions within Wabtec’s Digital Mine portfolio to help solve another problem: ensuring consistent feed grade of ore into the concentrator.
In this particular case, downstream processing was impacted due to the varying ore grade quality. Leveraging solutions from our Collision Awareness portfolio as well as Operations Performance Management technologies help operators blend the ore to get a consistent feed grade into the concentrator downstream.
For miners, controlling these sources of variability is ultimately the key to improving throughput and metal recovery.
Vertically integrated digital solutions are only scratching the surface of what’s possible. As this example also shows, mining companies in South Africa are actively embracing these solutions, and in doing so, are at the forefront of transforming themselves into fully fledged digital mines.
To take full advantage of the promise of the Industrial Internet, mining companies must develop an overall strategy that includes a full assessment of the continuously evolving ecosystem of solutions that will help them reach their goals.
It can seem like a daunting prospect, but by working with knowledgeable and experienced partners, the digital transformation process can be manageable and affordable to deliver exponential cost saving and productivity benefits.
At Wabtec we’ve learned that in order to make the transition to a digital mine, operators require support in multiple capacities. One of the ways we’ve been successful in assisting mining operators is by leveraging robust monitoring capabilities around the globe to better understand their operations. Working from high-tech hubs around the world, we can monitor customer operators’ assets and operations with sophisticated software. When the software flags anomalies that require action, we work with our mining customers to drive the required action.
We also monitor ongoing processes on behalf of customer operators. This means, for example, that Wabtec’s Digital Mine can make sure control loops are finely tuned to optimizing ore grade recovery as a collective mine site. As a result, operators are able to advance from being completely reactive to being on the front foot of taking a proactive stance and defining how they want to work based on data-based decisions.
The change management aspects of this process should not be underestimated. But in our experience, it’s eminently achievable and ultimately rewarding.
Those in the mining industry who embrace this need for industrial transformation sooner will have a distinct advantage over competitors who choose to delay their journey to modernisation and digitisation.
(Kevin Shikoluk is the Global Strategic Product & Marketing Leader, Digital Mine at Wabtec).