The Digital Mine: connected, optimised, sustainable

Mining in the 21st century is a tight rope walk. There is an urgent need to reduce carbon emissions, but companies must go further and deeper to extract ore. 


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Mark Fraser

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Creating value in an unpredictable market is important but the desire for sustainability is also vital. The sector as a whole must have safer workplaces and the pressure to generate more throughout with the same resources is relentless. There is a need to automate processes yet there remains the question about jobs. The multiple conundrums have become even more urgent in the face of pressure from various groups globally to reform. It’s no secret that mining will have to transform its reality and is looking for revolutionary solutions.

Enter, digitalisation.

According to one estimate, digitalisation can create value to the tune of $400 billion over just one decade. But the emergence of the so-called ‘digital mines’ isn’t just about the numbers. Digitalisation can transform mining into a much more sustainable enterprise by mitigating some of the big risks the industry is vulnerable to. A digital mine can optimise operations, unleashing the power of data to understand and implement changes in the business. It is possible to effect radical changes in a process that is understood better.

In this story we look at the emergence of the digital mine, the stages of implementation, transforming the modern workforce and the possibility of partnerships.

Let’s start at the very beginning – what is mine digitalisation?  

Experts define digitalisation in mining as, “the use of computerised or digital devices or systems and digitised data that reduce costs, improve business productivity, and transform mining practices.” Quite simply, digitalisation is about how digital technology can be used to create more value. “We have been talking to people from the mining industry. Many say, that from what was once just darkness, both literally and metaphorically (especially in underground mines) you can now see the processes by having sensors and connectivity. It has opened up a window into the mine,” says Prof. David Sjödin, Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Luleå University of Technology in Sweden.

Technologies that help with the mine digitalisation broadly fall into two broad categories. The first set of technologies focus on connectivity. Being able to connect and share data from different equipment installed in a mine is critical to the mine digitalisation journey. Secondly, the sensors that allow you to collect the data from all the individual bits of equipment. IoT devices can be installed to measure many aspects of the mine environment like vibrations, humidity, airflow etcetera.

The digitalisation journey: the four pillars

The route to a fully digital mine rests on four pillars. According to a report by the World Economic Forum, the first cluster deals with, “Deploying digitally-enabled hardware tools to perform or improve activities that have traditionally been carried out manually or with human-controlled machinery.” This involves deploying sensors and other measuring/ mapping devices that can monitor or “listen” to the mine. The next phase needs to focus on a digitally enabled workforce. “Using connected mobility, and virtual and augmented reality to empower field, remote and centralised workers in real-time.”

This pillar can be enabled with wearable technology, Remote Operating Centres (ROCs) and more. The next pillar is about creating a connected digital ecosystem. The report describes it as, “Linking operations, IT layers and devices or systems that are currently separate.” The fourth pillar is the use of data analytics and AI to push the boundaries of supply chain management, manipulating the working environment and data-driven decision making. “The real potential of digitalisation is realised when these two components (connected mine and data from each device/ workforce) are used in conjunction with data analytics and artificial intelligence solutions to be able to optimise mining processes,” says Prof. Sjödin.

People transformation  

There is one other component that merits special mention. We’re talking about the workforce that will implement the change. Mining has struggled with the issue of the aging workforce - there simply aren’t enough skilled people entering the industry to replace those who are now ready to retire. Couple that with the new skills required to enable digital transformation and the industry is on track for a serious skills problem.

“Mining has a heritage. If you never intended to build a connected mine, or installed sensors or other devices, it is quite a large investment. So that has historically been a big barrier for mining companies,” explains Prof Sjödin. But now the writing is on the wall. Adoption of technologies like these will lead to a reduction of 610 million tonnes of CO2 emissions over a decade, with an estimated value to society and the environment of $30 billion (according to the report by the World Economic Forum). Also, it will lead to a fall in deaths and injuries in the workplace. But many mining companies will have to take a huge leap in transforming their workforce to be ready for change. “With big change comes great resistance internally in organisations. And it can be quite frustrating for many talented people. Often, I have seen people who are passionate about change and want to drive things taking action and finding ways of driving the digital agenda forward,” Prof Sjödin explains. An Ernst and Young report identifies the ‘Future of Workforce’ as one of the top ten risks for the mining industry. It goes on to say, “Disruptive technology is changing the skills mix required. there is a limited pool of people with these skill sets such as data science, analytics, predictive modelling and mechatronic skills.”

Building partnerships

Digital transformation in mining opens up many opportunities for companies both big and small to collaborate and work together. Mining can leapfrog from where it is today, to where it can be tomorrow, by deploying technologies that have already been successful in other industries. An Accenture report notes that digitalisation offers opportunities to overcome challenges such as industry specialisation, the increased importance of local communities and high capital intensity. Improving active and open partnerships is the foundation for best-in-class digitalisation, stronger integration with local stakeholders, and even new models of operation and ownership of mining and metals fixed assets that might lower capital intensity.

Things augur well for the future if the sector can embrace digitalisation and create an environment for increased automation, Prof Sjödin believes. “We will have to create deeper mines in the future. We can’t send humans to these depths and automation will be the only option. To be automation-ready, mines will first have to get digitalisation right.”

But is mining changing fast enough? Prof Sjödin is hopeful. “I think the industry is doing things the right way and the entire ecosystem is moving in the right direction. It’s going to be an exciting future.”

This article is a part of our Innovation Leaders in sustainability series. For further articles, valuable insights and a look into sustainability solutions, visit our Innovation Leaders page.   

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