Digital ‘transformation’ for a new mine – getting ahead of the curve
A lot of focus has been on transforming existing brownfields – but what best practices should a new mine look to install to ‘future-proof’ its IT infrastructure?
Digital transformation is critical for a business to survive long term. This was 100 per cent supported by respondents to Axora’s Innovation Forecast 2022-23, in which all answered that digital transformation is critical for their organisation's survival. Yet just over half (53 per cent) describe their progress as advanced.
When we talk about digital transformation in mining, we often speak about upgrading existing operations to enable the systems we want. Automation is one of those ways to elevate a current site. But every so often, mining companies get the chance to start from scratch with a greenfield operation.
As greenfield operations are increasingly difficult to come by, it is no surprise that we often hear or know about brownfield operations that enhance their processes through transformation and have a greater understanding of the challenges faced. However, greenfield operations – when they do appear – have one benefit brownfields don't have. They have a clean slate.
Barriers to transforming infrastructure
When addressing the challenges, we should also consider the barriers. First and foremost is the location of a mining project. Few mines are next to cities, so how do you plan on getting equipment and skills to and from the site? If you are using the cloud, how do you intend on getting data out? And do you have enough bandwidth on site? Traditionally, mines have relied upon satellite communications, but the explosion in data means this is becoming less and less feasible. There are a range of options from fibre (the gold standard) to microwave and beyond.
Next, we need to consider the lack of skills in the industry. Mining struggles to recruit miners. When it comes to digital skills, we struggle even more. Generally, we outsource these kinds of skills as getting them in-house remains challenging. Once a mine is operational, it's best to put budget and resources into building and maintaining a team in-house.
Data collection, retention and analysis will be the most critical issue. On a modern mine site, data can be collected from many areas. Identifying what type of data you want to collect is an essential step and often overlooked. But data is useless on its own. So, you need to ensure the data you are collecting can be stored collectively in the same place and that it is GOOD quality data.
For instance, there is no point in having mountains of useless data lacking rudimentary elements like time stamps, GPS coordinates, equipment identification, etc. Ensure your data is high-quality and that it can be analysed as openly as possible, or can be easily converted into open formats. Remember: OEMs love you to be locked into their systems as it ensures future sales!
Finally, budgets will also be a challenge. Miners often struggle to dedicate a budget to things which aren't big and yellow. IT has also been criticised as a black hole for spending, with it often being seen as a secondary consideration. But in the case of a modern mining operation, this has changed drastically. Miners need to recognise that IT isn’t simply a person who comes to help you connect to a new printer anymore. It's now critical infrastructure.
Factors to consider...
Starting with a blank slate is a rare opportunity, but it raises many questions. How would we prepare and future-proof digital infrastructure on a new site so that it remains relevant for years to come?
Here are some of the areas to address:
1. Survey the site
What is the physical layout of the operation? Are there any areas or challenges which are unique and need addressing? Is the site small or large, open pit or underground? These factors will affect what you can and cannot do, as well as your budget.
2. Overdesign the capacity and build in scalability
Bandwidth, much like processing capacity, never works to the nameplate. Everyone always wants more, and as larger files become more common and machines produce more data, you will regret not having more capacity.
3. Cyber security
A connected mine is vulnerable. Consider physical and remote cyber security and ensure everything is compatible and updatable. Avoid at all costs building something in-house, as it won't be supported by an external IT resource. Also, the developer will leave the business at some point.
4. Power and cooling
This is something often not considered, but technology needs both. It has to be very robust and able to survive power outages. Consider how long your operation needs to run without power, and then double or triple that figure.
5. Environmental factors
Mining is an unforgiving place. Anything outside of a server room will be subject to that environment. Extreme temperatures, high levels of dust and humidity all have an impact.
6. Test and confirm systems
What system do you want to use, how is that system used, and is it compatible with what you want to install in terms of peak demand and latency?
Can you easily maintain the system on-site with site people? How easy is it to ‘hot swap’ components, both for damage and upgrades?
8. Should you use the cloud or not?
What can you do on-site vs what can you do in the cloud? Taking equipment off-site saves time and money but requires significant security and outside capacity. However, it saves upgrade costs and skill requirements. Depending on your location, it might be worth considering.
9. Data ownership and access
Remember: it's YOUR DATA. Ensure that anything that is collected is yours. Many suppliers will try to collect data into their systems and sell the findings back to you. Try to avoid this if possible. It might be easier to let OEMs do it for you, but in the long run, it will cost more.
10. Sense check your data
Make sure that any data collected is useable and compatible. Use an open data format and ensure you utilise all the data you are collecting. No one needs 200 gigabytes of “no alarm state” data. Think smart about where you spend that money.
Greenfield projects, although rare, offer companies huge opportunities and provide a fresh start for developing infrastructure and implementing transformation. However, this can lead to costly errors making it crucial for organisations to think ahead, strategically plan and not jump the gun on the newest, shiniest tech development on the market.
However, by planning ahead and installing the right technology, new operations can expect to have the most efficient, lowest-cost production in the industry. For a mining company, that is priceless.
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