Resilient transformation in the mining industry
There are many definitions of Digital Transformation and although there may be variances and differing opinions, there does seem to be a consensus on the base premise.
Digital Transformation is the use of digital technology to accelerate business strategy. It is about the careful selection and effective application of digital technologies to empower people, optimise processes, and automate systems of the organisation to achieve a step-change in business performance (Yokogawa, 2021).
Where issues of understanding and interpretation of digital transformation arise are usually around the selection and application of technologies. This is often further confused by the plethora of new entrants supplying to the mining industry, where process understanding, and experience can be a significant issue.
Well intentioned or merely seeking to take advantage of a potentially lucrative new business opportunity, technologies which are designed for non-industrial applications find their way into the mix, often with unpredictable results. The greater damage caused by this is from a loss of confidence by the end user and a growing sense of digital fatigue. This can lead to considerable delays in an organisation’s ability to take advantage of this valuable process improvement opportunity at a time when it’s needed the most.
The collection and analysis of significant volumes of process data is the crux of digital transformation. Mining operations in particular capture, store and interpret large volumes of data from equipment and plant across the mining value chain, from conveyors and loaders to crushing and flotation circuits. Making sense of this data is a key step as industry looks to the future, and the predicted move towards Industrial Autonomy. Data capture and data mining has been around for decades, but until recently we lacked a cost-effective means of doing so at the scale we are now contemplating. Capturing the huge volume of data at the desired sample rates, or having the storage, processing power and analytical tools to effectively take advantage of this virtual goldmine is now a reality for many mining companies. Yet in the excitement of being presented with this new opportunity, many have forgotten a core tenet of any operation: is my data reliable?
Conservatism is not a dirty word
As resources professionals, it is only natural to get enthused at new and exciting technologies in the sector. This is despite what some would argue is a historical conservatism which has been a natural – and more importantly a balancing element – that helps to keep our industry reliable, and most importantly safe.
Enthusiasm also emanates from other sources within any business. Once omnipresent market pressures have increased further due to the unexpected consequences of COVID-19. Cost, Productivity, Environment, Staffing and Safety (CPESS – my new acronym!) have all been dragged more centrally into the spotlight. Business Continuity Plans (BCPs) have been challenged in unimaginable ways due to the COVID-19, challenging even the most robust contingency management practices. Despite many continuing to operate in a sense of relative ‘normality’, what has occurred has led many business leaders to consider whether they were well enough prepared, or whether they had spent time since the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) blindly shuffling towards an uncertain future.
Being cast unceremoniously into the spotlight has not only focused leaders on their BCPs, but has drawn a degree of clarity on what image of the future they should look to create. This is where digital transformation has entered the fray for many – some at an accelerated pace. Suddenly the goal is not only to build further resilience into their operations, but to construct a platform upon which they can address CPESS challenges and create an evolutionary future of Industrial Autonomy. Increasing clarity on the advantages of doing this has become apparent to leaders in the resources industry, and also to those who covet the business opportunities that have been created.
For many years, many industries were under-served in the data analytics space, including mining. As the commercial sectors became flooded with service providers, attention suddenly locked onto the enormous potential of industry, once the Industrial Internet of Things became a “thing”.
Some of the blame for this lag resides with the mining industry itself, due to its conservative nature and need to limit downtime while ensuring stability and safety. In mining reliability is critical, stability is crucial, and safety should be without compromise. Yet as the buzz around digital transformation became a roar, people’s guards began to slip, often driven by an executive need to improve business performance. The once impenetrable drawbridge of expectation around supplier capability, process understanding and fit for purpose products, slipped a few gears. The resultant flood of hungry new entrants clutched at any opportunity they could.
Don’t get me wrong. There is a place for new, innovative, and alternative technologies in any space, and mining is no different. The real issue has been the overwhelming and often confusing array of products, services, and ‘guidance’. All have drawn the attention of end users away from base principles due to the clamour for a ‘quick win’ yet delivering questionable outcomes at a significant cost. With little discernible return on investment and compromises to one or more elements of CPESS, leaders may have even retracted their support for digital transformation. In circumstances where they still decide to engage, the responsibility is often removed from Operational Technology (OT) teams and passed to the Information Technology (IT) department, often without a cohesive integration plan. This leaves many gaps, be it source data reliability, or simply lack of understanding of the systems already in place and their capabilities.
When it’s not digital transformation
A recent case in the mining industry highlights this issue perfectly. A time consuming and expensive digital transformation solution had been sold to the miner to resolve process challenges encountered with one of their crushing circuits. Heralded as a unique Artificial Intelligence (AI) solution, it was designed to predict the level of crushed ore in the bins and keep them at optimal levels. On further analysis by the OT team, this proved nothing more than a simple mass balance calculation that could have been achieved within their existing Process Control System (PCS) and at a fraction of the cost. Essentially, no AI required, just process understanding and capitalising on existing investments.
The end user can be absolved of much of the blame here because many of the promises made seemed quite compelling. In this instance they were subjected to the sales and marketing might of a global software house, while hampered by limited communication between IT and OT departments. However, it does serve as an indicator of potential frailties within industry in general as we chart a path towards a future of industrial autonomy.
Digital transformation only adds value if it’s resilient, addresses something existing systems don’t offer, and the outcome improves CPESS.
Much has been written about the challenge of aligning IT and OT departments and the risks in not doing so. Progress is being made, but there is still room for improvement, especially when it comes to digital transformation. IT departments generally have greater experience in the data analytics side, but they need to consult with OT departments more before committing to solutions which impact process operations.
Devices in the field should also be evaluated to ensure they are fit for the environment in which they will operate, and not be repurposed products designed for commercial environments. Resilience matters, otherwise, the data you have gone to great lengths to access could be intermittent in nature, misleading or downright wrong. That is assuming the device is still operational after a couple of seasonal weather and operational cycles!
Lessons learned fuel best practice
NASA are a prime example of an organisation who have used decades of experience to understand and improve their methods through the implementation of a ‘Lessons Learned’ system. Their publicly accessible database holds contributions from NASA and other organisations from various programs and projects across an array of disciplines. It is essentially the collated learnings from decades of activity which it uses to improve future performance in a safe and sustainable way, while still allowing NASA to push technology to its limits for greater advancement. Sound familiar?
There are many positive and successful examples of digital transformation in the mining industry. The most effective being cases where the service provider not only possesses significant experience in the sector, but worked closely with both the IT and OT departments. Their goal from the start was to bring that experience to bear while understanding requirements, evaluating existing capabilities, and developing a robust roadmap to successful implementation. Devices designed for the environment they would operate in, and a focus on required levels of reliability and resilience, encapsulating all that is important in improving CPESS goals on the industrial autonomy journey.
When it comes to incorporating new technology, the mining industry has decades of experience behind it, with many having learned lessons the hard way. Service providers who have supported and administered solutions to their process over this time have learned with them, striving to ensure quality, reliability, accuracy, and resilience, keeping end users one step ahead of the curve. Now working across the IT/OT divide, further resilience is being built into their systems while extracting all the valuable insights from their plant and turning them into actionable outcomes. This leads to the latest technology applied in the right way to achieve desired outcomes.
As with all technology advancements the field of players will thin out over time, leaving a knowledgeable, reliable, and dedicated ensemble who have the means to drive expected growth. Once revealed, they will help convert your digital transformation vision and turn it into a resilient transformation future of industrial autonomy.
Yokogawa, 2021. ‘Digital Transformation’ [online]. Available from: https://www.yokogawa.com/au/solutions/solutions/digital-transformation/