Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Automation in Mining

Most mining companies are about to embark on the journey towards ‘automation’. Companies like Rio Tinto have made a good start, but they all have a long way to go. Automation is much better progressed in many other industries, especially where automation of fixed plant is where they have had to focus: manufacturing and other process industries, Oil and Gas and other chemical type industries, and rail / transport systems. Mostly these are industries in which the processes are constrained by the engineering. The challenge for mining is very different, very few mining operations are constrained by the engineering, indeed they are geographically unconstrained (at least within the boundaries of the ore body).

One way to look at automation is through the lens of the future objectives – what is the mining process to look like? Currently the major constraint is that the mining process is essentially a batch process; drill, then blast, then collect the ore, then load it into the transport system. Current automation efforts are really about pushing the continuous process as close to the mine face as possible. What we see people like AngloGold Ashanti doing is investigating what technologies are available to make the actual mining process underground continuous. They seek to get out of the drill and blast paradigm. This is the future of automation.

In the meantime, there are things that can be done to extend ‘automation’ into other parts of the mining process, but for every company, that will mean something different, so each needs to define their automation objectives and a high level view of how to get there. These matters need to be considered (in order) as follows.

Automation Objectives. Mining companies obviously need to understand what problems they are trying to solve – nobody else can really do this for them, although the AGA Technology Innovation Consortium (AGA-TIC) has taken an ‘open innovation’ approach. (www.aga-tic.com)

What is Future Vision. Every journey has a first step. Understanding the future state is informed by the objectives and needs to be developed without constraints in the first instance, that is don’t worry about where you are today. Big innovation will probably replace the current state anyway.

Technology. Future technology is perhaps the hardest thing to quantify – current trends only loosely inform where technology will be in even the medium term. The trick is to plan for the no-brainers and build agility into the technology plan. Any automation story will however be underpinned with better and more pervasive communications, smarter ways of collecting and analysing innovation, and robotic technologies that will drive new machines.

Culture. Culture will be the most difficult thing to change, and will take a long time. Companies can’t afford to lose the knowledge in the current workforce, and anyway new technologies are driven by the young, and they will take quite a while before they are impacting how you do your mining business.

What is Current State. Once the end state is defined, you need to know how ready your current environment is for the changes that will be necessary. Knowing where change is needed and where it can be ignored is all part of doing an Automation Readiness Evaluation. Besides, there will be some things that can be done early that will improve the business and help to finance longer term initiatives.

Technology Innovation Plan. How you go about innovating is the core of the implementation problem – will it be open (like AGA) or closed (like Rio Tinto). Both of these methods require investment, but open innovation will probably get a faster result.

Technology Vision. Prototyping automated technologies, Innovation in iterations...

Systems Integration. Making sure that the systems you design can act in awareness of each other is a key to machine automation. Machines will need to negotiate with each other in the mining environment because they will have freedom of movement. For instance, to truly automate a haulage fleet, each machine will need to know its own place in space and system, as well as every other machine. This means a common language, decision rules, etc.

Knowledge Management. Automation is really a way to embed intelligence that currently resides in people’s brains into the systems and machines of the future mine. There is a huge cultural change issue in this.

Further Observations

Many industries have been on this journey before – mining companies starting out should make themselves informed on the lessons they have learned – petroleum, aerospace, military in particular.
As a concept of operations, automation in any context will ultimately be made possible by how well you can collect, transport, and analyse data automatically.   We currently know a great amount about this, and recent advances in intelligent sensors, mobile communications and advanced analytics are making the issue more addressable – complicated to be sure, but the technologies are becoming ever more capable.

No comments:

Post a Comment