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Taking mining automation into the next reality

Editorial
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It is a universally accepted truth that a mine seeking innovation will in some way implement automation.

Whether they are putting tele-remote vehicles on site, semi-autonomous loaders, or going completely driverless for their fleet, automation is undoubtedly the next step in mining.

And with the current downturn in mining forcing many companies to re-evaluate what have in time become bloated or cost heavy operations, they are now obligated to be seeking new ways to achieve more cost efficiencies and better productivity, and one of the ways in which they can do so is through automating processes.

Australia is at the forefront of much of this automation, and as Caterpillar's Carl Hendricks said during a recent Brisbane event: "Australians are often very keen to implement new technology on site", but where is automation headed?

We already have driverless trucks running in the Pilbara; LHDs roaming underground tunnels picking up and dumping pre-set tonnages by themselves within a laser defined area, all the while reporting back every aspect of their operation; we also have the technology to remotely control vehicles from 1000s of kilometres away, as ably demonstrated by both Rio Tinto and BHP's remote control operations centres in Perth.

The next great leap, though, is not exactly known.

We have this existing technology, so where to from here?

According to Schneider Electric's solutions vice president for mining, minerals and metals (MMM) Diego Areces, the next step is likely to change the reality of mining itself.

Catching up with Areces at AIMEX earlier this year, he explained to Ferret that the next great leap will be less on the capital equipment itself and more on the technology progression side, seeing the full integration of Informational Technology and Operational Technology, more simple plug and play process, and most remarkably, augmented reality.

Examining the market
Areces started by explaining that despite the current predictions of a downturn, "the concept of a mining slowdown isn't 100 per cent correct, and in reality it is the way that companies are investing in mining that has changed, and as they are investing in a different way the levels of investment have changed which is forcing miners to invest in optimisation".

"In the past miners focused simply on being the biggest of the lot, but now this has changed; they are focusing on being the best, the most efficient, the most optimised," he told Ferret.

Automation will play a major part in this.

"We don't need to pull back now; we need to invest more into optimisation."

Going on to describe Schnieder as a company that supports organisations to optimise their operations, he said this is even more important as the scale of the mining has shrunk compared to the previous years and while the longterm fundamentals remain the same, population growth, urbanisation, the push for sustainability, and the scarcity of reserves will force these economics to change.

Automation and the options this offers miners will allow them to be more flexible as "commodity price volatility will become more prevalent".

The changing factors
Six factors were given by Areces as the new focus for miners in the next technological age, and he explained how automation was to play an either direct or indirect role in them.

He listed off the upcoming IT/OT convergence, which makes automation technology and hardware easier to use and implement in existing processes; the focus on overall process optimisation and automation's role in ensuring accuracy in all aspects; workforce management and how automation is changing job roles and creating new ones while reducing the need for others; the rising importance of ICT for mining and its link back to the IT/OT convergence and the plug and play model for miners; remote control and the increase in mobility in mining; the crucial aspect of energy management; and finally automation and social licence.

He pointed to mobility as one of the bigger game changers, and how in automating processes and allowing for remote control operation miners can now access their site, modify or fix issues while off site and have a greater ability to analyse data from their machines.

The opportunity for developing mining in Australia lies thoroughly in optimisation and in turn automation "as Australian operations aren’t at the level they should be for the levels of knowledge it has locally, it has a huge amount of engineering knowledge and process facilitation 

Mining is going to use automation to take it to the next levels of operation.

"It will be more pragmatic, as it moves to a more sustainable mining model and miners use sustainability as a yard stick to measure their operations," he said.

"We can expect more remote operations and greater mobility and this is even likely to spawn augmented reality in mining - where operators are replicating, remotely, the environment of the site for remote control operators so that they can get a better understanding of the conditions they are operating in, not just watching through a screen, but getting more layers on information (potentially through using something such as Google Glass)  such as the humidity and temperature of the area, hardness of rocks, GPS,  and other aspects that are currently not recorded or provided but directly affect operations," he told Ferret

Areces added that in the very near future "people will no longer be in the mine as more processes become automated or tele-operated, and augmented reality will change the way we operate as tele-remote operators will be able to feel everything, with that additional layer of information, but without the safety risks of actually being in the mine".

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