Imagine a full-scale mining facility operated entirely by automated machinery and processes.
This is precisely what NASA examined in their Lunar Surface Systems study. It might appear to be a far-fetched concept, but the reality might be close as the mining, minerals and metals (MMM) sectors look at ways to combat the lack of skilled resources, increased mining taxes and fluctuating supply and demand.
Selected autonomous machinery is already in use.
Rio Tinto, for example, use driverless haulage trucks in WA's Pilbara region. However, remote or mobile mining operations attract many challenges with the implementation of automated systems safely while also ensuring operations are equally or more effective.
Understanding the benefits of a Remote Collaboration Centre
Enter the remote collaboration centre (RCC) - an off-site operations hub where experts from a variety of disciplines can access information, troubleshoot and optimise production facilities - all from a single location.
While RCCs have already been adopted by some mining giants, including Codelco, the requirements and systems needed to support RCCs are often advanced compared to how mining operations are presently run.
While the technology exists, operational management is yet to catch up with the technology.
When looking at a fixed processing facility, the coordination of automated operations remains at a single location at any given point in time.
Trying to coordinate automated fixed processing operations with automated mobile mining operations proves a more difficult task, requiring a skilled workforce with sophisticated processes and systems to effectively and safely run operations.
Herein lies the benefit of the RCC - the ability to coordinate and streamline automated operations between the fixed and mobile operations of a mining facility.
Typically, mining processes are operated in relative isolation to each other; miners mine the raw material; metallurgists process the raw material; and logistics teams transport the goods to an end destination.
The synergies lost in keeping these processes separate are great.
Take a look at the manufacturing industry, for example.
The just-in-time production method employed 10-15 years ago put the industry ahead of the curve in realising greater process efficiencies and cost savings.
The mining industry now needs its own just-in-time system/s to improve efficiencies along the supply chain, right down to the inventory stockpile that sits alongside the processing plant waiting to be transported.
Considering multiple operations
Imagining the value of a RCC with respect to operations at a single mine site is one thing.
Imagining the complexity of coordinating automated operations across a company's multiple mine sites is naturally more daunting.
Yet it is in this environment that the greatest returns and value can be seen through the implementation of a RCC.
Where to from here?
With the technology available for the MMM sector to move towards automation, where does the industry look to, to begin understanding and transitioning its existing operations to an automated environment?
While operations continue as they have done for a number of years, the mining industry needs to ask itself - how can we deploy our resources in the most effective manner? How can we empower our people to do more?
Creating synergy within operations is not a simple or quick task to deploy.
Automation requires careful planning and scheduling with implementation over a considered timeframe to ensure the smooth and efficient running of operations.
It is critical that the right systems are in place to ensure the viability of the technology, and more importantly, the safety of all workers: the technology is the enabler; the people make it happen; and the right systems and processes keep operations safe and viable.
Known for its boom-bust attributes, the mining industry has predominantly continued to push throughput, sometimes at any cost and without considering new solutions to alleviate unnecessary expenses, particularly during tighter market conditions.
It's now time for the industry to assess its position and understand the loss of efficiencies, productivity and profits in conducting its operations separately and with limited automation.
With the opportunity in reach to make these changes, the right solutions and relevant supporting resources will turn an automated vision into a reality.
*Neil Freeman is the principal consultant - mining and metals at Honeywell.