Culture shift: automation in mining

By Jan Kwak | August 9, 2016

Technology is reinventing processes, transforming mining in ways and at a rate we haven’t seen in a hundred years. We’re just beginning to wade into the space that manufacturing has been living in for decades. The incentive is there, driving us to create the “intelligent” mine of the future. And do it now.

There’s a wealth of information and tools out there that can be adapted to the kind of work we do. But they do need adapting. That’s telling us that for automation to be most effective, the business of mining may have to be reconfigured. It may need to be based on business models that rely on this new, enabling technology. 

So, we’re probably going to have to change the way mines work. To do that, we’re going to have to change our culture. 

Automating a mining operation makes the entire process leaner, delivering more product with less cost, less waste, and less effort. The biggest gains are usually in underground mines, where processes are still largely stepwise in nature. By smoothing them into automated, sequence-organized tasks, most mining companies could improve efficiency anywhere from 10 to 40 percent. 

Outfitting a mining operation for automation is a detailed, orchestrated process. It starts with a complete assessment. We talk to people, asking them what works well, when, and how. Processes are observed, data logs reviewed and a road map developed. Communications and IT are evaluated. 

Things start getting really interesting when we retrieve information from sensors and apply data management analytics, using software and flowing in work practices that reduce process variation and increase speed. 

Having technology that can gather data underground and analyze it is a big improvement. In a fully sensor-equipped environment, all the variables that impact production are marked and managed accurately in real time. Then, the information is pulled into an integrated data highway that runs outside the mine itself. No paper, no transfers. The software can amass and condense large amounts of records and details, seeing patterns and pointing out opportunities. 

In mining, the devil is in the scheduling details. So that’s the first place to begin an automation project. It’s not uncommon to see different areas of a mine sharing the same equipment. Some even share people, causing processes to slow down or stop altogether as tasks hurry-up-and-wait for the right skills and tools to become available. Automation eliminates these kinds of bottlenecks, updating information and work status every 15 minutes. No more waiting for shift changes. Shorter, tighter handover; greater efficiency and safety. 

As automation begins to impact work schedules, predictions become more sophisticated and accurate. Digital paradigms begin to model the future, taking corrective action to maintain steady states and adjust controls as operations or their results vary. Feedback. Feedforward. Adjust. All in real time. 

Every mining operation that tries it—every company that’s willing to let us show them what automation can do for them—is astounded by the results. The only question they have is "Why did I wait so long?" 

Hatch is working in collaboration with partners and clients to automate installations around the world. We’re so confident in the business-morphing results that these upgrades can deliver that we offer clients performance-based contracts to minimize the risks of implementing the system. We see lots of stakeholders with different systems-integration strategies and project-execution processes. We’re helping them all to scale down their capital cost estimates, because automation is being baked right into their existing processes, putting the focus on the operational budget instead. 

In mining, the future is automation, and it’s rushing to meet us. Get ready to change your culture. You’ll never want to look back.