So, you want to ramp-up during COVID-19? Here’s how to do it safely, successfully, and remotely

By Carl Horan | July 8, 2020

We know how you’re feeling. Economic disruptions and regulatory changes brought about by COVID-19 have thrown a rather large and unprecedented spanner into the works for many mining operations. A great deal of uncertainty still exists about how long shutdowns might last and what the new normal of operating environments could look like.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for the mining industry. Many of the activities we were performing pre-COVID-19 can still be done in its wake. The further good news is that they don’t require a massive leap in thinking and behavior, they can be achieved with a few small and targeted tweaks to the way we work.

There’s no need to delay or stop your ramp-up. Planning and executing a remote ramp-up strategy is the answer, and you already have most of the toolkit.

How do we achieve successful project ramp-up during COVID-19?

Successful project ramp-up is largely driven by safe operations, experienced experts, solid planning, and good communication. Great ramp-up is about the richness and interplay between these aspects. The key to ramping up during COVID-19 is to achieve these fundamentals remotely.

With the right approach, remote ramp-up can enable the critical continuation of business safely, affordably, efficiently, and successfully. It can do so while meeting increasingly pressed time and budget constraints. The costs of delaying can be fatal to a business’ bottom line. But the benefits of embracing and enabling remote ramp-up exist not only in the short-term but extend to a more resilient long-term future for your organization.

You’ve done it before and can do it again

Remote operations on this level may be new, but you’ve done things remotely before and are doing it now in many different ways. Many operators already have Integrated Remote Operating Centers (IROC) for instance, and 24/7 remote support lines to process control systems. Remote ramp-up simply requires an extension of these activities to encompass a broader set of roles and operations.

How you can tackle your biggest challenges—safety, communication, scheduling, and costs—remotely

Most mining operations have been declared essential but we face limits to the level of personal interaction we can have on site. Our greatest challenge for successful ramp-up during these times is getting access to the right people and the right information at the right time. But it can be done remotely, and it can be done well. Here’s how:

  1. New communication technology devices

With a remote ramp-up program, we are still performing the same activities, we’re just doing them remotely. Several options for head-mounted cameras that enable video and two-way communication are now available to be shipped to sites. By leveraging this technology, remote teams can interact with those on site to enable the same level of data collection, analysis, and decision-making. Key operations like real-time plant inspections, live calibrations, and testing can be performed via these devices.

  1. Sophisticated connectivity software

Through secured gateways and web-access software like Microsoft Teams, production meetings and safety huddles can be done live in any size group online. Such software enables multiple forms of communication and interaction through video, voice, file sharing, and real-time digital whiteboard functions. Secured remote connections to the control system allow you to fine-tune control loops, set alarm thresholds, and adjust parameters and configurations as well as investigate and troubleshoot failures.

  1. Reconfigured interaction between team roles

Many of the roles of ramp-up that are performed by external partners can be done remotely. Your external ramp-up support team of engineers, control system programmers, OEM vendors, and data scientists no longer need to be physically present in the process plant or administration building. Their roles can be performed from home offices. Even internally, your control room operators don’t necessarily need to be on site.

The benefits of a digitally-enhanced remote ramp-up program

The benefits of going remote span both the short-term and the long-term business horizon.

  1. Increase safety

By removing people from the process area, remote ramp-up increases the safety of operations, allowing companies to adhere to COVID-19 safety protocols as well as generally increasing safety by eliminating unnecessary human presence on site and around hazardous equipment and operating conditions.

  1. Reduce costs

Working remotely reduces external support vendor costs by eliminating expensive travel to the site. Without the need for idle waiting time, it also reduces the per-hour costs of their roles as they’re able to work on something else from their home offices while waiting.

  1. Maintain delivery schedule

Remote ramp-up allows operations to continue the critical ramp-up process, keeping delivery schedules on time and preserving the project’s economic viability.

  1. Increase efficiency

Working remotely enables the shift from suboptimal and inconvenient working spaces at client sites to more adequate working spaces in home offices. Without the need to provide working spaces to external support teams, the project can focus on more important imperatives. There is less turnover due to travel and site assignment conditions, and working days can be increased without the delays of travel and more flexibility in working times.

  1. Build a more resilient business

A remote ramp-up program isn’t just useful for the challenging times we find ourselves in today. It enables the kind of flexibility and adaptability to respond to future challenges faster and more effectively in the future. It acknowledges and embraces the kind of innovations that will shape the industry in the years to come.

Why the time to act is now

We stand at a pivotal point in the history of mining. While COVID-19 is forcing us to re-evaluate the status quo, technology is finally catching up to allow us to perform our work at the same level remotely. Our current situation has already demonstrated that we’re able to work—and work well—remotely. We can do more than we thought we could, and our technology can connect us reliably and securely to remote sites. We are all facing mindset and culture changes that may take some time to get used to. But the benefits are clear.

Remote ramp-up will never completely replace the importance of face-to-face interaction, but it can help alleviate some of the most critical issues we currently face. Indeed it's the only way forward right now for restricted work sites. Beyond that, it offers an innovative path to an even brighter future for the mining industry, and that’s something worth considering while we have this unique opportunity for positive change.

Once restrictions begin relaxing, will you have a plan in place to get moving again without putting people at risk?