Evolving the modern Integrated Remote Operations Centre (IROC) to optimize and support carbon-neutral value chains

By Jarrod Bassan | November 13, 2023

Mining is undergoing an era of profound change driven by the global commitment of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Encouragingly, some progressive mining companies have committed to even more aggressive targets.

To meet their commitments, miners must reduce reliance on diesel and fossil-fuel sourced electrical power, use energy more efficiently, and accelerate the integration of renewable energy. This will be a tough challenge. It requires reconfiguring mines, introducing new mining technologies, changing the way work is managed and planned, and integrating more partners into ever-more complex supply chains.

It raises the crucial question: “How can you reliably maintain economic production during a period of profound change in your operation?” Some miners might go further, and ask: “How can we use this as an opportunity to maximize value from our assets?”

At least part of the answer to those questions can be found in Integrated Remote Operations Centers (IROCs). They have become the nerve centers of complex mining value chains, and operations that have adopted them are more successful at introducing new technologies, optimizing operations, improving compliance to plans, and eliminating variability from their processes.

Iron ore mining operations in Australia serve as a good example of how investments in IROCs can pay future dividends. The Australian iron ore industry was an early adopter of IROCs, which enabled more rapid and successful adoption of new technologies, such as autonomous trucks, drills, and trains. They also successfully and effectively standardized operating procedures, changed culture, increased workforce diversity, drove continuous improvement and aided adoption of data and analytics. All this was achieved while simultaneously increasing the scale and throughput of the operations.

However, the industry’s commitment to decarbonization will require operations to go much further.

To start with, the imperative to decarbonize is driving an avalanche of new technologies that contribute to reduction or substitution of energy sources that produce carbon dioxide. Miners will need to incorporate several solutions to totally decarbonize their operations.

One Australian iron ore producer has pledged to eradicate all diesel from its mines as soon as 20301. This is only achievable with rapid adoption of multiple new technologies such as battery-electric or hydrogen haul trucks, battery-regenerative trains and conversion of all excavators, auxiliary equipment and light vehicles to zero emission technologies. In addition, all electrical energy will need to be sourced from wind or solar sources.

Adoption and mine-scale operation of all these technologies, simultaneously, across a complex network of mines, port and railway, has never been attempted and is an unprecedented level of change for the mining industry.

An IROC is essential to enabling the reliable introduction of all these technical, operational and process changes. But even today’s best IROCs will not be up to the challenge. We have identified four key capabilities that are essential to support decarbonization and the avalanche of technology and operational change. All new IROC should incorporate these capabilities, and today’s existing IROC’s must be adapted so they explicitly provide:

Support for technology adoption: The faster and more effectively the IROC can achieve operational integration of the innovative technologies, the less risk to production targets and the better return on capital will be achieved. Therefore, IROCs should include capability to specialize in the introduction of new technologies. An effective way to achieve this is to incorporate it in the operating model of the IROC.

Continuous improvement: To enable process optimization and efficiency necessary for decarbonization, IROCs must have strong capability in continuous improvement. This is necessary to support the optimization of new technologies after they are operationalized. Also, the IROC should have embedded coaching capability to support continuous improvement and provide training in appropriate techniques and approaches. Reliable collection of good-quality data, and capability to analyze and gain insights on the process from data is a pre-requisite; Fortunately, many mining companies have made significant progress on their data an analytics foundations in recent years.

Decision-making optimization: Associated with continuous improvement is the requirement to improve the outcomes of decisions, especially when the capability of the value chain is continually fluctuating as new (and relatively unproven) technology is rapidly deployed. As environments become more complex, IROCs enable faster, more reliable decisions—often mathematically optimized and validated by simulation—that don’t rely on operator assumptions, past experiences, and beliefs.

Collaboration with internal and external partners: As global decarbonization progresses, mining value chains increase will increase the reliance on external parties for reliable clean energy, technology, and know-how. And down-stream metal producers will demand tailored mineral products that help minimize their carbon footprints. Consequently, collaboration and the ability to make optimized decisions involving more external parties will become a necessary feature of the future IROC. Currently, mining value chains involve suppliers and customers that are not directly involved in the decision-making process. Future IROCs will need collaborative information portals that support distributed decision-making, and processes that are well-defined and documented.

Mining companies will also need another type of external partner—one that can incorporate IROC planning into the decarbonization strategy to de-risk technology adoption. One that has deep cross-sector capability, experience, and expertise in renewable energy, green hydrogen, and alternative mining technologies. That’s Hatch, a forward-focused company that has provided sound, innovative solutions for the mining industry for over six decades. We know every aspect of the industry including IROCs, which we design to meet our clients’ future needs, not yesterdays.

1. ShapeABC News. (2022). Andrew Forrest’s FMG acquires Williams Advanced Engineering in shift away from diesel. Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-01-25/fmg-acquires-williams-advanced-engineering-in-bid-to-cut-diesel/100779862.