By Thomas Schulz, CEO, FLSmidth
Expectation and reality rarely go hand in hand when it comes to digitalization. In the early years of the “digital revolution”, mining – like many other industries – heard how it would disrupt and transform the landscape, delivering heightened productivity, reliability and cost efficiencies. The early progress, however, did not keep pacetightly with the ambitions; slow adoption rates, implementation challenges and difficulty in identifying the most suitable processes for digital were all hindering factors.
The result: the mining industry struggled to extract real value – the promised value – from data analytics and digital solutions. Mining wasn’t alone in this. According to a 2019 article in the Harvard Business Review, CEOs rated digital transformation (DT) risk as their top challenge, noting the difficulty ensuring DT initiatives reached their goals.
This has been echoed in the mining industry. EY’s Top 10 business risks and opportunities – 2020, ranked “Digital & Data Optimization” third in their list of risks and opportunities facing mining and metal. In 2019, it ranked as number 1. And perhaps this slight shift down the ladder reflects a real sense in the mining industry that things were changing. Digital was beginning to create value… expectation and reality had begun to move closer.
The mining world is certain to look very different
The current COVID-19 pandemic in short has fundamentally disrupted society, politics, and the global economy to such an extent that we will most likely refer to two worlds in the future: The pre- and the post-COVID world.
“When logistics are severely challenged, when it becomes difficult or even impossible to be on site, suddenly all the value of digitalization becomes crystal clear.”
For mining, the post-COVID world will look remarkably more digitized. Rather than slow down the pace of digital adoption, COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on just how important digital solutions and data analytics are for mining. When logistics are severely challenged, when it becomes difficult or even impossible to be on site, suddenly all the value of digitalization becomes crystal clear.
Areas such as remote monitoring and diagnosis, predictive maintenance, process optimisation are centre stage and the benefits – from increased uptime and improved throughput to safety, cost and environmental gains – are evident.
For decades, we have worked on creating innovative solutions at FLSmidth to enable our customers increase productivity or resolve challenges. Decades ago, we offered some of the first solutions in automation and we have continued that journey into the area of digitalization and data-based optimisation.
“Digitalization for me fundamentally means identifying relevant and actionable data from the information flow coming from the many pieces of equipment, machinery, engines and control software at sites around the world.”
This journey means we can already conduct a significant amount of service, maintenance and analytics remotely across hundreds of sites around the world. It is not important if it is from our centres in Copenhagen, Denmark, Chennai in India, Salt Lake City or Bethlehem in the U.S. When it comes to serving customers through digital, geography doesn’t matter.
In one recent case, a team of field engineers were evacuated due to COVID-19 just as a kiln was about to come online. The customer asked us for assistance and we could quickly establish a secure and direct online communication channel between our engineers and the customer, which allowed our Machine Control Specialists to connect remotely to the systems. CCTV was put in place to share the information we couldn’t access directly and within days, we were able to start the kiln remotely.
Turning Big Data into actionable data
Digitalization for me fundamentally means identifying relevant and actionable data from the information flow coming from the many pieces of equipment, machinery, engines and control software at sites around the world. We have hundreds of sites connected to an online network and receive around 40 million measurements per day. This Big Data is analyzed to provide detailed information on the performance of our equipment, allowing us to suggest optimisations and efficiency improvements to our customers.
These millions of daily measurements have a range of benefits: safety, productivity, cost savings and sustainability. Digital, for instance, will be an important enabler of our MissionZero programme that aims to move water waste, energy waste and emissions in mining towards zero. To take an example: Dry-stack tailings is one of our flagship MissionZero solutions. Here advanced digital mathematical modelling and scanning technologies can deliver benefits in terms of supporting the tailings operations. This is done by tracking material properties such as quality and moisture content, with the data used for planning, documentation and optimisation of the tailings.
Safety is another significant area that is improved by digital. Remote operating centres (ROCs) mean fewer employees on site and fewer employees exposed to potentially hazardous situations. In their 2017 white paper, “Digital Transformation Initiative – Mining and Metals Industry”, the World Economic Forum estimated that remote operating centres (ROCs) “could save approximately 250 lives and avoid more than 12,000 injuries between 2016 and 2025”. The same report places ROCs in the top three of most valuable digitalization technologies in mining and minerals, alongside connected workers and autonomous operations.
Digital shines through remote operations and predictive maintenance
During COVID-19 times, this range of benefits delivered by digital is becoming even more apparent. Some, like safety, might not be the driver for adoption right now but the value of digital in this area will still be seen. Given current priorities, it is the advantages of remotely controlled operations and predictive maintenance that will be most recognised and appreciated.
“Predictive maintenance can deliver a reduction in maintenance costs of 25% to 30%, an elimination of breakdowns of between 70% and 75%, a reduction in downtime of 35% to 45%.”
Think of the value to the industry of predictive maintenance in present circumstances. If we take the straightforward example of equipment operating data: Running a simple analysis on operating data can reveal information on specific part that informs the operator that it is developing a weakness and is about to break. This allows it to be replaced before it causes more problems to the setup, extending downtime and maybe even impacting machinery downstream. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s “Operations & Maintenance Best Practices – A Guide to Achieving Operational Efficiency”, predictive maintenance can deliver a reduction in maintenance costs of 25% to 30%, an elimination of breakdowns of between 70% and 75%, a reduction in downtime of 35% to 45% and an increase in production of 20% to 25%. These are not numbers that can be ignored.
In the current climate, I have seen the real-life, real-time ability of digitalization to minimise disruption brought by the COVID-19 restrictions in a multitude of ways. Our ‘See What I See’ technology is a great case in point. This allows the field engineer and a specialist to collaborate remotely with interactive audio and video, live annotation and sharing of media content. The interaction between them is stored in a knowledge database for future reference, and they can pull data on the product from a cloud-based asset monitoring system.
In coronavirus-times, digitalization is really the key that brings us closer to our customers (at a safe distance, of course!). But it also brings essential, actionable data close to hand and, perhaps, it even brings the expectation and reality of the optimised digital experience still closer together.