A well-planned and accurately implemented digital programme will deliver sweeping benefits to any mining operator. Imagine the impact to the bottom line when a standardised suit of digital tools, data analytics, automation and AI are all working in tandem... the long-promised era of new productivity will have truly arrived.

Though a transformation agent for productivity, throughput and profit, digitalization will also disrupt the mining work environment and its traditional operating model. Skill-sets will need to change and some traditional roles will become obsolete, as many new ones emerge. Perhaps less talked about, however, is how digitalization will also make mining safer. The number of on-site fatalities and injuries will be drastically cut, emission and waste levels will be reduced, while mining’s footprint on local environments and communities will be minimised. 

Predictive maintenance, remote operations and autonomous equipment

The most obvious safety benefit digitalization brings to mining is the reduction of the frequency and time workers and maintenance crews spend on-site repairing machinery and improving sub-optimised performance levels. There are quite a few ways that digital delivers on this.

Remote service and operating centres are increasingly being established to facilitate digitally aided processes and data-driven decision making, as well as to improve collaboration and the sharing of best practices and processes across different site locations. Real-time remote monitoring and data analysis can pin-point inefficiencies throughout the flowsheet, identify areas where machinery is being pushed too hard and predict exact spots where maintenance is likely to be needed.

Operating centres 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.

Ultimately, we want to give customers a better night’s sleep, safe in the knowledge that their plant and equipment are operating as they should be.

Anders Noe DamHead of Product management and development in Digital Business at FLSmidth

Data analysis puts customers in control of productivity and safety

“We have a focus on giving customers on-demand and remote access to key data points, so they are in control of optimising their plant and equipment performance health – and, of course, increasing safety,” says Anders Noe Dam, Head of Product management and development in Digital Business at FLSmidth. “We live in an interconnected, data-rich world and we are providing a suite of products that helps customer to sense of this data, bringing insight and transparency to plant and equipment operations. Ultimately, we want to give customers a better night’s sleep, safe in the knowledge that their plant and equipment are operating as they should be – and that they have the ability to respond quickly and effectively if the unexpected happens.”

Underpinning the ability of miners to operate ROCs and optimise plant performance through data collection and analysis are product-level digital technologies, such as smart sensors and real-time monitoring tools. This digital monitoring, for instance, automates real-time adjustments in mining equipment, reducing wear and tear of machinery and optimises performance. A digital process control system can measure and assess a large number of parameters and their interdependencies within mere seconds, far superior to anything that could be done manually.

The decreased wear, which comes from this analysis of sensor data, means equipment operates at the optimal level. The result: higher throughput and fewer stoppages to replace wear parts, and, therefore, fewer instances of employees in potentially dangerous situations. 

Article continues below the case study

Safety case study: BulkExpert™ - unmanned operation of stockyards

Mine stockyards can face a constant battle to process as much material as possible at the lowest possible cost. In the past, different operating methods and the multiplicity of materials made it difficult to rely on anything but highly-skilled operators for the job of transporting dry bulk material. But those processes left operators exposed to variable operator performance, operational errors, safety risks and inconsistent stockyard operation.

To meet these challenges - especially productivity and safety - we developed BulkExpert™, a unique automation solution that is already lowering cost tonnes and increasing productivity for major dry bulk terminals in Europe, the Americas and Australia. We equipped it with the most advanced technologies on the market to deliver a profitable, fully-automated system that ensures the operation of your expensive material handling capital equipment, such as stackers and reclaimers, is optimised for production and safety. BulkExpert, with fully autonomous and centralised operation, uses 3D laser scanning and a dedicated Real Time Kinematic (RTK) GNSS array to produce real-time, full terrain information on stockyards.

BulkExpert continually monitors all possible collision hazards. It can also be used as an anti-collision enhancement of a conventional system, alerting CCR operators before they move equipment into collision zones and enabling them to initiate preventive action and eliminate time-consuming interruptions. The system does not compromise vendor guaranteed safety levels as all machine interlocks remain active and unaltered.

Reducing mining’s footprint means additional safety

The difficulty in delivering the minerals demanded by society, while decreasing the environmental footprint, is being compounded by declining ore grades. Over time, as the most profitable deposits are depleted, the concentration of valuable minerals in the ore decreases. This has direct implications for the amounts of water and energy needed for production, increasing the environmental footprint of the mine. As a result, safety risks can increase both for miners and the surrounding communities.

Digital means greater transparency throughout the flowsheet, allowing for greater efficiency when it comes to resource use, for example, energy or water. This is increasingly a crucial factor in sustainability - and indeed our MissionZero ambition - but also in regard to safety as it impacts emissions, waste, footprint and water management. Digital processes are integral for realising achieving our vision of driving customer success through sustainable productivity enhancement, as they can help customers produce more with less resource use.

Digitally optimised processes mean less water usage during ore extraction, for instance. This alone or in combination with water reuse, can mean a smaller tailings facility, which reduces safety risks on an environmental and community level. Any factor that assists improved water management is also likely to help when it comes to social licence to operate.

Our approach to delivering safety through digitalization

The nature of much of our work involves installing and servicing heavy machinery, which inherently comes with a certain level of safety risks. We continuously emphasise the importance of being safety-oriented throughout our business practices.

Safety is also a core component of our sustainability programme: we focus on taking care of our employees, sub-contractors and everyone working under our control. With our people-first mind-set, employees are happier when they go to work, and safer working conditions enable them to deliver quality and service at a level consistent with our high standards. In the end, this is reflected in the solutions – and digital solutions – we create for our customers.

For instance, in 2019, we added to our suite of management information systems focused on transforming process and quality data into actionable insights. This was designed to increase throughput, reduce plant downtime, improve quality of your decisions, foster collaboration and help improve site safety.

Instant customer control has increased  

Part of this was the SiteConnect™ Mobile Insights App, a simple-to-navigate mobile app, that delivers insights on the go with on-demand equipment and plant performance and health data. This was launched with a comprehensive management information system, called ECS/PlantDataManagement, that integrates all process and quality information islands, making critical real-time plant data available to operational, management and executive personnel. The final part was ECS/UptimeGo, a downtime analysis solution to help plant staff identify the issues that interrupt operations and prevent unwanted future downtime.

All these three, combined with previously existing digital and smart solutions, such as LoadIQ, SmartCyclone™ and the Raptor cone crusher “R” line, deliver connected data and connected employees, allowing for maximised asset health, performance and safety. It is safe to say, in fact, that safety – along with productivity and sustainability – will always be one of the key drivers for new digital solutions that enable our customers to run the best possible operation. 

Stories from FLSmidth