Although demand for commodities is growing in the long term, the mining industry currently faces a unique set of challenges: Competitive pressure is driving miners to find ways to increase the production rate of their operations, reduce the cost per ton produced and extend the life span of mine sites or establish new ones. People and asset productivity have to rise too as flat underlying commodity prices, rising production costs and high price volatility are currently forcing miners to reduce capital expenditure. Indeed, productivity improvement is now fast becoming a key competitive differentiator and is being built in to financial projection models.
Added to all this is an aging workforce. In common with other industries, the age profile in mining is slowly creeping up and retiring workers are leaving with valuable know-how and experience. The situation is exacerbated by the remote and inhospitable location of many mines, which makes it difficult to bring in experts and recruit and retain competent staff.
The solution to all these challenges, and the future of mining, lies in automation and integration of information and the use of that knowledge for real-time optimization of the mining processes.
Automation is not new to mining, but the automation employed in mines is generally more basic than in other industries and is often limited to simple control of motors, equipment or certain parts of processes.
Further, mines tend to have a large number of independent pieces of equipment and systems from different suppliers. Each of these “islands of automation” can have its own data, data format and interfaces, and operators and control room staff must scrutinize a multitude of conceptually disconnected screens in order to coordinate different parts of the process.
The key to the future of mining, then, lies in total integration of data and work processes meaning convergence to channel more and more information from real-time systems into software, enriching four key areas that will enhance efficiency, responsiveness and profitability across the mining value chain:
Intelligent production, and higher people and asset productivity
Data integration can dramatically improve production efficiency and productivity. This can be done through:
- Process optimized according to ore properties
- Production targets optimized according to market conditions
- Wireless communications enabling just-in-time optional process management
Intelligent response to critical asset condition in real time
Failure of a critical production asset can have a catastrophic impact on production targets. The loss resulting from a main conveyer failure, for example, can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars per hour. A modern asset optimization system can help mines to go from reactive to predictive maintenance strategies, avoiding unnecessary maintenance and reducing operating costs. Extended automation solutions such as System 800xA can integrate modern maintenance systems from suppliers such as IBM, SAP or Ventyx. Real-time data on asset conditions can then be used to streamline maintenance effectiveness and enable condition based monitoring.
Demand-driven planning improving profitability
The mining supply chain extends from the extraction of raw materials through the transport of products to the end customer. To achieve production and productivity targets, mining companies need to achieve high operational performance and efficiency across supply-chain processes. Better integration and automation across processing plant operations, mine planning and asset maintenance/management will guarantee the right product is available at the right time. It will also make sure that customer orders are accepted only when the supply chain can deliver them, thus improving negotiating power and risk management. In addition, this unified view ensures that equipment maintenance can be scheduled to minimize impact on production schedules while maintaining the required level of availability.
Reduced energy consumption and waste
Improvements in energy efficiency can be driven not only by improvements in mining processes and technologies, but also by greater visibility and process control across the value chain through information integration and process optimization.
Remote operation centers enabling the vision
Mines of the future will be run from remote operation centers. Data from all parts of the operation will flow together to allow precise management of mining – from rockface to end customer – and resources and production to be optimized across multiple sites.