10 Lessons from 10 Years of Remote Operations Centers

Many things need to happen on the processes and people side, before deciding on the technologies to be associated with Integrated Remote Operations Center (IROC) planning

I remember reading the mining magazines when BHP and Rio Tinto started operating mines remotely from Perth in Australia, now more than 10 years ago. The motivations were similar to petrochemicals remote operations centers (ROCs), already common at that time: fewer personnel exposed to hazardous situations, better reaction to tactical production issues and emergency situations, more efficient and reliable operations, better production throughput and better, more collaborative strategic decisions. I was fascinated by the technology – real-time production visibility, first driverless trucks!  

A few years after, my colleagues and me were “boots on the ground” in the North of Canada, working on a similar Integrated Remote Operations Center (IROC) project. Together with the customer, we co-created a new software that allowed moving their mining operation to Montreal (described in my previous blog “Ending analysis paralysis with agile digital partnerships”). As early adopters, we knew the importance of gaining people commitment, the process and behavior changes necessary for successful collaboration between on-site and off-site teams.

Looking back over the past years, there are hundreds of lessons that we have learned from running collaborative workshops, developing transformation strategies, and bringing remote operations centers to life all around the world together with partners. I have picked a few of these lessons to share with you in the hope that they may be of use not only for the mining industry, but for any other company with an interest in ROC / IROC concept. As a chance to re-imagine the way you operate.

By Eduardo Lima LinkedIn
Global Mining Industry Consultant
Digital at ABB

About the author
Eduardo joined ABB Brazil - field service engineering - in 2005, where he supported the latest technologies in process and electrical automation, developed and implemented a remote diagnostic service center as well as a plant asset management solution. As a global product manager at ABB Switzerland since 2016, he developed and launched the Operations Management System for mining and was responsible for ABB's digital mining portfolio globally. Currently, as a Global Industry Consultant, Eduardo collaborates with mining customers and an ecosystem of partners to advance mining digital maturity by building digital roadmaps, implementation strategy and business case evaluation.

1. Necessity is the mother of invention

When there is a need or a problem, people will be eager to find ways to innovate. The development of IROC must be a response to burning issues and inefficiencies. Is there a high turnover, with difficulties to attract new talents onsite? What are the areas with the highest worker exposure to hazards, risk of accidents and injuries? Is there high variability between the shifts? Are you sinking under the weight of emails, whiteboards, notice boards and ever more complex spreadsheets? Are you missing important deadlines? Is the emergency and incident response too slow? Collect all the ideas from people in different areas. Prioritize by considering value impact vs implementation difficulty and overall strategy. Put the selected value initiatives on a roadmap with clear business KPIs.

2. Help talent move up not out

Skills requirements, roles and personnel structure will continue to change as a result of strategic decisions and innovation projects. It is important to map who is working on site. What are their roles and accountabilities? How are they taking day-to-day decisions? What are their realities? People also need a clear understanding of who is most vulnerable in the face of disruption and why. Ideally, create a process for systematic monitoring and reporting of changes to anticipate upskilling requirements. e.g. A specialized mechanics can switch the dust for the desk – learning to maintain and repair technologically sophisticated systems remotely and assist “universal maintainers” in the field. As more jobs move to operations centers, those who stay on site will need broader skills.

3. Check the checklists

Based on the identified tasks, skills and risk assessment, new protocols and procedures need to be developed to guide IROC and local site operations. This usually means changes in many existing check lists and workflows. Six sigma specialists need to be involved to review the process, to identify the activities which do not bring value. When going through this review process, it is a good idea to provide people with much better alternatives for carrying out the tasks. E.g. Consider switching from paper and Sharepoint files to a mobile app for step-by-step guidance and collaboration. Nowadays you can do it without any external help, using “no-code” solutions. I heard a story about an employee passionate about safety who converted everything he knew into digital safety procedures before retiring. He was so proud to leave a legacy.

4. Evolvable processes

The protocols and procedures you are developing now would probably not run exactly the same way a year later. The expectation is that it should be easy to revisit, test and communicate changes to your crews. Easy to onboard new people on how to follow them. Easy for them to comment on issues or suggest better ways. Adapt to changes in regulations and technologies. I just can’t overemphasize how vital it is to stay connected, pay attention to detail and constantly evolve the processes when preparing for and running remote operations.

5. Expect the unexpected

Failures are a given and everything will eventually fail over time. Many of those failure scenarios can be anticipated beforehand, others are unknown at design and build time. Consolidation efforts often start with the integrated monitoring for maintenance, so that you have reliability experts and data scientists in the same location. It’s easier to harmonize subject matter expertise for predictive maintenance, field service management and remote assistance compared to operations which use very different processes. e.g. This can also help turn your reliability experts into "citizen data scientists" - low- to mid-level power users of AI/ML tools with the skills to handle various analysis tasks and "codify" their knowledge.

So, you see, how many things need to happen on the processes and people side first, before deciding on the technologies to be associated with IROC planning. Technologies, which will provide valid information for analytics. Information that will drive operational transformation on strategic, tactical and execution levels.

In my next blog, I am sharing the remaining 5 lessons covering the technology and information part. In the meantime, please share your own experience, thoughts, and questions by contacting me on LinkedIn or using the Contact Us form below.

Don't let Tribal Knowlege slip away...

Remote Operations Centers: from vision to implementation

PART 2 of the blog “10 Lessons from 10 years of Remote Operation Centers”.

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