Optimizing stockyard ­operations

Optimizing stockyard ­operations

Smart components and state-of-the-art software in stockyards are gathering data about the status, operational health and locations of machines and processes. The resulting “digital twins” – virtual copies of machines, processes and entire facilities – are enabling real-time super­vision, planning, automated reporting and simulation of stockyards, thus opening the door to fully automated and ­autonomous operation.

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Andre Herzog ABB Process Industries / Digital Material Handling in Mining Cottbus, Germany, andre.herzog@de.abb.com

Stockyards connect consecutive steps in material transportation chains at mines, rail terminals, ports and plants →01. These facilities provide a buffer of materials between steps in worldwide transportation and logistics chains. Stockyards are also used for mixing and blending different types or qualities of material to achieve required specifications.

01 Thanks to the IIoT, digital twins have access to unfathomably large data sets.
01 Thanks to the IIoT, digital twins have access to unfathomably large data sets.

In order for such facilities and processes to be managed from a central control room, the operator must have an uninterrupted, real-time overview of how much material of a given type and quality is at any given spot, whether it is in a surge bin, on a belt or on a stockpile.

To achieve such an overview, the physical systems, processes and services in a stockyard must be outfitted with smart components and state-of-the-art monitoring software. Such components and software gather data about the real-time status, working condition and locations of machines and processes and combine the resulting data with virtual versions of the machines and their facilities. This makes it possible for data stored in different places to be accessed from a common digital twin directory, thus opening the door to real-time optimization, job reporting, reduced downtime and the use of simulations to plan for the future.

While the use of simulations is nothing new, they have historically relied on relatively small data sets or assumptions about conditions when making predictions. Digital twins, however, have access to unfathomably large data sets thanks to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

ABB’s Ability™ Stockyard Management System (SYMS) provides real-time information regarding handled materials, real-time verification of data, and industry-leading support for operators to improve overall performance →02. It is a configurable system that can be used to provide a digital twin of a facility’s complete material handling chain, including the status of all connected machines and its materials transportation infrastructure.

02 SYMS is a configurable system that can be used to digitize a facility’s complete materials handling chain.
02 SYMS is a configurable system that can be used to digitize a facility’s complete materials handling chain.

SYMS allows the flows of different materials to be modelled across belt conveyors and transportation equipment and combined with material properties and quality information via automated data interfaces. Furthermore, all of the resulting data can be used for operational optimization, such as efficient space utilization in a yard, better planning and scheduling, and more accurate mixing and blending processes. Additional advantages include faster loading and unloading, improved safety, improved accuracy, and reduced energy and labor costs.

From NASA to digital twins
The concept of creating an identical copy of a real object in the virtual world has been around ever since NASA applied the idea to figuring out how to rescue a space mission →04. But it is thanks to the IIoT that it has become cost-effective to implement a new kind of bridge between the physical and digital worlds.

04 Evolution of the digital twin definition.
04 Evolution of the digital twin definition.

A digital twin is an evolving digital profile of the historical and current behavior of a physical object or process that helps optimize business performance. Digital twins are based on massive, cumulative, real-time, real-world data measurements across an array of dimensions.

When applied to managing mining operations, ports or steel plants, the digital twin of a material handling chain provides the operator with a real-time inventory. Material tracking is realized by evaluating all available process data from a facility’s controllers or central control system. Based on the speed of conveyors, materials are tracked by tonnage or volume in material segments.

All available material properties and quality information can then be associated with the material via automated data interfaces. As this takes place, a calculated pile stacking model is built up based on the tracked belt segments; this acts as a digital twin of the stockyard in the database. This digital twin provides the operator with an inventory overview at any time, without needing to do an extra survey.

Tracking materials and predicting flows
To meet goals such as optimized yard utilization, planning, scheduling, and, ultimately, fully autonomous yard machine operation, SYMS provides a stockyard overview and an intuitive multifunction 3D client. For instance, SYMS’s “slice view” feature →03 makes it possible to look inside a pile to check its material mix and quality. If the properties of the material appear to have changed as a result of excessively long storage, a warning will be displayed.

03 SYMS’ “slice view” feature makes it possible to look inside a pile to check its material mix and quality.
03 SYMS’ “slice view” feature makes it possible to look inside a pile to check its material mix and quality.

Concepts such as just-in-time and just-in-sequence, which have driven the automotive industry to steadily increasing levels of efficiency, are thus becoming available for bulk material handling logistics thanks to the continuing evolution and refinement of ABB’s Ability™ Stockyard Management System.

All in all, SYMS allows users to optimize their operations by tracking materials and predicting their flows. This makes it possible to plan materials handling, including mixing and blending on belts.

The system generates automated reports, which enable simplified and fully customer-specific shift and performance evaluations. It offers a distributed service architecture that enables partly standardized interfaces, fully configurable functionality features and user customization. User management can be integrated with an existing plant infrastructure, which enables a seamless synchronization of all users and their rights.

Finally, in case something fails to go as expected, a standardized plan-handling tool lets users receive plans, check their details, place alternative plans in a queue, and switch to them if necessary. 

[1] ABB, ABB Ability Stockyard Management System. Available at: https://new.abb.com/mining/mineoptimize/digital-applications/operations/abb-ability-stockyard-management-system [Accessed June 9, 2021].
[2] ABB, Digital twin of material handling chain. Available at: https://new.abb.com/mining/mineoptimize/digital-applications/operations/abb-ability-stockyard-management-system/digital-twin-of-material-handling-chain [Accessed June 9, 2021].


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