Digitalization Drives the Mine of the Future
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With the benefits of the ‘mine of the future’ in sight, industry experts agree that mines have a lot to gain from digitizing their operations to achieve safer, more sustainable and efficient operations. This is a clear-cut issue for technology companies but how can they help transform the overly traditional mining industry?
“Digitalization represents an amazing opportunity for mining companies, equipment manufacturers and technology experts,” said Arturo Vaca, Energy Director of Peñoles, a global Top 2 producer of refined silver and market leader in gold, lead, refined zinc and sodium sulfate production. “But we really should see technology as a means of improvement and not as an end goal in itself.”
For Vaca and many other industry insiders, the potential for improvement through digitalization is tangible. A fully safe mine without accidents, no harmful emissions, fully recycled water use without discharges, a perfect metallurgic recovery rate and fully optimized productivity, is no longer an unattainable utopia for mining operators; technology can help them to get there. “The ideal mine of the future is safe, simple, smart, circular in its functioning and sustainable,” said Vaca. The key to getting there is digitalization, which is “the biggest lever toward development that the industry has seen in the past 20 years or so,” he added.
Although the benefits are clear, experts often underline that the mining industry is somewhat conservative when it comes to digitalization. “The nature of the industry makes it harder to adapt to the latest technologies. Mining is a heavy industry and a traditional one at that,” said Eder Lugo, Minerals Head Mexico of global technology giant Siemens. Sergio Campana, Latin America Mining Industry Manager of Rockwell Automation, a technology company that received a record number of orders valued at US$2 billion from mining companies over 2020, agrees with the notion. Nonetheless, Campana stresses that not every mining company is necessarily the same. “All mining companies have different levels of technology adoption. Most of the mining companies in Mexico have started this transition,” he said. Campana points at banking and retail companies, which are at the forefront of digitalization developments and can therefore function as a “great example” for miners. But even these sectors are not yet making full use of technological advancements. “We might even be a bit blind to the vast opportunities technology can provide to us,” Campana stated.
Lugo identified several digital trends in mining that apply to the mining industry, specifically. Remote monitoring can help miners make decisions and enable predictive maintenance through AI and automation. Operations can also be done remotely to improve safety and cut costs, although cybersecurity would need to be considered. Beyond remote are autonomous operations. “Autonomous operations will no longer depend on the efficiency of operators. Miners will always have an optimal, fast and stable operation thanks to artificial intelligence, which handles the operation instead of humans,” Lugo said. The development of digital twins helps companies to predict output and prevent problems by running a digitalized clone model of the operation. Because mines are continuously pressured to improve their performance, output and sustainability, Lugo believes that the drivers for these advancements are already in place.
Siemens studied the concept of ‘the mine of the future’ extensively in 2016. Lugo sees that this type of mine needs to be prepared for new challenges in the industry, such as ‘extreme’ conditions like those found at the bottom of the sea or even in space. “Space mining might sound rather futuristic but it is coming closer than one would think,” stressed Lugo. Despite these difficult conditions, people will expect mining operations to be safer than ever. To make this happen, mines will be strongly digitalized, with strong integration and connectivity within their value chain.
Mónica Samudio, Country Managing Director of leading energy efficiency technology manufacturer Circutor, underlined the importance of energy efficiency for modern mines. “Energy needs to be understood as an essential factor in the mining industry’s productive process,” she said. To drive the point home, Circutor uses the example of a model Mexican mine, compiled by combining several normal datasets. This mine has a 5MW energy demand on average. It pays MX$1.5 million (US$73,688) per month for capacity charge alone. “If we can get the peaks in electricity demand 10 percent down, we can lower the costs MX$150,000 (US$ 7,368) per month. For a mining group, this represents significant savings without even mentioning the vast environmental benefits,” she said. “The costs of investment, mostly aimed at measuring equipment, would not be high for a mine,” Vaca added.
Despite the evident value, the challenge is how to reach into it. “We can share our knowledge and experience with mining companies so they can reach higher productivity and greater sustainability,” said Samudio. Technology companies will play an important role through research and development, like in the case of electric vehicles for mining operations, and through making technology more accessible. The experience technology experts have can be valuable in advising companies exactly where to look when adopting new software, according to Vaca. “Technology companies need to advise mining companies in where they need to look. Some time ago, companies all wanted an app. Some just did it to be part of the trend even though it did not help their business model. We should all work to avoid this,” he said.
Experts agree that cooperation between technology companies and miners is what eventually will make digitalization a success. “The mining sector is continuously moving toward improvement, so the responsibility of suppliers is gigantic. However, it really is a joint effort between all participants to modernize the industry and meet all expectations,” Samudio said.
Campana believes that companies should look at development as an even broader collaborative process. “Many people talk about partnerships but miners are somewhat unwilling to commit fully to one technology provider. However, providers such as ourselves should strive to bring in outside players if this adds value,” he said. Processes, people and technology all play an important part.