Getting Into The Nitty Gritty of Automation
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An increasing number of digitalization and automation technologies and services will have to be implemented into the daily functioning of the mining industry in order for it to be able to address its most pressing challenges. This fact was made clear during the last section of Mexico Mining Forum 2021’s Day 1, which concluded with a presentation by Alejandro Espejel, Head of Smart Services at FLSmidth, and Alejandro Herrera, Mining Sales Director for Mexico & Central America at FLSmidth. Globally known, FLSmidth is a Danish engineering company based in Copenhagen, Denmark that employs close to 11,700 employees worldwide and provides global cement and mineral industries with factories, machinery and services with the latest technological developments.
Espejel explained that the equipment and technologies that FLSmidth provides run the entire gamut of a mining worksite’s productive chain, “from extraction to tailings management”, which Espejel believes is essential for the integration of automation and digitalization protocols. “One weak link in the chain can inhibit or disable the correct functioning of all the others.” Before providing specific examples of the technologies that they were developing, Espejel delved into the question of why digitalization was becoming increasingly relevant in the mining industry as lower yields from all materials processed began to represent higher energy investments: “The ore deposit grade is decreasing each time as time passes. This places a high demand on processing equipment. Miners have a constant challenge and that is to maintain profitable operations. Digitization can help maintain and improve that profitability.”
Herrera introduced FLSmidth’s SmartCyclone technology, which addressed the need for automated technology that could “reduce the response time between a cyclone blockage event, its detection, and the return to normal operations.” It achieves this by using acoustic data points that can perceive the type of silence that indicates the presence of solids obstructing the cyclone’s usual performance. Like other technologies presented, SmartCyclone entered FLSmidth’s portfolio through an acquisition. Espejel explains the logic of this strategy thusly: "FLSmidth is always striving to have the most up-to-date and efficient technology portfolio. This has led us to develop products organically within the company and also to acquire other companies."
Similarly to SmartCyclone, LoadIQ was another technology which FLSmidth acquired through their purchase of the company KnowledgeScape. Espejel said the technology allows you to "constantly measure and monitor the cascade angle inside a mill to see how conditions are changing due to minerals." This can address what has become a key issue for mining operators, which is increasing the grinding efficiency of their mill. After the presentation of these technologies, Espejel explained one of the key conundrums of automation and digitalization: they generate volumes of data that are not necessarily easy to read. This is why FLSmidth offers service packages that can deliver insights based on the data that all these sensors and technologies generate.. As Espejel put it, “technology must be coupled with a vast amount of expertise and run by specialists to be able to monitor its performance. At FLSmidth we not only offer digitized equipment, but also a 24/7 monitoring service. Additionally, we can enable apps for our customers so that they have all the equipment information available at all times.” This of course includes the development of software and SaaS solutions, such as FLSmidth’s SiteConnect app, which allows mining site decision makers to have access to updated information on their smartphones. In addition, Espejel mentioned projects being developed for the company’s future pipeline, such as robotic and augmented reality solutions that can place engineers onsite remotely. This would revolutionize the workflows of mines, not to mention make the human cost of incidents a thing of the past.
One of the ultimate aims of implementing these technologies for Espejel is what he referred to as “the use of digital solutions to achieve asset performance optimization”. This refers to the nature of maintenance. According to Espejel, through the use of his company’s technologies, companies can move not only beyond reactive maintenance, but beyond predictive maintenance as well. As he put it, “predictive maintenance is usually represented as the end goal, but the truth is that for us it represents only the middle step. Predictive maintenance is good but it still means excessive and ultimately unsustainable expenses for operators. What you really want to achieve is continuous maintenance, meaning systems where maintenance is performed as the system is running through its usual functioning stages. Only through that technological goal can companies meaningfully reduce their downtime, by a factor of as much as 75 percent.”