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5G: connecting mining to Industry 4.0

5G has the potential to revolutionise the digital landscape in mining. Here's how

Fifth generation mobile networking, or 5G, has been in the spotlight this past week thanks to Rajeev Suri, president and chief executive officer at Nokia Corp, who outlined its potential to change industry at the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

His article, ‘5G will redefine entire business models. Here’s how’, published on the WEF website was both eye opening and inspiring.

“Everybody knows what a farm looks like, don’t they?” he began. “The same goes for a factory, a mine, a power station. Although the scale might have changed, they are all still recognisable from their forms of 50 or 100 years ago.

“The Fourth Industrial Revolution will change that. It will melt the boundaries – and the limitations – of large, economy-defining industries, transforming how they look and what they produce. And it will do that because it will be powered by 5G.”

5G in mining

As Suri explained, 5G is more than just an enhanced version of 4G. It’s characteristics include: very low latency, speeds up to ten times that of today’s networks, and high connection capability (enabling up to one million linked devices per square kilometre), along with excellent reliability.

In mining, 5G offers the reliability and data transfer speeds required to support large-scale and precision-based automation projects. Ailbhe Goodbody outlined the key features and benefits of using 5G for connectivity at underground mining operations in her 2017 article for Mining Magazine ‘5G: the next generation’.

Other mobile network providers that are pushing the implementation of 5G include Ericsson, which led the first installation for a mining operation at Boliden’s Aitik mine in Sweden, and Telia which has teamed up with both Ericsson and Volvo to launch the 5G Partnership Programme. The group aims to enhance 5G networks for mine sites and Mining Technology ran an excellent article in 2018 covering the project.

“Businesses and governments shouldn’t wait for 5G and the Fourth Industrial Revolution to come to them,” Suri urged. “Business models are already changing. If you want the early adopter advantage, this is the time to move.”

At Nokia’s own ‘conscious factory’ in Oulu, Finland, around 99% of processes are automated. The temperature and humidity adjust automatically to keep machines in good condition; parts are delivered using autonomous vehicles; and all machines are fitted with  indoor GPS, allowing managers to see exactly where they are and what they are doing.

“All this makes the facility highly customisable. Everything apart from the walls, floor and ceiling can be moved around. And of course, there is ubiquitous connectivity between robots, workers’ tools, and the underpinning network,” explained Suri.

Of course, it is easier to control and manipulate variables within a factory than it is in a mine; assumptions are not being made based on an orebody that is, in some cases, many metres beneath the ground, and it is much simpler to change the physical layout of a factory than of an underground mine which is restricted geotechnically. Fully automated mining operations – those which do not require any human involvement, where machines and processes automatically adjust themselves according to actual orebody characteristics and grade – are still a way off.

In their effort to optimise and streamline certain processes within their value chains, miners have become good at collecting data but the next steps on the journey to digitalisation will involve linking together the optimised silos that have been created through automation and data science projects. This requires big data to be stored, transferred and processed at lightning speeds. And this is where 5G networks come into play.

Digital transformation

Suri explained that three characteristics offered by 5G – flexibility, versatility and productivity – are at the crux of the fourth industrial revolution.

“Previously, digitisation has benefited a relatively narrow section of even the most developed economies,” he said. “In the US, for example, just 30% of industries (such as financial services) have shared 70% of the benefits of digitisation. This has allowed them to increase their productivity growth rate nearly four times faster than other industries. The Fourth Industrial Revolution could make those gains far more equitable.”

In order to arrive at this new stage of digital transformation, he outlined a strategy for businesses that can be achieved with the help of 5G. The three steps are:

  1. Connect everything. “A business needs to know the state of its assets and be able to control those assets in real time, regardless of their location”.
  2. Compute in the wild. “The cloud is still too centralised. New developments such as autonomous drones need uninterrupted, zero-latency connectivity, delivered by so-called edge clouds, which push applications closer to assets and users”. And,
  3. Make data sweat. “Currently around 90% of data available on a factory floor isn’t even gathered. But greater connectivity and edge cloud will give us a wealth of real-time information, which can be instantly analysed and acted on. As a result, trains could be preemptively rerouted during flooding, factory drones could automatically redirect parts to where they are needed most, and first responders could analyse the scene of accidents before arrival”.

Suri was crystal clear on one point in particular.

“We only have one chance to get it right,” he stressed. “For too long the benefits of digitisation have flowed disproportionately towards a small set of industries, leaving behind hospitals, farms, and other vital social assets.

“The world is waking up to this. At this year’s WEF meeting in Davos, major players in the communications technology sector – including Nokia – agreed to work with others to identify and overcome the various technical, regulatory and organisational challenges that currently block the path to 5G’s broadest possible adoption.

“This is only a first step. More are necessary. Governments in particular need to step on the gas and prioritise 5G adoption. But if ever something was worth working for, it’s this.”

 

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