My intention for September, was to write three, maybe four articles, on data collection and visualisation for The Intelligent Miner, then move on. However, one thing led to the next and I couldn’t help but dig a bit further into the topic.
It’s widely agreed that the first step on the path to holistically optimising and managing mines at an operational or even an enterprise level, is to unify their data streams into a single platform.
Doing so not only allows us to cross-correlate performance information, it provides a means to breakdown work siloes and react intelligently to changes (both internal and external) much faster and, hence, improve the agility of businesses.
For some time, Swedish sensor and software giant Hexagon AB has been working on creating what it calls ‘autonomous connected ecosystems’, or ACEs (regular visitors will have read about them in my June interview with Marcos Bayuelo from Hexagon’s Mining division).
These are essentially areas within a mining operation that leverage interconnected, IoT-powered technologies. The systems respond autonomously and holistically to events or situations in specific areas and, in doing so, enable rapid decisions to be made regarding safety, productivity, profitability etc.
To create this ecosystem, the technologies, or point solutions, link back to the HxGN MineEnterprise Platform; a centralised, vendor-agnostic, data repository that essentially provides a hub for operations management.
From Hexagon’s Mining division, Adrian Kirk-Burnnand, portfolio manager for MineEnterprise, and chief technology officer, Rob Daw, were willing to explore the subject of data integration with me in more detail and so off we went…
Why integrate data?
“The data quality improvement you get with having systems integrated, using data from a single source really does add value,” said Kirk-Burnnand.
“How do we do that? By sharing things like master data configurations. By standardising the data and making sure the systems can easily talk to each other, and that they know what they’re receiving when they receive it.
“It’s important because otherwise systems are departmentalised or siloed. If you’ve got lots of manual steps to report the data, or the information’s locked up in those systems, be it a desktop system or Excel… you could potentially lose revenue or add to your costs because of delayed decision-making.”
“Interoperability is so important,” Daw agreed. “It’s going to help us gain insights into parts of our organisations and businesses that we’ve never been able to see before. And once we start to get a more complete view across operations and solutions, it’s really going to drive innovation in the mining sector.
“Groups like the GMG are doing an excellent job of starting to define standards. But then there’s the tactical piece of how do we actually execute on this?”
Five or six years ago, Hexagon went through a spate of acquisitions in the mining space and, in 2014, I wrote a commentary piece for Mining Magazine speculating about where the company was heading with them. A few years down the line, it’s interesting to see how the different products are being fitted together to create ACEs.
“We are very fortunate that we have so many of those technologies under our umbrella, that we’re able to work this end-to-end and understand the challenges,” Daw said. “It really does open your eyes to what’s possible.
“When you look at the different siloes, you push the bounds of those, as far as you can… the opportunities are endless. It’s just about having the right focus.”
Are we ready for this?
It’s one thing having the technologies, but are mining companies ready for ACEs and integrated workflows? I asked. Change management is no mean feat, particularly in an industry that is famed for being set in its ways.
Kirk-Burnnand took that question: “Integrated solutions are actually easier to use,” he said. “They remove a lot of manual processes and save time by reducing the more mundane administrative tasks.
“With that time that you’ve saved, you do need to implement new processes. Those are higher-value processes than the ones you’ve been able to retire. But yes, the structure does need to allow the time for those new processes to be adopted.”
Daw was direct: “Are we ready for it? Yes. Have we really hit the nail on the head as an industry? There’s still work to be done there, but everyone has a strong desire to be able to achieve that.
“We can break that down into a couple of areas…
“So, operational technology: looking at that from planning, to ops, and back again, and exploring how we can leverage that information.
“And then, around company structure, as new technologies, methodologies and processes are implemented into mines, we do see different groups being established.
“For example, if we look back 20 or 30 years ago, there was little provision in environmental management, and now we have dedicated groups focusing on that area.
“In another 20 years’ time, will we have groups that are focused on analytics, or will they be more persona based – looking at the entire workflow, from exploration to export, from a geologist’s point of view?
“And with all those things, we’ve got to focus on return on investment too. It’s got to be sustainable change as well.”
A helping hand in decision making
Hexagon’s core strategy with ACEs revolves around collecting data and using it to make real-world decisions.
The first application, announced in June, helps remove people from high-risk areas of mines by allowing slope monitoring systems to ‘talk’ directly to collision avoidance systems on mine vehicles and alert personnel of impending danger.
The company is currently working on sensor technology to advance this capability, allowing more information to be gathered quickly and easily.
“When we talk about autonomous solutions, it’s not just about self-driving trucks, or autonomous haulage systems,” Daw explained. “It’s also about leveraging data to enable automated workflows.
“I think, in the short term, mining operations will move more to assisted decision-making. So, how can we allow the system to take all of that information, and then actually create answers? Scenario-based planning, effectively.
“And then, in the next 20 years, I think we’re going to move further into fully autonomous decision-making capabilities. That’s where it’s all heading.”
What role will data science play in that vision? I asked.
“It’s huge,” Daw said. “We’re leveraging it ourselves in mining, in terms of machine learning, with our operator alert system. The facial recognition capabilities can determine when people are distracted or experiencing microsleeps.
“That’s a use case today, and I think tomorrow… taking that more holistic dataset and starting to identify trends and what the best decision is going forward… The trick today is to get the quality of data to be able to feed those systems, to allow them to work more efficiently.
“To touch on your point before around, are companies ready for these types of solutions? I think the biggest hurdle for a lot of companies at the moment is truly understanding what quality data looks like.
“Once you get a good grasp on that, it can be a gamechanger.”
What opportunities could automated data collection and integration present for mining companies going forward? I asked.
“At an operational level, I split that into what can we do in the field and what can we do in the office,” said Daw. “By automating data collection in the field, it’s allowing us to push the use of autonomy and start making smarter decisions on the edge.
“On the office side, it’s more about having access to that data, having full situational awareness and proactive decision-making. But also, and, unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet to potential incidents out on mine sites, the best thing we can do is to learn from those incidents.
“By bringing together multiple datasets, we can analyse those events properly and put measures in place to minimise the likelihood of them happening going forward.”
From operation to enterprise
Kirk-Burnnand added to that: “The benefit of integrating multiple datasets… what that provides is a complete and holistic view of what’s happening,” he explained.
“At the enterprise level, that means being able to look across the data collected from different mines… even the big companies’ mines tend to operate as siloes.
“But maybe there’s a best practice at one operation that could be applied across others? What is working for one operation won’t always work for another, but could it? And should you try that?
“By having data collection in the field and the IoT, you’re able to measure changes and check if they worked. At the enterprise level that is key for the sustainability of businesses going forward.”
Daw agreed: “I think, as the industry adopts more technology, having the ability to fail fast through having these insights… it really does give us a different view on the world.
“Is a particular action going to work? Let’s try it, measure it, action it, and feed it back to the organisation as quickly as possible.
“And if it doesn’t work, that’s okay, let’s move on. I think automating that process and data collection definitely gives us different insights on what we could do.”
Daw tied up the conversation nicely: “Mining has been around for a long time, and we’ve continued to do business the way we’ve always done business,” he said.
“Once we start to get some insight into this data, there is huge potential to change our business models, to look at the way we are doing business and make it more sustainable.”