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Interoperability – the key to data management in mining

Ailbhe Goodbody speaks to Brett Marsh, director of platform management at Eclipse Mining Technologies, about data management in the mining industry and the importance of systems interoperability

With the rapid digital transformation of the mining industry, some companies face significant challenges with data management. Arizona, US-based Eclipse Mining Technologies was formed to address this issue.

One of the company’s advantages is that its leaders have mining industry backgrounds, so they understand the challenges that are unique to the industry. Its flagship SourceOne industry platform for data management and integration was launched in February 2020 at the MineXchange 2020 SME Annual Conference & Expo in Phoenix, Arizona.

I caught up with Brett Marsh, director of platform management at Eclipse Mining Technologies, who was instrumental in the development of SourceOne as well as in enhancing the user experience within the platform.

Ailbhe Goodbody (AG): How can SourceOne help mining companies to manage their current data and prepare for future applications?

Brett Marsh (BM): The mining industry uses multiple systems – databases and other methods to manage its processes. A lot of the time, the data is that gets generated and processed is underutilised. I recently read that up to 73% of the data generated by an enterprise is not used, which is a pretty significant amount.

Brett Marsh, director of platform management at Eclipse Mining Technologies

The reason for that, in my mind anyway, is because it’s sometimes difficult for mining companies to obtain what they need, as oftentimes they need to have data combined from two databases or from two systems. There could be two departments that share a metric, for example, and they maintain their own sets of data or their own sets of calculations. So instead of spending time understanding the root causes for variances and stuff like that, they spend time debating on whose data is right and not really solving the issue.

The underlying cause is that the sharing of the data between departments, and the integration of that data between systems, is really difficult. One of the other challenges is that often there is a generic database or system that’s used in between to try to compensate. The challenge for those systems is that they really don’t have a good understanding of how to handle mining data, because sometimes it can be very large and very cumbersome.

However, SourceOne is designed by mining professionals specifically to handle mining data. It helps to bridge that gap of taking a generic tool from, say, Microsoft or Amazon, and trying to adapt it into the mining environment.

One of the things that we’ve done to prepare for the future is that SourceOne has a modularised architecture, which means that one piece can be updated, or completely rewritten if necessary, without affecting all the other components. The changes can be lightweight and can be made quickly for the clients.

We also have a robust software development kit that utilises both desktop and web application programming interfaces (APIs). This means we can give clients, service partners and ourselves the ability to read and write data to SourceOne, without the need to come back to Eclipse as they’ll have the toolset to do it themselves.

AG: Why is systems interoperability so important for data platforms?

BM: Because there are so many different types of systems, the data that gets generated is different in each system, and in many cases it’s difficult to use. Often, in order for operations to get to where they want to be with their integrations, they need to have a set of highly skilled programmers to make the data lean and then maintain it internally – which can be a challenge, depending on site locations and environments.

What ends up happening is the engineers, geologists and other technical people end up spending a significant amount of their time gathering and managing that data before they can do their core functions, such as geological analysis or mine engineering. This is because the systems don’t talk well to each other because of the various programming languages or database systems.

If these systems had higher interoperability, their value within the mining industry would improve because now you have knowledge workers spending more time on their core activities.

Personally, I’ve mapped the activities of a number of different engineers and geologists over my career and found that usually between about 30-60% of their time is spent doing non-core activities around collecting data.

That has implications for the industry. One of the challenges is that there is a large talent gap where we have a lot of people reaching retirement age and very few new people coming in. This means the interoperability of those systems is even more critical.

AG: How can SourceOne address this?

BM: We’re setting up an industry platform that’s built generically to work with multiple different vendors and their data systems. In essence, we’re doing a lot of the hard work that requires skilled programmers.

Now, what you’ll see in the industry is that some vendors will sell multiple systems, and sometimes they can bring together different capabilities through acquisitions. Each of those different capabilities come with their own database, their own software code and their own methods of exchanging data. This means it’s even a challenge for a single vendor to provide a holistic solution for their clients, so what they’ve tried to do is create their own platform to integrate that data – that’s a product platform.

That has a tendency to lock clients into a specific platform though, because once you’ve got a platform, the transition cost to switch over to another is expensive. A lot of these digital transformation efforts just stop, because the first step is often the standardisation of some system or other set of activities. If you’re looking at large global mining organisations that can run to many tens of millions of dollars very quickly without any additional benefit other than standardisation.

SourceOne is vendor agnostic across those product suites, and we enable the clients to stick with whatever system they want, integrate the data, and get the results and benefits of that integrated data without having to standardise one vendor’s product offerings. That makes SourceOne a true industry platform.

Eclipse Mining Technologies’ SourceOne industry platform integrates and centralises data, allowing users to inspect their operations’ data, including its history and context, to gain valuable actionable insights

AG: Could you tell me about some of SourceOne’s key features, and where it’s going in the future?

BM: Eclipse’s strategic vision and roadmap is to integrate across the entire mining value chain. We have started at the beginning of the value chain, focusing on exploration and planning, loading, hauling, drilling and blasting. In the future, we’ll start incorporating processing, and even administrative types of data and information around safety, social environmental reporting, finance and accounting, and logistics where they make sense.

The sequence of that will really be driven more by our client makeup, rather than strategically walking up and down the value chain. If a client comes with a use case and says they want us to integrate their mine operations and exploration models with their processing plant to understand how they can get better recovery then, in time, we can facilitate that.

We have created some interesting functionality around geological mine planning type processes with data management. SourceOne allows users to create and implement rich attributions and metadata tagging systems, so that companies can organise and categorise their data as it comes in.

We have also developed an industry-first, customisable user-configurable business process documentation canvas and process runner that allows users to take what you would see in a business process flowchart, for example, and automate it.

We’ve also tied the underlying data that’s required to operate those processes within SourceOne to activities so, if you’re doing something as simple as passing data from one system to another and back, we can automate that.

But then if a client also wanted to do some user guided processes – perhaps a training module, or something that isn’t used frequently enough to get the benefits of automation – we can have all the data tied right to it and take care of that as part of the process.

We’re developing a module now for a digital planning process that will be released shortly. It will help improve what’s currently a labour-intensive and paper-based type of activity, where the mine plans and operational plans are put together by a number of different individuals and departments, sometimes coordinated by multiple people, and then combined into a PowerPoint. Often, because it’s so labour intensive, by the time the plan is finished it’s already obsolete. They don’t get the benefits of understanding what the plant nuances are, and the communications are back and forth.

We’re digitalising that process so that users in the field can collaborate and understand what users in the office and the planners may be doing, and get those two better aligned to make plans more executable and achievable. That’s really the basis of our focus for the rest of the year. As we get more clients onto the system, some of the priorities and how we integrate across the value chain will start to evolve.

AG: Could you talk about any SourceOne case studies or use cases?

BM: A good example is that digital plan where we’re aligning processes that are siloed to a degree. There have been a number of times in my career where I’ve seen significant production upsets simply because maintenance was doing one thing on their schedule, and operations was doing something different on their schedule, and they didn’t align. For example, a crusher may have been down and there is no place to put the shovelled ore.

It’s not done intentionally, it’s just because, again, the systems aren’t interoperable, which means that the people that support those systems and the processes don’t collaborate and communicate well enough or timely enough.

This digital plan process that we’re implementing will help address that. As we combine that with understanding the business processes themselves, we can get to a deeper level of execution.

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