While we all dream of the day where we can buy just one thing to solve our communications challenges in the mining environment, we all know the design specification for the silver bullet is a long way off (as in “that’s never going to happen”).
So where does that leave us? Well it’s a matter of opinion of course. For this crusty old consultant, the answer is one size never fits all. For me, the answer has always been what do I have in my tool belt that can solve this particular customer problem that makes sense for the customer and their application.
We are essentially talking about finding a business solution and not a vendor driven technology choice. As always, the answer lies in understanding the problem fully as it relates to the business operation in question.
All jokes aside, now heading into the twilight years of my career I have the unique honour of being asked my opinion about various subjects in my area of experience and some may say expertise. For anyone that knows me, you will get that I am driven from a place of always trying to do what is right by my customer and this conversation is less about technology and more about process.
While some may see my blog title as sarcastic or tongue in cheek, my point is to create some thought about who do you work for? And, is what I am doing right now bringing value to the shareholders now or in the future? If I am working on the strategic aspects of the business cycle, am I acting in the smartest way possible?
In its 2017 report titled ‘Digital in Mining: Progress … and Opportunity’, Accenture reported that “56% [of mines were] considering merging their IT and OT groups within the next 12 months’. While significant progress has been achieved, the two groups are still learning to work together at most sites to address common issues around wireless network reliability, mobile data access and cybersecurity among others.
The distinct functions each group is accountable for has a lot to do with this difficult merge. It’s however critical to review the silver lining in converging IT and OT when it comes to the digital mine – enhanced productivity through real time data access provided by a reliable wireless network and reduced technology Capex.
With an increasing number of mines in the process of digital transformation, reliability of your wireless network is becoming paramount. Real time or near real-time data access to fleet data is now a requirement for mines of all sizes, and failure of those wireless networks isn’t only critical for autonomous sites.
We will discuss here five examples of how network downtime, even in a non-autonomous environment, can affect your productivity by impacting a variety of business units within your mine.
All of our industry leaders talk about innovation as one of the key mechanisms to step change in our business. The conversation is as applicable in any industry as it is in mining. As a result, we certainly have no shortage of research organisations, committees, in-house research and development teams all working diligently to drive greater value in our respective ecosystems.
By definition, the connected mine requires connection to all your mobile and fixed devices at any one time. Monitoring of your wireless network to ensure its reliability and connection to all your devices is therefore paramount.
However, the unique environment in which miners operate, only allowing for a limited network bandwidth, combined with the criticality of the mining fleet applications quickly differentiate network monitoring solutions.
While the large mining houses move rapidly towards automation of mobile operations, generally their whole operational environment is powered by a single OEM chosen by the customer. This strategy not only specifies the types of trucks a miner uses for example, but also dictates the technologies required to support the autonomous operations, from the wireless infrastructure to the machine access technology. All of which has to be approved by the machine autonomy vendor.
If a customer wishes to use alternate technologies, the costs and logistics associated to validate and test a customer preferred alternative are often prohibitive and so, in most cases, things stay the same and the advantage to the customer of implementing newer and better performing solutions is lost.
Deployment of an out-of-the-box fleet management or asset health solution is not always an option for smaller operators. Add the cost of the application to the cost of deploying a full scale wireless network and many are unable to justify the ROI on their project, and remain stuck in the manual collection of their data.
The applications traditionally have requirements for relatively high cost hardware and software, as well as a network requirement for full coverage throughout the site. That doesn’t make it the only solution.
Most mines now have the ability to access some of their data in some ways, whether be in real-time, near real-time or manually. However, what the industry now calls the ‘Digital Mine’, defined by the installation of a variety of applications on-board the heavy mobile equipment and real-time access to the data they generate, often remains an option only available to larger operators.
Even for those operations, reliable real-time access to the machines’ critical data can remain a challenge caused both by a limitation in availability of access to all the data and an excessive amount of data travelling through the mine’s wireless network at any one time.
Access to the mobile equipment’s data can be available to all. We will discuss here some of the main challenges faced with data access and ways to address them.
The thought of upgrading your in-pit wireless network can be a bit daunting and nerve-wracking. Are you going to have to suffer through a fork-lift upgrade? What kind of downtime will be associated? Will that downtime be network wide, or only on a few items at a time?
A little planning, and the right technology choices can take all the fear and concern out of this significant event.