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Looking to Internal Resources for Optimising your Mine Automation

Having been on site in the last week of August at Mining IQ’s 8th Mine Automation and Communication conference, an interesting theme came out of the wide variety of presentations – and not one I’d necessarily expected.

Perhaps in light of the current market climate, I should have expected it, but overwhelmingly came through the message about how much mining companies are relying upon internal expertise and solutions for their automation projects – rather than simply outsourcing everything to the fairly enormous vendor market.

The two days saw presentations from Northparkes, Teck Resources in Canada, Anglo Coal, Argyle Diamonds, Discovery Metals, Barrick Gold and Fortescue Metals – amongst others. We saw a variety of case studies and projects focusing on the automation of different equipment and processes.

Hot topics consistent amongst the sessions were of course optimising your automation project, working towards real-time (or near to real-time) data acquisition and analysis, plus creating more truly integrated systems as opposed to having 8 or 9 disparate systems (both in terms of vendor consolidation, but also standardisation across sites) and the importance of IT/OT convergence and cooperation.

What was definitely of key interest to me however was a few of the presentations that covered systems that had been designed internally by mining companies. Gavin Strack from Barrick Gold shared with the audience how he had led the project that integrated Barrick’s control systems across mine sites into one platform. Gavin had joined us a year ago to present on the outset of the project, so this was a great insight into a real project one year on – with results.

Barrick had decided to create a multi-site platform for the control systems to give them greater access to the system data, to enable them as a company to make better, data driven decisions and improving the speed of response for real time decisions.

Their initial strategy was to build the infrastructure first to allow the remote support of sites (Barrick has sites across Australia, mostly WA but also one on the East Coast, plus a site in PNG). As Gavin said, “this opened a whole can of worms about OT/IT integration and who is responsible for what.” Once he’d managed to work past this however, they moved onto looking at vendor standardisation across sites. Obviously being able to go in from the standpoint of overseeing 10 sites, rather than one, meant significant increased bargaining power for Barrick. Gavin was careful from the start to make sure that he was prioritising his effort in the project focusing on the elements that would give the company the biggest benefit, i.e. the biggest bang for their buck.

Gavin quickly realised once he’d embarked on the project that Barrick had no standard for IT/OT convergence, so had to create a standard interface that could be applied to Barrick sites around the world: “I didn’t want to think just in terms of WA – we have sites over in South America that are huge, vs. local sites that might have just 5 PLC systems.”

The main driver of this starting point was creating an interface that looked into the IT world, but from an outside world perspective. To ensure this was successful they worked closely with IT, operations and engineering to design the standard (this has since been adopted globally within the Barrick corporation).

“We didn’t want to have an iron curtain between IT and operations…there are benefits to breaking that barrier and working together, as long as there are clear delineations of who is responsible for what…I didn’t want process guys to become IT experts,” said Gavin, highlighting both the potential problems of this convergence, and how to overcome them.

Barrick used industry best practice to design the interface, and drew from the Rockwell Automation standard. Connecting their sites, including some very remote ones (such as PNG) allowed for numerous benefits. It allowed visibility of a site’s process from any computer connected to the Barrick intranet, meaning anyone – security allowing – could access the information. Interestingly, in their Perth office they have found the maintenance and reliability department have actually been the greatest users of this data, allowing them to improve machine reliability and availability.

It also means that any problems in the process that require help from regional office can now be resolved with just a phone call – rather than a long, expensive trip out to the site in question. It also allows Gavin to “identify issuesbefore they become problems”, and the value of that to the business is of course incredibly high. Up until March of this year Barrick had received 20 call outs with machinery/process issues. The system went mostly live at that point, and since then they’ve received 3, due to being able to identify, isolate and rectify problems before they occur. This alone speaks volumes for the success of the system.

A challenge that was raised during the Q&A time with both Gavin, and on the second day with Peter from Teck Resources, was the inevitable change management/engagement from operations teams piece. When Gavin was asked about how he overcame pushback from operations on the sudden influx of data thanks to this new system he explained, “It’s amazing what happens when you turn up on site and talk face to face, instead of just firing off emails… don’t try and do too much. Focus on one thing, especially when it’s your first time on site. After the first time, something magical happens.”

Peter was also asked when it came round to his presentation on the system convergence project he’d undertaken at Teck, how he managed to sell the concept to the operators, many of whom would have been used to working off the old ways for years. He replied: “We really engaged closely with each mine’s training department, allowed 3 months adoption time per mine and started early on following classic change management steps.” They found someone at each mine who was considered a real opinion leader (this was frequently a senior foreman) and the first port of call was always to sell it to him. In Teck’s case they were replacing a system that had been in use for the past 12 years – so there were some serious mindset challenges to overcome! The operations managers were absolutely key in convincing people.

So what was Teck’s project? Peter had undertaken an enormous project – that of converging the numerous systems, screens and hardware within their truck cabs (shovel and haul trucks) down to just one screen that could in essence tell the operator everything they needed to know. The drivers behind this were of course efficiency, the ability to drive real time data and of course various cost benefits. It would help improve situational awareness, make it far more operator friendly, reduce the time for piloting new technologies, improve system security and allow for remote system maintenance – obviously both a cost and efficiency opportunity.

Peter compared the system to an iPhone – with lots of apps. You have the one screen that can give you everything (as he said – imagine if you still had to carry around a phone, camera, GPS system, health monitoring system, iPod etc. instead of the one handy gadget. And yes – Samsung/HTC fans, same thing applies with your gadget…).

Having one single network, instead of numerous different ones, presented lots of benefits to Teck, as listed above. As Peter said, the mining industry “likes to choose the one who’s best in class” – meaning if you know a company specialises in collision avoidance technology, you’ll buy that from them, but fleet management software from another company who’s known for that.

What Teck have done is moved to one physical network, run from off-the-shelf computers now (meaning they don’t have to buy all the hardware and screens typically associated with each vendor offering, that add up to a lot of money), but with the network segmented, allowing for specialisation. This allows for a lot of flexibility, with access to and management of parts of the network allocated out to a variety of people and/or sites, with some vendors even managing their own parts of the network for efficiency purposes.

This move has meant incredible changes to Teck’s ability to acquire and act upon real time data. Last year before the system went live, they would analyse yesterday’s data at the start of each day. Now, they get 15 minute updates on their trucks and can push out entire fleet changes within 9 minutes.

There were inevitably challenges with this big change; it was far from a walk in the park. Training, adoption (both internally and with external vendors who were losing out on big dollar contracts now), the deciding of roles and responsibilities in terms of ownership of the system all presented difficulties along the way. However, it was evident from Peter’s presentation, and the significant interest around the room after his presentation, that the benefits absolutely outweighed the challenges.

If you’re interested in seeing Peter’s presentation paper, you can check it out here on Mining IQ. For further content, interviews and whitepapers in the Mine Automation and Communications space, check out our automation focus resource centre.