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Addressing tomorrow’s mine today

Australia is known for its mining industry success and has often been at the forefront of global innovation in terms of technology and process development. However, mining is facing major challenges across all operations, says Javier Orellana.

Javier Orellana, Mineral Processing & Optimisation Centre of Expertise Manager at Schneider Electric.
The decrease in pricing of commodities, increasing environmental legislation requirements, decreases in ore grade and a shift in the skills required have all led to major declines across the Australian mining sector in terms of productivity and profitability. 

To meet these challenges, mining companies are beginning to focus on the integration of their mining businesses to get a better understanding of how their operations are performing and leverage multiple systems and processes to drive business objectives. Integrated mining is a concept that describes the consolidation of mining data, process and procedures, managements systems to drive business intelligence. 

s an initial step, current mining companies are concentrating the majority of their efforts in knowing what’s happening in their present operations and trying align their KPIs to better reflect business objectives rather that site requirements.

In order to ensure that Australia’s mining sector continues to grow and thrive despite an unpredictable and unstable environment, mine operators must move towards a truly integrated approach to management through advanced business intelligence. In order to result in a business-wide transformation, a solution should not be limited to technology. It must also cover people and business processes and all these must be aligned to the overall business strategy for the short term and the long term. 

Although this strategy is clear, it will need to be unique to each organisation depending on the size of their operation, the commodities they are involved in, their markets and their objectives. The approach needs to be top-down and must include an end-to-end view, breaking down silos – not just from pit-to-port but also across the entire value chain like operations, sales, maintenance, engineering and corporate.

Although most mining companies are already using real-time and interactive access to information needed for planning, managing and optimising mine operations, to the aforementioned points, it is important that this data is reviewed in a holistic approach to result in a stronger outcome for productivity in the future, that is, turning data into information to drive business intelligence.

Decision makers are good at intervening in abnormal situations and in applying non-linear reasoning but for this to happen they must have the right information at the right time with the right context. That is “data mining” information from real-time, near real-time and disparate systems and applying to the complexities of mining operation, analytics, simulation, modelling and optimisation. 

Some of the big data that is currently being used in mine operations is coming from seemingly dissimilar systems. This data is only useful when it relates to internal and external constraints (as it can then be used in real-time for further improvement in integrated planning and optimisation). 
For example, the systems could relate to market demand, ore tracking, blending quality control, mobile equipment tracking, water management, process control, weather forecast, energy usage, transport and port

Data and analysis aside, people are a major key in the success of any integrated approach. Providing the technology that can enable these changes is one piece of the puzzle, however, people will make these changes successful. 
As part of mining’s transformation, the process and systems that support people must be improved and optimised. Here there is also scope for considerable improvement in efficiency of people as a team and consistency of their work. 

The efficiency can be generated from running a flexible operational team in multiple locations along with a team of virtual experts. 
The consistency would be achieved through the use of workflow technology to institutionalise their business processes. It would leave no wiggle room for people to find short cuts that are not optimal for the business.

Change management is also extremely important in use of new technology and implementation of new processes in existing operation for sustainable and profitable outcomes. Care has to be taken that old processes, which may not be optimal, are not carried into brown field or green field projects as people from existing operations could be leading the new projects. 

Another important matter that demands attention is managing workforce transformation. It will become increasingly difficult to find people with the right skill and experience and in the right location
As the mining industry continues to transform the industry will see flexible and geographically spread teams working together, interpreting information and making decisions. The efficiency of people and consistency of their actions must be through systems and processes rather than years of experience. 

Tacit knowledge or good intuition will need to be formalised and integrated in the operational excellence system and more resources will be engaged in business improvement activities to standardise work procedures that can be automated.

In the recent years the mining industry has seen a large number of incremental or point solutions being implemented to improve productivity and reduce costs. While this trend will continue, the industry must now invest more in broad transformation in relation to managing business, running operations and re-defining the workforce. Each of these areas is dependent on the other and hence a unified approach is a must. 

[Javier Orellana is Mineral Processing & Optimisation Centre of Expertise Manager at Schneider Electric]


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