Automation: The six challenges in implementation

CRCMining has put together a list of the challenges the mining industry is facing in implementing automation on site.

As the industry seeks efficiencies across the board in an effort to drive down costs and weather the volatile commodity prices, many are turning to automating processes to ensure best practice, consistently higher productivity levels, and to increase safety on site.

Initiatives such as Rio Tinto’s Mine of the Future program and its remote operations centre, as well as its Minerals Processing Centre of Excellence, are leading the way, while BHP has developed its ‘integrated remote operating centre’ and Fortescue trials and implements automated truck fleets on their sites.

And this is just in Australia.

Overseas Vale is working with ABB to make its massive iron ore mine S11D entirely truckless, through the use of in-pit crushing and conveying methods.

However making this shift from manned operations to automated operations isn’t entirely without difficulties.

CRCMining’s professor Ross McAree has putting together a list of six stumbling blocks that mines should consider before choosing to implement automation.

“There is no guarantee that technology will be able to deliver to its promise,” McAree stated. 

“To achieve the highest value, there are six key challenges that can only be solved through collaboration between researchers, mining companies, and equipment manufacturers.”

  1. The double burden of immaturity: The implementation of automation technology is challenged by both the lack of maturity in technology and implementation. “We need to create ways of raising the benchmarks,” McAree said.
  2. The need for a common interoperability plan: The automation of mining processes will necessarily be realised using building blocks from OEMs and technology providers that are independently designed, implemented, and managed, and that will evolve independently over time. “A holistic framework for integration is an essential prerequisite for the ‘mine of the future’,” McAree said, adding “this will not happen unless the industry agrees and invests in a common plan”.
  3. Operational technology and information technology must integrate: Automation is a means for optimising business processes. There is a need to have common ways of efficiently delivering information about operational processes to guide performance improvement interventions. “The complexity of this task is not to be underestimated, nor is the value that can be derived from achieving it,” he said.
  4. Sourcing skilled people with appropriate expertise: The design, development, and deployment of automation technologies for mining draws on skills that are providing to be a scarce commodity across the sector. Mine personnel of the future will need different skills and technical knowledge. “We need sustainable ways of developing people with the right skills and career opportunities,” he said.
  5. Altered responsibilities: New technologies have the potential to disrupt organisational structures and shift responsibilities in subtle ways. “Understanding and managing both the ‘seen’ and ‘unseen’ impact of technology is critical to its success,” McAree said.
  6. Equivalent levels of safety: New technologies change the risk profile of mine operations. “We need to ensure these risks are properly understood and addressed, so that automation delivers equivalent or better levels of safety, whilst still adhering to the business case on which it is founded,” professor McAree stated.