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Getting with the program: Programmable Application Controllers in mining

The current Australian resources environment poses many challenges for mining companies.

Rising costs, reduced capital investment, remote operations and lower commodity prices are leading to profitability and productivity being squeezed.

Safety and sustainability levels are continuously under pressure too. 

These challenges are forcing mining companies to cut costs and look for ways to maximise operational performances, with a focus on raising the productivity of existing assets and resources.  

One of the ways in which mining companies are looking to improve performance and overcome their many challenges is by making better use of the vast amounts of information which exists within their operations.

This information exists across the many devices, equipment, applications and systems that are required for a mining operation to function effectively.

In the past, extracting valuable information required complex integration projects to be undertaken to tie together the various disparate and proprietary networks into some semblance of an integrated system.  

Today, mining companies are taking advantage of the IT/OT technology trend, whereby open IT standards have extended to the shop floor via the process control system (PCS). 

This improves connectivity and interoperability and allows them to become a connected enterprise.The move towards the connected enterprise requires a technology architecture that is capable of moving large volumes of data and information from the many connected devices found across the operation. 

This data is moved to the higher level applications and systems used for visualisation and analysis. At the centre of this technology architecture is the Process Automation Controller (PAC).  

The traditional role of the PAC and its predecessor, the PLC, has been to monitor and control the devices, equipment, applications and processes found within the mining operation. 

In today’s mining technology architecture, the role of the PAC has been extended beyond monitoring and control. 

It is now responsible for handling increased connectivity to a larger number of devices and the management of the large amounts of available data.  

In order to meet this increased responsibility a new generation of PAC is required.  

The new generation of PAC implements functions and services which support:

Secure and efficient process automation 

Ethernet transparency, distributed intelligence 

Links with business applications 

Web integration 


Device communication using Ethernet and web standards

With the integration of Ethernet into the backplane of the new generation PAC, the demands for connectivity, transparency and interoperability can be met.    

In order to meet the demands of connectivity, transparency and interoperability, the new generation of PAC has Ethernet at its core. 

The integration of Ethernet into the backplane of the PAC allows the seamless flow of data and information from devices and equipment in the field to the higher levels systems and applications that need it.  

Unlike traditional PAC / PLC systems where large amounts of data mapping was required to achieve this, often at the expense of increased engineering costs and data quality.  

Of course, with the extra functionality of truly integrated Ethernet, the new generation PAC has been designed with this requirement in mind from the start.  

This ensures that the performance in monitoring and controlling the different applications and processes for which it is responsible are not compromised by the extra demands resulting from managing increased device connectivity and information throughput.

The new generation PAC with Ethernet at its core not only ensures that its performance exceeds the demands placed on it, both now and in the future, but it has to achieve this while maintaining high levels of security.  

Cybersecurity threats from external or internal sources are issues confronting all mining companies today. 

Deliberate or accidental breaches to system integrity have the potential to impact not only profits but people and the planet as well.  

Therefore the new generation PAC is designed with cybersecurity in mind and not just added afterwards like many traditional PAC / PLC systems.  

As a minimum, it must incorporate standards such as IEC62443 for implementing secure industrial automation and control systems.

Notwithstanding the integration of Ethernet, the new generation PAC must also deliver the performance, flexibility and reliability that are expected from such solutions.  

It ensures the high performance expected from the most demanding applications by being built on a new generation microprocessor designed specifically for industrial applications coupled with large and extensible memory.  

The new generation of PAC also offers extensive flexibility, not only in terms of architectures resulting from ATEX certification and the integration of Ethernet, but also in terms of the functionality provided as standard.

On board native time stamping of I/O, integration of additional networks and field busses such as HART and Profibus and the provision of weighing modules ensures that this next generation PAC is equipped to cover the diverse range of applications found within a mining operation. 

It is this diverse range of applications that can impact the reliability of such systems.  

From the specific requirements of underground mining through the often harsh environments found in many surface mining applications, the next generation PAC ensures continuous operations under such conditions by offering ATEX certification for hazardous environments, as well as conformal coating and extended temperature ratings as required.

Not only will the next generation PAC meet the future requirements of mining companies, it will also protect their investments by delivering high levels of performance, flexibility and reliability across many different applications found in the mining industry. 

Leading energy management company, Schneider Electric has developed the world’s first ePAC with Ethernet built right into its core. 

It enables operational transparency and openness using industry standard technology. Shaun Loesch is the PAC solutions manager, industry business at Schneider Electric.

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