Mining and the Industrial Internet of Things

Mining is making strides in the implementation of digital data-driven systems and processes. PACE talks to Endress+Hauser’s global mining and metals industry manager, Andrew Reese, about how mining is managing its move into the world of the Industrial Internet of Things.

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is transforming industries across the world. The mining sector, in particular, is in a prime position to benefit from the adoption of digital technology across its operations. Productivity in the mining sector globally has declined by 28 per cent over the last decade, according to MineLens data from McKinsey. However, the harnessing of data and the utilisation of automated systems offer the potential to enhance the productivity, efficiency, and safety of mining operations into the future.

Currently, the implementation of IIoT technology in mining is still in its early stages. However, according to Andrew Reese, global industry manager for mining, minerals and metals at Endress+Hauser, the sector is steadily finding its feet in the digital world and is quickly catching up to other industries at the forefront of change.

“The pace at which the mining industry is adopting IIoT technology is actually quite quick, particularly when compared to the chemical industry, where, for example, there are a lot of restrictions and quite a lot of rigidity when it comes to standards. From what I see, people in the mining industry are more flexible – they want to learn from other industries. And that is the difference,” Reese told PACE.

In fact, not only has the mining industry been making great strides recently – perhaps most prominently in the implementation of driverless trucks – but investments over the last decade in sensor technology have put companies in a position where they are actually further along the IIoT path than many might have thought.

“The mining industry has been installing sensors with digital functionality for the last 10 years but didn’t realise the full potential that these instruments actually had,” Reese said. “What they didn’t realise is that the data flow was two-way: not only can they take measurement data from the instruments, but there are other functionalities already available which they didn’t utilise – diagnostics and condition monitoring, in particular.”

Even further, mining companies have been installing fieldbus structures onsite but haven’t been harnessing their potential. “These are digital communication structures which enable the establishment of a purely digital network, but no one was exploiting them,” Reese said. “But that is beginning to change.”

According to Reese, Australia is no further behind other prominent mining companies, such as Chile, where companies are increasingly looking to digital solutions to boost efficiency, productivity, and safety.

“I spend a lot of time there – they are at a similar point as Australia right now, which is the discussion phase of figuring out answers to the important questions of ‘Where do we go, how do we do this, and what do we do with it?’”

Importantly, this stage includes looking to implement trials with new technologies.

“And these trials are not about changing the whole infrastructure of a plant; they are small step-by-step trials to try to boost efficiency and to get a little bit more information to the right people at the right time,” said Reese.

And it is the potential to get accurate information to the right people in a timely, efficient fashion that makes cloud services a boon to mining operations. Cloud technology enables the fast transfer of data from field sensors to those that need it in a way that has not previously been possible.

“These days, information is abundant and available at a pace that was not possible 5-10 years ago. And the mining industry is no different from any other processing industry in wanting to have data more quickly,” said Reese. “And now they can do that quite easily: information can be taken directly from sensors and from machinery and be analysed, interpreted and acted upon much faster than in the past.”

Moving in the right direction

But with the rapidity of change in technology, there is a danger that too much change, too fast, can feel a little overwhelming for some companies to get on board. However, with younger generations coming though into the process and operational side of mining, there is fresh impetus to move forward with enhanced digital connectivity, bringing mining up to speed with what is now a data-abundant world.

“The younger generation is looking for what they are used to: they want connectivity with their cell phones, with their tablets and laptops – they want that now, not later, not another day. That’s a change that is quite refreshing,” said Reese.

He pointed to a company like Barrick Gold, whose innovation officer, Michelle Ash, has driven this kind of culture shift in both Canada and Australia.

“She was pulling young staff together in the mines and sitting with them and asking ‘What do we want to do and how do we want to do it?’ with regards to IIoT implementation. And this is great: it is a way of bringing people with you along the way when establishing a roadmap towards an IIoT end goal. It means that people don’t get overwhelmed when you bring about change.”

Change nonetheless can only be successful when it comes from the top. “I mean, it’s an old cliché, isn’t it? But that doesn’t make it untrue: if you don’t have buy-in from the CEO and the executive management, then you are wasting your time and you’re just going to end up frustrating people,” said Reese.

Visiting Mexico recently, Reese said that he had talked with some very traditional companies where digital initiatives driven by people in the process side of businesses were frustrated due to a lack of buy-in from management. But there are other companies, he said, that are on the other side of the spectrum, where teams are dedicated to putting together cloud services.

“There are two companies in Mexico that have a project group just looking at the cloud and the design of the information that goes between the plants and to various people within the company,” Reese said.

“The cloud service that Endress+ Hauser offers provides data from field instrumentation. The information goes to maintenance teams, allowing them to receive automated updates on when a sensor will need to be replaced. This means that they can order preparations in advance and prepare for the scheduling of shutdowns. It enables a much more pragmatic and proactive maintenance routine.”

Reese also pointed to the Canadian-based gold company, Agnico Eagle, which has IIoT initiatives that have been driven by the CEO, Sean Boyd. Boyd, who is also the head of the Denver Gold Forum, a cluster of 2,000 gold companies which meet to discuss the latest trends in IIoT and Industry 4.0, demonstrated one of his IIoT solutions at a conference in Toronto.

Boyd took out his laptop and was able to demonstrate remote operation of robotic drill at a mine in Finland, drilling into the rock face with no one physically present at the site. He inserted explosives, removed the robot from the site, and carried out the explosion – all performed remotely from his laptop in Toronto.

“And that is just one example,” said Reese. “Smaller and mid-sized miners are often quite progressive in their thinking about IIoT. They want to link all the mines together, they want to have standardised IIoT offerings and services.”

Enhancing safety

The three major drivers for adopting IIoT technology in the mining industry are cost reduction, environmental protection, and safety. Reducing danger on mining sites, in particular, Reese suggested, has been a major focus for companies looking towards digital initiatives. And the need for greater safety has been driven home by recent tragedies.

“Two weeks ago, I was at a conference in Brazil and, on the first day, the families of those who died in the Brumadinho disaster in January laid wreaths around the Vale stand. It was quite emotional, and the issue of safety drove the direction of the conference. For anybody that was doing a conference talk or discussion, safety was really critical, and it was at the top of the agenda.”

Reese noted that, in Australia, the mining industry has been focussed on safety for many years, and has directed efforts on adopting functional safety procedures, with the chemical and petrochemical processing and refining sectors at the forefront.

“The mining industry is really looking to fast track these ideas on functional safety and bring it into their processes. A lot of it has to do with the steps of risk analysis. It’s a structured way of doing it that’s never been there in the mining industry before,” Reese explained. “It’s at the top of our agenda when we do a lot of our talks and workshops in Australia.”

Moving workers away from the rock face and other dangerous worksites is also an important safety initiative in the industry. Automation, robotics and artificial intelligence are high on the agenda.

“We’ve done this work with clients of ours on copper, gold or iron refineries. We’re moving people away from the process of physically going to install the sensor in a dangerous area. We’re using things like condition monitoring to be able to monitor instrument health so that they don’t need to visit unnecessarily. And the two-way digital communication of the sensors enables this.”

And when condition monitoring does occur, use of digital devices can also be make the process safer and more efficient. Reese pointed to the example of a Barrick gold mine in the Dominican Republic where the maintenance team was fitted out with iPads.

“They guys in the plant could walk around the plant, they could look from the iPad and interrogate any instruments, see their condition, which usually reflects the condition of the process. Condition monitoring could be carried out by just walking around the plant – they’re not climbing on any machinery, they’re not climbing to the top of any silos, they’re simply in a safer position to do that. And that’s practical,” said Reese.

Overcoming the challenges of connectivity

The challenges of implementing IIoT solutions can be immense. The remoteness of mining sites and the large distances across sites can hamper connectivity for effective transfers of data. The demand on secure and reliable network infrastructure has made IT an important feature of mining sites.

“We at Endress+Hauser are not just talking to maintenance teams and process engineers anymore – these days it is also about talking to IT people who are interested in linking sensor clusters into their IT infrastructure.

“IT people, traditionally, used to look after the offices, but now they are in the field – in the refinery, in the plant, underground – linking data networks from all over the plant. And that’s a big change,” said Reese.

“You can see companies that traditionally were not in mines in this space – you’ve got Microsoft, you’ve got Google. And these guys like to talk to us because we’ve got a lot of field experience about the problems that you would find in a mine.”

And Inmarsat, the London- based company satellite communications company, has also been enabling greater strides in site connectivity.

“They are responsible for introducing satellite infrastructure into the mining world. A lot of the sites in Africa are using satellite infrastructure now. IMGold is another one. It’s a fight for the mine to get any communication lines out, and, when you talk to IT managers there, it’s a question of them discussing with the government the building of communication infrastructure, digging holes, putting fibre optic cables in, communicating with the national infrastructure power lines,” said Reese.

“And that’s the challenge. If we want to put in our clever IT sensor information structures, then we need to be able to talk IT.”

According to Reese, many strides towards implementing IIoT systems can be made by making use of what is already available. Endress+Hauser and other companies have been building digitalisation into sensors for some time.

“Those companies that already have digitally-enabled instruments installed have no reason why they can’t establish two-way digital communication in their plants. And that’s what we’re seeing – they’re actually making use of what they’ve got. We always say that, like a human baby only uses 10 per cent of its brain, the mining industry has only used 3 per cent of the capability of their sensors,” said Reese.

Reese said that mining companies can have instruments with Wi-Fi connectivity installed for years without realising it. “Some of our flow meters have had Wi-Fi connectivity for quite a long time. When I walk around in these plants and ask, ‘You do realise this sensor has an IP address, don’t you?’ I get shocked reactions.”

Reese said that the issue of cyber security is an area that needs to be of particular focus when there are discussions around IIoT implementation.

“When we sit down at a workshop about what instruments they require on site, we usually insist there is a safety manager or an IT manager present. They understand that, from the cloud, hackers can potentially get into their main processes now,” he said. “Cyber security is as much of a topic for safety and as a remote driverless truck, for example.”

Going forward in IIoT

Asked what advice he could give to the Australian mining industry about what it should be focussing on when it comes to IIoT, Reese said that companies need to be aware that moving too quickly can be a mistake.

“The potential is there, and if they want to have it realised they can. When we go to a plant now, we do workshops and talk about these things. It’s all about not just hard selling, it’s about discussing what they want to do, the potential available, and how quickly they want to move into digitalisation,” he said.

But introducing an IIoT cloud system isn’t something that is easy to do, he warned. It is new territory, not just for mining but for any process industry, and companies have to do it in small steps, in a logical, sequential manner, and with a view to why it is important.

“What always needs to be remembered is what you can get from digital implementation: cost reduction, safety and environment protection,” said Reese.

“These are the three overdriving factors for any cloud or IIoT system to be installed. You don’t implement these systems just for the for the sake of it. In mining, they are the three pillars that drive the Industrial Internet of Things.”