Remote operation centres in mining means different things to different people

Andy Sherring (pictured alongside) is Independent Consultant at Sherring Consulting and specialises in the design and implementation of Integrated Operations Centres.

He played a key role in setting up Rio Tinto's Iron Ore operations centre project in Perth, and now consults to major mining clients to apply these same principles to their respective operations.

Sherring did a presentation on Global Trends in Remote Operations & Collaboration at the recent Honeywell Users Group Symposium. PACE magazine was at the event and brings you this extract.

Remote operations misunderstood

I see a lot of confusion about the subject. I think people are talking about different things and aren't necessarily clear on the goal. This isn't helped by different terminology – so you hear remote operations, remote operation centres, remote collaboration centres, collaborative decision making environments, monitoring centres. All of these have got a place, but it is rather confusing.

I prefer to use the term 'integrated operations' and 'integrated operation centres'. For me that's a much more positive term for the broader strategy and goal of what we're trying to achieve here. Remote has got a negative connotation – it's about distance, out of touch. Integrated means positive, trying to make it better. So integrated operations and IOC is integrated operation centres.

Although I talk quite a bit about integrated operation centres, the goal is not to have a centre. The goal is to drive improvement through better integration of the operations. It's not uncommon to have an organisation seeing a centre somewhere and saying 'I want one of those' and it's about a centre.

There are examples of beautiful centres that people from all over the world come to see, but these centres actually aren't adding a lot of value.

That's a real problem. It's easy to see what's wrong out in the mining world, but how do you practically improve it? The key is to be really clear about what you're trying to achieve and make sure it's about improving. Most importantly, it's about sustainability of that value.

For me one of the greatest crimes is when a mine reaches the pinnacle of excellence, they cannot sustain it. One particular mine I've been involved with in the past was at that level, at the very cutting edge, but became an absolute basket case. Technically, they just lost all their skills and knowledge. The key is the sustainability of the models we put in place.

Companies in the mining industry are becoming larger, more complex organisations. Mines are getting bigger, deeper, holding lower ore grade, and are more remote. Yet we carry on trying to do things the same way. A business that starts off with one or two mines, grows to 10 or 15 mines within its complex, frantically tries to do things the same way and expecting to live with the same efficiencies. It just doesn't work.

We also need to take into account the reducing pool of expertise. Knowledge tends to gravitate to the cities. Teams at the front line are trying to reinvent the wheel, and we're not very good at connecting that knowledge in the cities with the mines. So it is very hard to leverage that experience.

Then there's the challenge of expectation as people aspire to move to a more technology focussed future. It's very different operating an automated, high technology mine, to the current set up. If we're struggling so much with a simple, basic operation, why are we so confident that we are actually going to be able to operate an automated, high technology mine?

The Collaborative Research Centre, Optimising Resource Extraction group looked at productivity. Australian mining companies have seen a 30 per cent fall in productivity over the last 10 years. About half of that can be put down to declining ore quality. With regard to the other inefficiencies, I'd say the head is buried in the sand and the issues are not getting addressed.

Need for a comprehensive strategy

Because it addresses these major challenges facing the industry. Because it delivers enormous value. We've been in a growth market, we are still hopefully in a growth market, there's the momentum there. But if the market turns, this is probably more applicable.

We've got to get to grips with those efficiencies we're avoiding at the moment and focus on capital. Importantly, this isn't rocket science, most of the principles are extremely simple and can be applied in a relatively low cost, low risk way.

Really, the question should be why wouldn't we do this? First of all, what is meant by integrated operations?

If you look at a typical value chain and you can look at this actually within a mining department, you know, drill, blast, load, haul. You could look at this as multiple businesses within a broader business unit.

Integrated operations is about optimising the individual parts. It is also about optimising the value across the whole value chain. We don't standardise, we don't plan particularly well, and when we do plan well, we don't tie it in from longer through to short term planning. So you get great long term planning but the short term plan is doing something totally different.

Typically there's no one charged with optimising the whole value chain, except the GM at the top. He's got a thousand things on his plate, he hasn't got time really to give it the attention it deserves. So you end up with the mining department focusing on optimising the mine, which is tonnes.

The processing guys try to get them to provide better material to get more metal or products out the door. But the mining department is not interested in that – their KPIs are in tonnes. Different KPIs. This issue is typically not addressed organisationally in a business.

Actually facilitating the integration between these two objectives is all part of the wholistic approach.

Integrated operations centre defined

Most people would straight away say it's something to do with a control room. For me 'it is an enabling environment for driving sustainable improvement'. It's an environment, it's an enabler and it's for driving, I mean forcefully driving improvement, not just allowing it to happen. There's also accountability.

It does involve co-location of operations staff, planning team, technical support specialists and improvement experts in a custom-designed collaborative environment with fantastic visibility of the whole system, one truth data, but backed up with really clear accountabilities for driving that improvement.

The support functions driving improvement should have the same accountability as the do operations for meeting the plan. In any mining operation, the operations guys are absolutely nailed to the floor about production versus plan.

The improvement experts have a lot of care but not much responsibility. There should be much more accountability for driving improvement and sustainable improvement. Some of the key touch points that really worry operations people are that it is going to take away their control. They believe this is centralised planning and "we know that doesn't work".

This isn't a centralised control room, it's not about sites losing control of their operations. Sites must continue to make and be accountable for those operating decisions. It's not centralised planning, it's integrated planning. These are really important distinctions.

[Andy Sherring's profile on LinkedIn.]

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