Digitisation offers opportunities for improvements to industrial processes that were only dreamed of a decade ago. Digital twins, autonomous vehicles, drones and remote sensors are changing the way assets are maintained, helping to extract the value desired by stakeholders.
Nowhere is this disruption more evident than in the mining industry, where vast quantities of earth and rock are moved each day and even a minor improvement in production methods can result in huge financial gains. But implementing these changes requires asset stakeholders to have a common understanding of exactly what that value is, and the metric by which it is to be measured.
For over 20 years, WesTrac has provided mining equipment services to operations in Western Australia, NSW, the ACT and China. Jean Ferreira is General Manager for Technology with WesTrac in WA. His teams are responsible for the deployment, maintenance and support of the largest autonomous mining fleet in the world – roughly 130 autonomous Caterpillar trucks, all based in WA.
Ferreira spoke at this year’s Mainstream Conference about the challenges faced by mining operations as they transition from spreadsheets to digital twins and autonomy. Because when looked at closely, even the simplest of links in the extraction chain renders surprising layers of complexity.
Mining Value Chain
The mining process is a chain of functions. After raw material is extracted from the earth, excavators and trucks begin loading and hauling operations. The ore is taken to a plant that crushes it into workable fragments. This is sent by rail to ports for further processing.
Across this mining value chain, says Ferreira, are many stages with the potential to erode value.
“For example, after drilling and blasting you might find fragmentation issues. Blow the rock up too much and the material’s too fine; too little and the rocks are too big for the crusher,” he says.
“Load and haul assets are expensive – a dig unit is upwards of $15 million – so you want to put that to effective use.
“You could have 80 autonomous trucks running around the mine. They burn about 100-150 litres of diesel per hour. If they’re sitting in a queue waiting, that’s an expense.”
Digital Twins with Real Time Data
It’s not hard to image a future where a digital representation of a mine site gives up real-time data from each of its functions, allowing operators to react in real time to variations in the process. That would be powerful enough, but Ferreira says the real pay-off comes from automation.
“Apart from truck haulage, we also have automated processing. So I have an automated truck that might get a real-time message from the crusher, which has just encountered some oversized material.
“The crusher says it’s going to take longer to crush the material, so the truck should slow down and conserve fuel. If your systems are communicating in real time, you can optimise the hell out of the process.”
Wake Up Call for the Autonomous Dream
Ferreira admits he paints a rosy picture of mining’s autonomous future. But he also believes too many companies rush headlong towards autonomy without learning the digital equivalent of baby steps: knowing what your primary drivers are. He cites the example of payload.
“Let’s say we have a 20 tonne truck. So we can put 220 tonnes of payload in the truck – it can’t be simpler than that. But when you look at the operation, you find they’re not loading 220 tonnes in the trucks,” he says.
“The rock might have poor fragmentation, so the material doesn’t flow properly so you can’t fit enough material on the truck. Then there’s the digger operator who might be focusing on the number of trucks he sends out rather than the amount of dirt in each one.
“Or the truck tray volume might be too small to fit enough dirt, or the payload system may be wrongly calibrated – the operator thinks 220 tonnes is going on, but it’s really only 200.”
Different Metrics, But One Primary Driver
It becomes even more complicated if operators don’t know how their actions affect the business’s primary driver. As Ferreira points out, every person has a different metric.
“The drill and blast team aims for total drilled metres, the pit guys are chasing tonnes, the maintenance team wants a lower payload because it’s about vehicle availability – who cares about payload! So there are different priorities with people not pushing towards the same primary value driver – lowering the cost per tonne.”
He says a successful digital transformation starts with a universal understanding of the value the asset is expected to produce.
Digital Twins and the Value Driver Tree
The value driver tree is the historical precedent of the digital twin. Looking at the mining tree, management can get a good idea of which levers to pull to impact an outcome.
“Payload is high up in our value driver tree, and what that means is a 1% increase in payload will flow through with almost no dilution and result in a 1% improvement in cost per tonne,” Ferreira says.
“Consequently, if maintenance is concentrating on extending the life of a bearing by 10% to get a 0.1% increase in total business outcome, that outcome is heavily diluted.
“It’s pointless putting hundreds of thousands of hours into low impact projects when there’s low hanging fruit like payload that can give you 10-20% bottom line improvement immediately.”
Value Creation: People Making Good Decisions
Ferreira says businesses turn to technology in the hope that a new widget will fix the business. But the reality is that without people, process and technology working in unison, you cannot have true change.
“People making the right decision is where you make your money. They may not be super efficient at it – a person looking at a thousand data points might take three hours to make a decision. But that decision makes or breaks your business.”
Ferreira believes technology does not deliver any value by itself, and will not fix problems: “It’s an enabler that makes everything that comes after it more efficient.”
An autonomous mining operation through digital transformation is the mining executive’s dream. But digital transformation is a destination and there is no way to skip the journey. A business needs to build maturity in terms of change, and engage people for that change.
Even the loading of dirt into trucks is a complex issue, with operators from different departments relying on their own data and metrics.
Getting everyone in the business to agree on the primary value driver is crucial before any digital model can be developed. It’s an incremental change that relies not on technology but on the culture within which that technology operates.
“By the end of the process you will find you have a culture in your business for high performance, with people who continually challenge what they do and how they do it,” Ferreira concludes. “But trying to go from 0 to 100 all at once is a recipe for disaster.”
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