As productivity and returns on investment declines in the Australian mining industry, mining operations are turning to Industrial IoT to improve returns, streamline processes and use big data analytics to better manage resources, writes Luke Frost.
Internet of Things, or IoT, refers to the spread of internet-connected or sensor-controlled devices, machines and equipment that are able to be managed remotely, called upon to supply crucial data and controlled by a central management to enable predictive maintenance. Mining companies in Australia have begun to embrace the new technologies on offer, and according to industry experts, the trend will continue to gather pace over the next few years.
“IoT will continue to transform industries in 2016. When it comes to big data, the resources industry deserves special attention,” Daniel Ng, senior director of APAC at Cloudera, who provide an enterprise-grade platform for big data analytics, says of the development.
“We have seen the rise of the Internet of Things over the last couple of years, but in resources, whether it is for vehicles, conveyor belts, communications or ventilation, we will increasingly see sensorrun applications that will enable predictive maintenance and provide data on critical applications. Ultimately, these can be features that send information back to a product’s manufacturer, allowing technicians to predict and fix problems quickly. We will see a quality-enabling evolution, thanks to data technology.”
Mines that are using IoT technology are able to increase productivity, simply by improving the way that things are done. Autonomous vehicle operation is perhaps the most widely recognised development, with Rio Tinto reporting last year that their mines, which had already adopted the technology, were getting as much as twelve per cent more out of production than those that still use manned vehicles.
Autonomous dump trucks, for example, are equipped with vehicle controllers, highprecision GPS, obstacle detection systems and wireless internet. These features allow the dump truck to safely operate through a complex load, haul and dump cycle and to then be integrated with autonomous dozers, loaders and shovels that are also part of the IoT ecosystem. Benefits to mining operators include a reduced number of drivers working in hostile and remote conditions, allowing existing, skilled operators to be deployed in other roles throughout the mine.
Autonomous haulage systems also increase safety on mine sites, with fewer lives at risk underground. Operating costs are reduced, for example, by extending the life of tyres since trucks are programmed to perform set tasks in a prescribed pattern, without deviating from their detailed course.
Productivity and efficiency are increased, since machines are programmed to perform their tasks in the most efficient manner, with everything from weight and load distribution, through to predictive maintenance. Sensors can record if a machine is running hot, using more lubricants than it should, or creating more exhaust than usual, giving engineers and technicians a much clearer, more accurate picture about the health of the ecosystem.
Fuel consumption and emissions are monitored in the same way, which of course allows for a better system of protecting the environment and meeting regulations.
Machine-to-Machine (M2M) communications is the means of communication between different types of mechanical devices for the exchange of data or information to one another. This is performed either wirelessly, over a Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN), or between wired devices. The basic structure of an M2M network involves a central system that is able to connect with other systems at various locations via the wireless networks. The central computer system can collect or send data or information to each remote machine or headquarter.
The M2M interface itself allows for the monitoring, control and management of remote equipment or machines, as discussed above. Remotely monitoring and controlling the devices and machines in a mine allows the business to address maintenance issues before they become a problem and restore full functionality quickly and efficiently.
A stable and precise network is absolutely imperative to the successful implementation of an automated mine site, since exceptionally precise machinery will be relying on the connection. Even a millisecond of downtime can cause a sensor to fail, so it is essential to implement strict policy surrounding determinism (the ability to send a piece of information to a destination and receive a response in a repeatable time frame), as well as latency and bandwidth.
Darron Hutchison, of Australian IT providers blueAPACHE, says we are going to see a “rapid growth in the M2M space over the next couple of years”.
“As a service provider, our job is to identify and set up a network that is fast, reliable and scalable, with enough redundancy built in to cater for worse case scenarios. As mines often transmit lots of sensitive data, privacy and encryption are also important issues that need addressing. Keeping a network safe from attack is of paramount importance to business continuity, and as more elements of a mining operation are brought into the IoT, and with more machines communicating to one another, security is only going to increase in importance,” Darron says.
“Understandably, there will need be a shift in the staffing resources at mining companies, as automation and ‘smart’ machines take on a lot of the heavy lifting.”
“Much of the progress we will make in this century will come from increased understanding of the data we generate.”
“Ensuring that confidential information remains confidential will also grow in focus. As foreign governments have legislation that enables them to legally access data that traverses their country, ensuring that the full stack of network, storage, security, backup and disaster recovery data remains within Australia is paramount to not only meeting our privacy laws, but also securing commercially sensitive data.”
Telstra currently has more than 1.38 million machines connected to its mobile network, a number which is growing at approximately 30 per cent per year. In fact, according to a report by Frost and Sullivan, the M2M market in Australia was worth A$124m in 2013 and is expected to reach A$398.5m by 2018.
Of course, mining operations in Australia will see a fundamental shift in the skillsets of employees, as the IoT continues to develop in the sector. Staff trained in data analysis and collection will be needed to process information, and engineers will have a higher volume of data to call on, and therefore will need to feature more prominently on staffing lists.
“While the trend to leverage big data for insights has grown quickly across the globe, the general awareness of the value that can be extracted from data has been low in the Asia Pacific region. Now that organisations across all verticals are increasingly using technology to extract value from big data, it is clearly driving demand for data-related skillsets. As such, we will continue to see a crunch in skilled data professionals. This gap can only be filled with more education and training opportunities – schools that will teach data analytics and data science, and private sector companies that take the lead in supporting skills upgrade. The industry will come together to cultivate a new generation of IT professionals who will fill the skills gap for employers in the region,” says Daniel Ng of Cloudera.
Understandably, there will need be a shift in the staffing resources at mining companies, as automation and ‘smart’ machines take on a lot of the heavy lifting.
Employers will need to look at recruiting different skill sets as this technology becomes more widespread. While there will be some initial upheaval as traditional skills are replaced by more technical ones, companies should look upon it as an opportunity to re-evaluate their talent acquisition processes. It may be possible to offer existing staff more training in order to upskill them, or look at outsourcing of recruitment processes to find the best talent available, with the requisite skills in data analysis and technology systems.
There are also a lot of reasons why more mining operations have not adopted IoT technology yet. The stability of systems, and the difficulty of getting them set up in tough environments is a major pain point at this stage. Many operations are functioning on legacy communication systems, which are nowhere near ready to deal with the complexity of an automated, sensor-driven data environment.
Doug Cutting is the founder of Hadoop, which is an open-source software framework written in Java for distributed storage and distributed processing of very large data sets on computer clusters, and therefore has provided the framework for nearly all IoT developments over the past ten years.
On the development of the IoT, and where it will lead industry over the coming years, he says:
“Institutions can now explore messy, diverse data sources, perform experiments, and rapidly develop and evolve applications. Data from sensors, social media, and production can be combined to develop insights, inform decisions, and fuel new products. Companies have helped this software meet the requirements of industry, making it more stable, reliable, manageable, secure, and easily integrated with existing systems.
“Government and industry themselves are transforming. Established companies like Caterpillar and Chevron are dramatically improving themselves through data technology. Much of the progress we will make in this century will come from increased understanding of the data we generate.”
While there are still many hurdles to negotiate before IoT becomes mainstream in Australian mines, the evidence is compelling – a connected facility can improve productivity, reduce workplace accidents, help meet government regulations and make an impression on climate change. It is only a matter of time before more mines come on board, which will be a big step towards keeping the Australian resources industry viable well into the 21st century.
Luke Frost is an experienced and widely published writer specialising in mining, cabling, manufacturing, business and IT in Australia and New Zealand.
In 2002, Luke started working for Australia’s largest independent publishing company, Allen and Unwin, before moving into a fulltime writing and content career.