Where is the mining industry going over the next few years? What will digitization do to the industry overall? How will mine workers adapt to these changes? Brian Fanzo and Daniel Newman, co-hosts of the S.M.A.C. Talk Technology Podcast, recently tackled that question. With guest Ruediger Schroedter, SAP’s Global Lead for Mining in the Industry Business Unit for Mill products and Mining, Brian and Daniel explored this dynamic industry. Here’s a brief look at what was discussed.
The state of the mining industry
Mining profitability is strongly tied to commodity price and efficiency. With lower commodity prices in the current cycle, mining companies are struggling to be profitable. Productivity and efficiency is the main focus. Portfolios are being streamlined to promote efficiency. The increased use of renewable energy systems has lowered demand for mined power sources such as coal or uranium. These companies’ livelihood is on the line. That’s where digitization can make a big difference to these businesses through improved efficiency and automation.
Trends and opportunities in mining digitization
The push for digitization is taking off in the mining industry because it employs technology to improve operations. Technology allows for operations to become more efficient, effective, and more productive. At the same time, it improves worker safety. It provides the option for mining companies to be proactive in the digital transformation process.
One area where mining is ahead of the curve is in autonomous driving. Ruediger said, “Technology-wise, in the last maybe 10 years or so, I think autonomous driving is probably one of the technology drivers here. Autonomous driving for trucks or other equipment is almost standard now.” He notes that it’s different than the autonomous vehicles being developed for highway use. Using autonomous vehicles helps improve efficiency in operations.
With this move towards automation, the focus has shifted from the vehicles to the workforce. Machine learning and sensors will help improve worker safety and health because these technologies enable workers to avoid hazardous areas. Vehicles and machinery can be operated autonomously or by remote control from a safe location. Sensors show what’s happening at the machine with no risk to workers.
Where edge-to-core meets mining and mill
All these aspects connect in edge-to-core computing, one area where mining is already very progressive. Technology is being increasingly used in harsh environments, where real-time data reduces connectivity pressure. This is most prevalent and profitable through the use of Internet of Things technology.
Mining involves heavy equipment, which must be reliable and operational when it’s needed. Breakdowns can cost thousands of dollars in lost productivity, repairs, and lost labor. Internet of Things sensors can provide data for analysis at the edge of the computing platform, enabling a closer focus on operations. Managers receive a notice only when a sensor reading or trend shows a failure is about to happen in a piece of equipment. This type of exception handling allows workers to proactively maintain that equipment to prevent a breakdown and shortening downtime. This takes one more level of unpredictability out of the equation. In an industry mired in uncertainty, this predictability helps promote better efficiency.
A new generation of mine employees
Digital transformation in the mining industry brings a shift in employee characteristics. The push for safety in what has traditionally been a dangerous industry is being counterbalanced by digital alternatives. Millennial employees have grown up with technology and connectivity in hand. This tech-savvy audience can now use that experience in the newly digitized mining industry.
In the podcast, Ruediger says, “Mining is characterized by an aging workforce, so they have to start looking into talent. And if you look into younger people joining the workforce, they’re all digital natives, so they are used to the iPhones. They’re used to having easy use of apps.” Mining companies are taking advantage of millennials’ comfort with digital technologies in several ways. Mining has traditionally been a dirty, heavy business, but digitization has helped move those jobs out of the mine through remote control centers. In addition, their understanding of digital systems means younger employees are easier to train and fully utilize this new technology.
Automation and machine learning
The overall theme in digitizing the mining industry is improved efficiency and automation, which frees up workers for more important tasks. However, machine learning may help improve automation even further. In the podcast, Ruediger cites the example of picture recognition, which can ensure that a customer selects the proper material or assigns it to the right contracts. This streamlines and automates the procurement process and helps to significantly reduce errors in the ordering process.
The mechanization and automation required in mining gives this industry great options in digitization. The impact of commodity pricing has already forced it into high efficiency. Autonomous vehicles and trains make it easier to automate mining operations. To address the aging workforce, tech-savvy Generation Z workers are being wooed by the technological aspect of digitization in the industry. Using Internet of Things technology will deliver better reliability in mining equipment, while machine learning helps automate the edge-to-core process.
Hear the full podcast episode here. Learn how to bring new technologies and services together to power digital transformation: download The IoT Imperative for Energy and Natural Resource Companies. Explore how to bring Industry 4.0 insights into your business today: read Industry 4.0: What’s Next?