Advances in robotics and automation are changing the way mining operations run in dramatic and transformative ways. Automation is reducing operating costs and improving safety. Across all areas of mining operations, from the office to the mine site, robotics are playing a prominent role and are another example of how using digital technology is driving innovation in the mining industry.
Robots let mining firms capture more data and reduce downtime. Areas once thought too dangerous to mine are now opportunities with advanced technology. When robots are paired with smart products and Big Data analytics, firms gain a better understanding of processes and faster decision-making.
The mining industry faces several major challenges. First, commodity prices have fallen almost 50% from recent highs. A lack of skilled employees and capital spending have driven operating costs up. Mining productivity has lagged behind other manufacturing sectors. By comparison, the automotive industry has realized major gains driven mostly by the increasing use of automation.
In a 2015 survey of 190 miners by IDC, the top priority was reducing costs. Profit pressures are driving many of these mining firms to turn to technological solutions. Sixty-nine percent of mining companies are exploring remote operations and monitoring centers. Twenty-nine percent are looking at robotics and 27% at drones.
Progressive mining firms today see robotics, smart machines, and automation as the industry’s future. Firms using them are well-positioned for growth and profits. Smart machines are often referred to as part of the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT is products fitted with sensors, software, and wireless technology that connect with each other. Together, robotics and the IoT provide formidable tools.
The loading and unloading of material is an area ideal of automation. Robotic systems remove many of the repetitive and dangerous transportation tasks. Today, automated trucks are moving rock and ore without drivers. Loaded trucks use GPS technology to leave the area, dispose of material, and return to the excavation site. Remote monitoring ensures safety and allows for changes to speed or direction as needed. Installed sensors track tire performance, maintenance needs, and gas performance. Yet workers still have the ability to monitor and modify the truck as needed.
At one time the “world’s largest robot” was a 3,500-ton, 75-meter automated dragline. In an open-cut coal mine, the machine can grab 120 tons of rock at once. Precision sensors help automate certain functions, including the management of its 100-meter boom.
Advancements in recent years have greatly reduced safety issues in mining. Laser- and sensor-equipped robotic carts can do underground navigation, mapping, and object detection. Inertial navigation systems and gyros, along with sensors, help other robots to offer accurate position estimates. Other robotic detection systems can identify materials and gases. Not only are these dangerous activities automated, downtime due to shift changes is reduced.
A growing innovation in mining surrounds changes to excavation and loading. Enhanced sensor technology and vision systems help excavators know where to dig, unload, and move. Complex lasers “see” through dust to pinpoint where the excavator digs. While many of these excavators do not perform as efficiently as humans, it is early in these products’ development lifecycle. Equipment makers are studying human operators’ movements to create rules about machine movements. Efficiency may be lower, but robotic excavation reduces injury and downtime. Robots don’t suffer from fatigue or need lunch and rest breaks.
Is there opportunity in using digital technology in mining? A McKinsey & Company study says yes. McKinsey sees a $270 billion worldwide impact from digital innovation in mining by 2025. The biggest area of opportunity is in operations management. Robotics provide for better understanding of resources, material, and equipment flow.
Robotics and sensor technology heighten equipment management by anticipating failures. Unscheduled breakdowns are reduced and equipment lifespans lengthened. For example, automated belt scanning tools measure conveyor-belt wear. Operators are alerted of needed maintenance or repair work well in advance. The costs and downtime of unexpected repairs drop.
IoT devices provide rich amounts of data that when analyzed are revelatory. This information can improve purchasing decisions. Analytics inform decision-making in areas from product design to assay interpretation.
Robots can go where workers cannot. Submerged mines, underwater locations, and severe weather sites are now viable opportunities.
Mining Big Data about mining
Big Data analytics allow for collecting massive amounts of information and speeding up decisions. One example is assay analysis. Geologists today don’t need to wait weeks or months for offsite assay results to recommend next steps. Onsite, fact-based decisions are much easier with Web-based applications. Geologists now rely on robotics to feed information on field operations, safety, maintenance, and drilling. Data is sent either directly by the devices themselves or by staff using mobile phones, tablets, or laptops. Monitoring systems for spatial production decisions are also improved. Integrating data from mine planning, ventilation, safety, rock engineering, and mineral resources improves forecasting. Robust software programs can generate nearly instantaneous reports, alerts, and dashboards. Supervisors have onsite access to the analysis through a Web browser or app. This data has many uses. Drilling managers save time and can make quicker decisions on next moves. Office staff can order fuel and supplies and invoice faster. Accreditation and safety data is immediately accessible.
The potential is significant. Robotics, smart devices, and Big Data are the present and future of mining. Nimble firms that invest wisely in these technologies are best positioned to secure new profits, improve safety, and reduce operational costs.
The global Mining and Metals industry is going to come together to talk more about digital innovation impacting the mining industry July 12-14 at the International SAP Conference for Mining and Metals in Frankfurt, Germany. Find out more and register. Don’t miss this opportunity to meet with world leaders and learn how your organization can become a connected, digital enterprise.
Follow who is coming and speaking and pre-event activities by following sapmmconf and @sapmillmining on Twitter.