By Chris Calam, ThermoFisher Scientific

As global demand increases for resources locked deep within the earth, the mining industry must adopt processes and technologies that streamline every step of the process. Automation holds the key to a more efficient mining industry.

During the past decade, demand has increased for technologies such as industrial automation and control systems, simulator-training, equipment control and guidance, advanced mine-surveying technologies, underground mining and surface drilling technologies, and machine guidance and control systems. The article predicts that demand for cloud-based services, mining’s industrial “Internet of Things,” and new visualisation, simulation and optimisation software will influence the mining industry over the next five to 10 years, and that the increasing use of remotely-controlled automated equipment will be the most important development.

The future of mining is automated

Remote monitoring and control of equipment

Remote monitoring and control of equipment allows miners to automate industrial processes like blasting, drilling, and transportation. The new, automated equipment used to perform these tasks is faster, more accurate, and can cover more area in less time. Efficiencies are gained through continuous, consistent operations, improved communications, and reduced infrastructure.  Mine site safety can be improved by removing personnel from dangerous environments and placing them in remote control rooms where they can operate equipment from a safe distance.

Laboratory information management systems (LIMS)

Laboratory information management systems (LIMS) are also key to automation. A LIMS is an essential part of mining and metals laboratories, and today serves as the foundation for a completely automated lab by integrating with instruments and other laboratory tools, as well as enterprise systems like PIMS, MES and ERP solutions.  And because a lot of the revenue of the mining company can be generated at the downstream operations level delivering processed materials to end users and other manufacturers, a LIMS is critical to determining a clear picture of the work-in-progress status of the lab at any point in time, identifying potential process bottlenecks and producing real-time analysis of large amounts of data for quality control purposes.

Driverless Vehicles

Around the world, automated vehicles are currently being developed and utilised for a wide variety of functions. Driverless mine trucks operate above ground at many operations, especially in Australia, and are powered by GPS technology. The largest obstacles standing in the way of such technology are the extreme conditions of the mine combined with the task of navigating dark, winding tunnels. It is hoped that these problems, in the future, can be overcome with camera-based positioning systems and additional multi-sensor systems for accurate positioning.

Sensor-Based Sorting

The principles of sensor-based ore sorting were first developed in the 1920s, and the use of such technology greatly increases the efficiency of separating valuable minerals from waste rock. The first sensor-based sorting machine was introduced in 1972 at the Doornfontein mine. While such sorting technology was widely used at the time to sort glass, plastics, paper, and cardboard, the technology had not yet been widely adopted for raw minerals and materials.

Over the 80-year history of sensor-based ore sorting, there have been several types of sorting equipment developed: channel-type, bucket-wheel type, and cone-type. The most popular today, however, are chute-type and belt-type.

The most prevalent technologies being used in these systems are electromagnetics (EM) and X-ray Transmission (XRT). In both of these systems, particles are fed through a machine where they’re scanned, and then valuable minerals are separated and sorted using pneumatic, mechanical, or hydraulic means. This automated technology is faster and more efficient than its manual counterpart, as sensor-based sorting systems boast the ability to sort through 200 tons of particles per hour per machine.

An adoption of these technologies in the mineral mining industry at large would be nothing short of revolutionary.

Data Analysis

Numerous global tech companies are looking to spearhead the foray into digital data analysis in mining. From exploration to delivery and everything in between, the digitisation of mining will streamline all processes while making the industry safer than ever.

Advanced sensing technology and real-time operational data will assist in a faster decision-making process and allow companies to be more transparent with their local partners, while predictive algorithms will enhance the precision and accuracy of future projects.

Incentives for Automation

The Mining Journal article quotes a Citi report on incentive for automated mining equipment such as driverless vehicles: “Labour is one of the biggest cost drivers for a big miner, contributing to more than 30% of miner’s cash costs. There is also the aspect of safety. Not only is this important per se, but the safest mines are often the most productive.”

The Citi report notes that while adoption of automated equipment has been slow, the situation is poised to change because the obvious cost-reducing measures have already been taken, leaving automated equipment and technologies as the best option to improve efficiency and productivity and reduce costs.

In Deloitte’s ‘Outlook on Mining’, Rick Carr, Deloitte Mining sector leader, also recommends embracing autonomous mining solutions: “Rather than layer incremental technologies over existing operating models, the industry could work with equipment makers to design autonomous solutions, collaborate with technology firms to develop sensor-driven production visibility tools, and embrace mobile and modular solutions for bulk mining operations. For example, at Glencore’s Ulan West mine in Australia, an underground flexible conveyor system—the second of its kind in the country—is being installed to drive improved operations, increase safety, and lower total operating costs.”

Six challenges to technology implementation

Given all the benefits of automation, what are mining companies waiting for? The CRC Mining website summarises a presentation given by Professor Ross McAree, an authority in robotics and automation innovations for mining, at the International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC) in Melbourne on September 23, 2014 in which he presents six challenges to technology implementation:

  • The double burden of immaturity

  • The need for a common interoperability plan

  • Operational technology and information technology must integrate

  • Sourcing skilled people with appropriate expertise

  • Altered responsibilities

  • Equivalent levels of safety.

If South Africa’s mining companies want to continue to meet the growing global demand for their products, they must embrace automation sooner rather than later. The result will certainly be a more profitable, efficient, and safer industry.

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