The Digital Mine: How African Miners Are Helping Turn a Vision Into Reality

smart mining
smart mining. Red ivory / Shutterstock.com

by Doug Hanson

As Industry 4.0 moves increasingly beyond buzzwords into reality, mining is leading the charge, with African and South African companies at the forefront of both the creation of transformative technologies and their implementation on the physical and digital rockface.

At Wabtec, for example, we work with a number of South African miners to develop strong base technologies, several of which are being employed at mining operations to enhance asset health, productivity and safety across Africa and globally.

Some of our advanced Operations Performance Management (OPM) tools, aimed at the optimisation of processes, originated in South Africa to help improve throughout and recovery at the mine site. In their evolved form, these solutions continue to be applied in major smelting and mining operators around the world.

Other core technologies that Wabtec Digital Mine brings to the table focus on creating blueprints and “digital twins” of key mobile and fixed assets.  These solutions are being applied by miners in South Africa, where they’ve scaled from pilot tests to enterprise-based rollouts.  A notable example is our Asset Performance Management (APM) solution for monitoring the condition of assets and optimising their maintenance and health, which is becoming increasingly crucial in an asset-intensive industry like mining.

Most importantly, perhaps, South Africa is also at the leading edge of a global drive to make mining safer. And it’s starting to pay dividends, thanks to government regulation and a concerted effort by mining companies and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Together, they are driving the development of technologies like the Collision Awareness System being pioneered by Wabtec, one that will ultimately be able to automatically take control from the operator when a vehicle is about to collide with another vehicle or person.

It should be clear from these examples that the industry is well along the road to the “Digital Mine.”

open cut mine
open cut mine. Alf Manciagli / Shutterstock.com

But what exactly is a Digital Mine? At Wabtec, we’ve identified three key elements that make up the mine of the future.

Sensors

Innovative and broadly applied fibre optic sensors and sensing technologies serve as the foundation for Digital Mine. These sensors are embedded in and around core assets, mobile equipment and even on people to monitor their condition and movement, allowing the mining company to do a better job of coordinating work and ensuring it’s being done safely and efficiently.

Some of our ecosystem partners are creating machine vision sensing technologies that provide very detailed data into the process. One, based in the Western Cape, is developing a continuous belt integrity laser-scanning solution that can determine particle size going into a concentrator, a factor that is important in the beneficiation of metal coming out of any mining process.

Data and algorithms

More sensors mean more data and lots of it; far too much, in fact, for people to make sense of in its raw, unfiltered form. It isn’t called “Big Data” for nothing. This tsunami of bits and bytes requires capacious, robust storage and algorithms to convert it into a format that’s easily actionable.

But once the numbers have been crunched by software, like our optimisation and predictive analysis algorithms, they become incredibly powerful. The software highlights anomalies or trends that are of concern and need to be addressed by mining operators.

It’s insights into those trends that allow a mining organization, for example, to decide whether to adopt a comprehensive preventative maintenance approach or to be more surgical and precise about what gets maintained and when, a more ‘just in time’ approach, allowing the company to stretch the performance of – or in mining parlance ‘sweat’ – the asset.

Service delivery and monitoring 

The third element of a Digital Mine is ongoing monitoring and service delivery. At Wabtec, we’ve learned that in order to make the transformation and transition, operators require support in multiple ways.

One of the ways we’ve been effective in this process is by running monitoring services, using sophisticated software to help predict anomalies with the mine site. When the software indicates anomalies, we work with the operator to drive the required action. You can see this approach at work in our industrial management services enabled by our collaboration with GE Digital.

Coming together 

The successful implementation of all three of these elements at mines across Africa and around the world means we’re closer than ever to the ideal of a Digital Mine – one where decisions and changes in strategy are data-driven, made in real-time, and extend to the most granular details, like the availability of a scoop, a shovel needing a replacement part  or the detection of an oversized piece of ore travelling down a conveyor.

As more and more repetitive, potentially dangerous jobs are taken on by machines, new roles are emerging for mining operators. These emerging roles require both mental and physical dexterity, from the technicians developing and running the hardware and software key to the operation of the Digital Mine, to the person manipulating a drill rig from kilometres away – often using a piece of equipment that can look a lot like a video game controller. Perhaps parents should think twice before berating their teenagers for spending so much time playing video games!

At Wabtec, we’re confident that these and other pitfalls on the path to the Digital Mine will be successfully navigated. Getting there won’t be easy but it’s a journey worth taking. Early movers in South Africa and abroad are already seeing the benefits, from reduced variability and higher efficiency to lower maintenance costs and safer workplaces.

  • Doug Hanson is a VP & General Manager, Digital Mine at Wabtec Corporation

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