By Christopher Allan, Journalist, Mining Magazine

Digitalisation is a disruptive force transforming the terms of work and operation of Australia’s major industries – and the mining sector is no exception. Indeed, opportunities for digital transformation of the mining industry are already being applied to address productivity as well as critical industry priorities like worker safety and net zero operations. From the rise of autonomous vehicles and machinery to the next steps in Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), here we explore some of the top digital opportunities on offer for Australia’s mining sector.

Aglobal industrial trend towards digital connectivity and automation – often called ‘Industry 4.0’ or the fourth industrial revolution – has together with a global pandemic transformed the role of digital in the mining sector.

While many in the mining sector recognised the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to engage in digital transformation of work and operations – promoting real-time visibility from mine to market – many companies are still yet to tame the wealth of data and technologies available.

With the right strategy, mining companies now have an opportunity to future-proof their operations via hyper-connectivity and becoming digitally enabled, with the latest digital trends including cyber security and the convergence of IT and OT, the digital twin, wearable technologies, vehicle and machinery automation, and digital upskilling for workers.

Importantly, these digital opportunities hold the power to elevate industry practice in priority areas like worker safety and emissions reduction.

Deloitte: tracking the trends in digital

In its 14th annual Tracking the Trends report, Deloitte identified the top trends for the mining sector to navigate environmental, societal and governance (ESG) goals, a low-carbon future, and an evolving world of work.

While digital technologies and new digital work modes were common threads throughout the trend list, two entries from Deloitte specifically related to optimising digital in mining: Trend8: Unlocking value through integrated operations and 9: Closing the IT-OT vulnerability gap.

In an article exploring Unlocking value through integrated operations, Deloitte said, “Often too much focus is put on the technology and not enough on how the organisation will interface with that technology and use it to drive effective, integrated decision-making that optimises the system versus an individual function.

“The next steps in achieving company-wide efficiencies are using [system-wide] insights to change how decisions are made at every level. “Actions that benefit the organisation as a whole, rather than specific departments or functions, will enable companies to become more agile in their response to changes, both in operational and business environments, and create greater value.”

In this sense, mastering digitally-enabled decision-making represents a massive opportunity in the mining sector’s approach to digital.

Regarding Closing the IT-OT vulnerability gap, Deloitte stressed that “the acceleration of digitisation, information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) convergence and value-chain integration in the mining sector has produced new levels of efficiency, driven down miners’ costs, and created exciting new business opportunities.

“However, with opportunity also comes risk and, for many companies, rather than security efforts keeping pace with their digital growth, the gap between risks and controls has widened.” Here we look at four trends for digital in the mining sector, exploring both the value on offer as well as challenges to harnessing the power of digital in mining.

1. Autonomous vehicles and machinery

At the heart of Industry 4.0 is the use of automation to streamline processes and reduce the need for workers in hazardous workplaces, and the mining industry has already recognised how autonomous vehicles and machinery can streamline processes, save money, and even take workers out of hazardous situations.

The use of automated vehicles, machines and drones can avoid the use of resource-heavy machinery, reliant on diesel fuel and direct human operation.

When managed properly, drones can be invaluable for the monitoring and surveillance of operational infrastructure, and automated vehicles and drills can keep mine site workers out of hazardous workplaces.

Australian consultancy business GWI found that fleets of autonomous hauling trucks are already being used across Australian mines, with “automated trucks sending information to Remote Operation Centres (ROC) for interpretation, decreasing the need for tools that are more harmful to the environment”.

The rise of autonomous vehicles has also been matched by a movement towards electric mobility at the mine site in the form of electric land cruisers, dump trucks and excavators.

Indeed, most of the world’s top equipment manufacturers are working to deliver electrically-driven versions of their mining machinery to market. A joint movement towards autonomous vehicles as well as electric vehicles and machinery could continue to grow and help the mining sector in its efforts towards net-zero operations.

A leading challenge for optimising the use of autonomous vehicles and machinery is ensuring that smart sensors and management systems are integrated into their use and performance, to avoid unnecessary costs.

Nicki Ivory, Partner, Corporate Finance, Deloitte, previously highlighted that the new information coming into a mining site’s operations from autonomous vehicles and machinery must be well-managed for optimal success.

“It’s about having a platform – like a nerve centre almost – a common platform that can take the information in real time from all of those digital assets and enable it to be analysed.”

Some of the world’s top equipment manufacturers are working to deliver autonomous versions of mining equipment including haul trucks, water carts, drills and trains.

2. Cyber security and bridging the IT-OT gap

Cyber security will continue to be a priority for mining companies, and the rapid convergence of information technologies (IT) and operational technologies (OT) is offering new challenges in this space.

As emphasised by Deloitte, aligning IT and OT systems has already been shown to promote efficiency, drive down costs, and create new opportunities for innovation in areas like remote process control.

“IT-OT convergence is increasing, and more devices are being connected than ever before, sometimes without the proper due diligence for security,” Deloitte said. “The result is that, today, some of the industry’s biggest cyber vulnerabilities are around OT, industrial control systems (ICS), and Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT).

“Traditionally, mining companies have placed heightened security focus on protecting data and systems in functions like finance or human resources, but not enough on the ground at mine sites.”

Because OT systems have historically been designed for isolated operation within the limits of custom software, these systems can represent a cyber vulnerability given greater convergence and interplay with other networks.

According to Deloitte, “The adoption of remote and hybrid operating models as ‘the new normal’ means that now is a good time to review cyber security measures around interconnected or segmented networks, and ensure they are robust enough to sustain current practices and support future business growth.”

In this sense, there has never been a better time for companies in the mining sector to ensure that the efficiencies gained by IT-OT convergence and new modes of work aren’t set back by introducing cyber risk.

3. Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and wearable technologies

Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), which allows equipment like machines and sensors to share information and communicate in a coordinated way, represents a space for innovation from mining companies to build interacting networks of technologies.

In the context of the mining industry, a popular example of applying IIoT systems is in wearable technologies, which opens opportunities in workforce tracking and personalised safety.

Advances in smart, wearable technologies can allow for RFID personnel tracking and real-time visibility of staff, which can streamline decision-making in areas like field maintenance and real-time inspection instruction work.

Importantly, wearable technologies and smart devices delivered within IIoT networks can promote the industry-wide priority of worker safety.

The application of wearable technologies towards safety outcomes includes devices that restrict personnel access to dangerous areas in a mine, as well as live tracking of staff GPS data to significantly improve response times in the event of emergencies.

4. The Digital Twin

The digital twin represents an opportunity for the mining sector to develop a full digital recreation of a mine or asset, to better manage, understand and innovate a live mine or asset.

Major opportunities exist for the mining sector to use digital twins to analyse processes in a virtual environment and estimate operational performance across different scenarios, in turn lowering the time and money spent on real-world searching and developing activities.

An advantage of the digital twin is how it recognises the value of storing and updating information within a single reference for easier access from a range of users, promoting interoperability and a shared framework for the work of different departments and teams.

The digital twin also opens up opportunities for mining companies to innovate creatively within a digital model before bringing this new, digitally-enabled decision-making to the live asset.

With the digital twin market forecast to be $16 billion by 2023, leaders in major infrastructure projects around Australia are already adopting a digital twin for their assets, with more and more leaders in the mining sector likely to do the same.

The digital mine of tomorrow

Many of the biggest challenges facing the mining sector – from global supply chain disruptions through to ESG objectives and net zero operations – have been shown to have solutions in digital technologies and digitally-enabled decision-making.

For example, in the area of supply chain management, new supply chain visibility tools could help mining companies become more agile in a volatile global landscape, by assisting with risk evaluation and rerouting around crises.

From a more human perspective, Deloitte has suggested that digital leadership is a valuable commodity for anyone making a career in the
mining sector.

“Digital leadership can be described as providing vision and purpose, creating conditions to experiment, empowering people to think differently, getting people to collaborate across boundaries, and creating a culture of distributed leadership. “In the wake of COVID-19, the need for resilient digital leadership has possibly never been more relevant.”

There also exists ample opportunity for leaders in the mining sector to boost engagement with digital technologies and digital decision-making among their workforces.

Management Consulting Firm BCG found that the metals and mining industry is roughly 30 or 40 per cent less digitally mature than comparable industries like automotive or chemicals, suggesting that sizable gains are available in the space of workforce digital literacy.

“Most metals and mining companies have adopted traditional operational improvement tools, including overall equipment effectiveness, Six Sigma, and lean business principles – now leaders need to add digital to this toolbox,” BCG said.

“Of the organisations we surveyed, 30 per cent had no digital upskilling plan at all, while another 45 per cent had only recently begun training initiatives. “Shaping this culture requires time and can be arduous, but the potential payoff is tremendous.”

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