Digital transformation in mines

SMART Mining Security Solutions 2024 Mining (Industry)

The digital transformation era has not skipped the mining industry, even though some would wonder how and why these giant companies with vast tracts of land and a collection of legacy systems, machinery, and technology would embark on such a journey. While mines are not known for their modern infrastructure (in terms of digital technology), they are not necessarily laggards either.

They do have a problem in that they rely on heavy machinery of various types and uses for many operational functions. This is a similar problem manufacturers and other industrial companies face as they address the challenge of balancing the old world with the new, always connected, and always communicating era we live in today. The cybersecurity challenges they face are well known, and many large companies have been attacked, resulting in high costs in time and money to get back to business.

Gregg Sanders.

Mines are in the same position. While cybersecurity seems to be a strange topic when it comes to mining operations, as they have more than enough challenges when it comes to physical attacks and sabotage, crime syndicates, insider fraud, and other advanced physical security trials, but poor digital security can have significant physical consequences to the business.

SMART Security Solutions asked NEC XON and BCX for their input on a few aspects of digital transformation in mines. Gregg Sanders, Head of Digital Solutions, replied for NEC XON, while Etienne de Villiers, Subject Matter Expert in Mining, Industrial and Health, took on the task for BCX.

The obvious starting point when looking at enormous entities like mines, which are essentially multiple industries in one, incorporating the traditional physical to the latest digital operations, is where they begin. What should mining executives be doing to deal with the challenge of old infrastructure and legacy systems, as well as ensuring the integration of everything when new systems are added? It is a case of not breaking old processes and procedures when you introduce new ones.

Where to begin?

From De Villiers’ perspective, modern infrastructure in mining, especially in terms of digital technology, often lags behind other industries. However, mining executives are not necessarily laggards themselves. “They typically approach investments with a long-term perspective, considering the average life expectancy of a mine, which can exceed 50 years. Unfortunately, digital technologies do not align with this long-term investment mindset, as their lifecycles rapidly change multiple times within a decade.

Yet, there is mounting evidence and numerous case studies illustrating the pivotal role of digital technologies, both current and future, in mining success. Therefore, mining executives must embrace digital technologies more swiftly, thereby averting technology obsolescence.”

To effectively address the challenge of old infrastructure and legacy systems in the mining sector’s increasingly digitalised landscape, De Villiers says executives can take several proactive steps to modernise and optimise their operations:

Conduct a digital readiness assessment: Start by evaluating the current state of digital infrastructure, identifying strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement. It is important to understand how existing systems can integrate with modern technologies, and the impact this can have on their business.

Invest in IoT and sensor technologies: By embracing IoT devices and sensor technologies, they can gather real-time data from mining operations. This includes sensors on equipment, geological survey instruments, and wearable devices for personnel safety and monitoring.

Implement data analytics and AI: Leverage advanced analytics and artificial intelligence to interpret the vast amount of data generated. Predictive analytics can anticipate equipment failures, optimise production schedules, increase the safety of employees, and enhance overall efficiency.

Adopt cloud computing and edge computing: Consider migrating data storage and processing to the cloud for scalability and flexibility. Edge computing can process data closer to the source, reducing latency and improving real-time decision-making.

Enhance cybersecurity measures: With increased connectivity comes heightened cybersecurity risks. Invest in robust measures to protect sensitive data and ensure digital infrastructure integrity.

Prioritise employee training and change management: Provide training programmes to help employees adapt to new technologies. Develop a change management strategy to ease the transition from traditional to modern systems, ensuring workforce alignment with the digital transformation.

Collaborate with technology partners: Engage with vendors and partners to co-create solutions tailored to mining industry needs. This collaboration offers access to cutting-edge technologies and industry best practices.

Integrate legacy systems with modern solutions: Develop strategies to integrate legacy systems with new technologies, such as creating APIs or adopting modular solutions that work alongside existing infrastructure.

Focus on sustainability: Use technology to enhance environmental sustainability in mining operations. Implement smart resource management systems, energy-efficient processes, and real-time environmental impact monitoring.

Address compliance and regulatory considerations: Stay abreast of evolving regulations related to digital technologies in mining. Ensure that digital initiatives comply with industry standards and legal requirements.

By strategically implementing these measures, mining executives can overcome challenges posed by old infrastructure, unlock digital technology’s potential, and position operations for future success.

NEC XON’s Sanders adds, “Mining executives should prioritise strategic investments in scalable digital platforms that can integrate with existing infrastructure, while providing a path to gradually phase in new technologies.”

“Adopting an IoT platform, like NEC XON’s NXD, which can aggregate data from various sources, including legacy systems (it is hardware agnostic), allows for real-time monitoring and analytics. NXD can also ensure data is verifiable using blockchain technology. This approach not only preserves initial investments, but also lays the groundwork for advanced analytics, AI, and ML for predictive maintenance and anomaly detection. Furthermore, partnerships with industry specialists like Leantegra and Ramjack can add expertise to deploy tailored solutions that address specific challenges related to legacy systems in mines.”

Edge, IoT and data

Risk management today relies on data from a plethora of technical sources, and security is no different. The more information one has, the better one can prepare – if you can extract useful information from the data. Mines collect enormous amounts of data from security, equipment, geological surveys and various sensors, so how can they effectively manage and analyse it all to better prepare for the future and make the most of their current assets?

Sanders continues that mines can leverage platforms like NXD to centralise and analyse the vast amounts of data generated from diverse sources. “NXD’s integration with advanced analytics and AI tools enables mining companies to perform sophisticated data analysis for predictive maintenance, forecasting, and optimising operations.

This can help mines transition from reactive to proactive asset management. Adopting cloud technologies and edge computing can also enhance data processing capabilities, especially in remote and challenging environments.”

De Villiers adds that effective data management and analysis are paramount for operational optimisation and informed decision-making in today’s IoT-driven mining landscape. He says mines can employ various strategies and technologies to achieve this:

1. Sensor integration and deployment

Deploy a network of sensors across mining operations to collect real-time data on equipment health, environmental conditions, and worker safety. Utilising a variety of sensors, including geophysical sensors for geological surveys, equipment sensors for performance monitoring, and environmental sensors for tracking conditions like temperature, humidity, and gas levels can provide a complete view of operations.

2. Data aggregation and centralisation

a. Implement a centralised data platform to aggregate information from diverse sources. This can be achieved through cloud-based solutions or on-premises data warehouses.

b. Ensure compatibility and standardisation of data formats across various devices and sensors for seamless integration.

3. Edge computing

Implement edge computing solutions to process data closer to its source, reducing latency and enabling real-time analysis. Edge devices can filter and preprocess data, sending only relevant information to the central system, which helps in reducing bandwidth requirements and improving efficiency.

4. Data security and privacy

Prioritise data security measures to protect sensitive information. Implement encryption, access controls, and authentication mechanisms to safeguard data from unauthorised access and cyber threats.

5. Machine learning and predictive analytics

a. Leverage machine learning algorithms to analyse historical data and predict equipment failures or maintenance needs; optimising maintenance schedules and minimising downtime.

b. Use predictive analytics to forecast production levels, identify potential risks, and make data-driven decisions for future planning.

6. Digital twin technology

a. Implement digital twin technology to create virtual replicas of physical assets, enabling better monitoring, simulation, and analysis of equipment performance and processes.

b. Digital twins provide a comprehensive view of the mining operations, allowing for improved decision-making and scenario planning.

7. Integration with ERP and CRM Systems

Integrate IoT data with Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems for a holistic view of business operations, supply chain management, and customer interactions.

8. Real-time monitoring and visualisation

Utilise dashboards and visualisation tools to monitor real-time data and key performance indicators (KPIs). This enhances situational awareness and facilitates quick decision-making.

9. Collaboration and communication

a. Foster collaboration among different departments by sharing actionable insights derived from data analysis.

b. Implement communication tools that allow stakeholders to share information in real time, improving response times to incidents or changing conditions.

10. Continuous improvement and adaptability

a. Regularly update and improve data analytics models and algorithms to adapt to changing mining conditions and technology advancements.

b. Foster a culture of continuous improvement, encouraging teams to embrace new technologies and methodologies.

By implementing these strategies, mining operations can harness the power of IoT and data analytics to optimise processes, improve safety, and make informed decisions for the future.

The data must flow

Collecting and analysing data is one step, but sending it to where it can be used effectively is another story. Being located in remote locations and working in harsh environments, internet connectivity is a challenge, and Starlink is not available in all countries (not legally, anyway). What can be done to improve communications, between both human and technology, even underground communications?

Unsurprisingly, De Villiers says this poses significant challenges that require strategic solutions. “One approach is to use satellite communication, which provides reliable connectivity in areas where terrestrial networks are unavailable. This entails deploying satellite phones, the internet, and systems capable of sustaining stable connections despite challenging conditions.”

“Additionally, implementing mesh networking solutions can create self-healing networks that allow devices to communicate without relying on centralised infrastructure, effectively adapting to changing terrains.”

He adds that deploying ruggedised communication equipment designed to withstand harsh conditions ensures connectivity for both above-ground and underground operations. These weather-resistant devices, equipped with features like long battery life and high compatibility, can help mitigate human error.

Integrating fibre optic cabling in tunnels enables high-speed and reliable communication underground. The fibre optics will help maintain signal integrity over long distances without susceptibility to electromagnetic interference. Modernised emergency communication systems, for example, can prioritise critical messages during emergencies, utilising multiple channels such as voice, text, and alarms for effective crisis communication.

“By combining these strategies with real-time monitoring and analytics, low-power and energy-efficient technologies, training and preparedness initiatives, and collaboration with technology providers, mining operations can enhance communication capabilities, ensuring effective human and technological communication in remote and challenging locations,” De Villiers concludes.

“To tackle the challenges of communication in remote and harsh mining environments, deploying robust, resilient networks that combine satellite, wireless, and sensor technologies is crucial,” says Sanders. “NEC XON’s expertise in networking and critical infrastructure monitoring, including satellite-based solutions, can help mines to create a reliable mining operations communications backbone. This approach ensures continuous data flow from sensors and equipment, enabling real-time decision-making and monitoring, even in the most challenging conditions.”

The strategic factor

Technology is always available to do almost anything, especially if you believe the purveyors of today’s AI systems. However, digital transformation is not a technical project. While the process and the endgame include plenty of technology, the strategy, process and implementation require human skills to plan and manage everything. Additionally, leaders need to drive the transformation process, it cannot be delegated to the IT department or anyone else.

While mining companies are increasingly investing in digital technologies throughout their operations, De Villiers notes that the industry still lags behind others in terms of digital maturity. “To drive effective digital transformation in mines, leaders must adopt a structured approach tailored to their operations and learn from both successful and unsuccessful transformation journeys in the industry. This requires a strategic approach to leverage technology, enhance efficiency, and equip the workforce with the necessary skills.” He says leaders can take several key steps to achieve this goal:

• They should develop a clear digital strategy, defining goals and identifying technologies like automation, IoT, AI, and data analytics.

• Investing in technology infrastructure and ensuring robust connectivity is essential.

• Integrating automation and IoT technologies can monitor and control mining processes, enhancing safety and efficiency. Leveraging data analytics provides insights into operations and enables predictive maintenance to reduce downtime.

• Establishing robust cybersecurity measures and training staff on best practices are crucial. Skill development and retraining initiatives should be implemented to upskill the existing workforce in areas like data analytics and automation.

• Fostering a culture of innovation and collaboration with technology partners is also vital. Effective change management strategies should address resistance and ensure a smooth transition.

• Lastly, monitoring progress through established KPIs and adjusting the digital strategy as needed is essential for success.

Through these steps, leaders can drive successful digital transformation in mines and ensure their workforce is prepared for the digital landscape.

Sanders echoes this, noting, “Leaders must create a culture of innovation and continuous learning to drive digital transformation in mining. This involves not only investing in new technologies, but also in the development and training of staff. By leveraging partnerships and the expertise of global partners, mines can access training resources, programmes and support services tailored to the unique demands of digital transformation in the mining sector. Encouraging collaboration between IT and operational teams can also facilitate a more holistic approach to digital solution integration.”

Partnering for successful digital transformation

The right partner is a critical component for the digital transformation of mines (and for any industry). Both BCX and NEC XON offer support for companies that are crossing the digital chasm.

De Villiers says BCX provides comprehensive technology solutions tailored to meet client needs. “We work closely with mining operations, employing a consulting-led approach led by industry and digital experts. Our goal is to help companies shape their digital future by identifying opportunities and supporting strategic pivots.”

He continues by mentioning the key pillars BCX uses in its approach to digital transformation:

• Our Digital and Business Advisory practice plays a crucial role in guiding organisations through the complexities of digital transformation. We align organisational strategy with digital initiatives, ensuring they are in sync with company goals. Our experts assess digital maturity and readiness, crafting a tailored transformation strategy and roadmap. We also focus on re-engineering business processes and designing agile operating models to support these efforts.

• We emphasise the importance of data in digital transformation. We help digitise key information, making it easily accessible for analysis. Organisations can automate processes and gain real-time insights by integrating data using various tools and technologies. Our services across the data value chain aim to put trustworthy data at the core, reducing costs and unlocking new revenue streams.

• Cloud Advisory Services provide a cloud-agnostic approach to evaluating current workloads and crafting hybrid-cloud strategies. We assist in workload assessments and migration planning, aiming to optimise resource allocation and enhance agility and scalability.

• Cyber Security Advisory and Management Services ensure the security of systems and data assets. We develop information security strategies, establish management systems, and conduct in-depth security assessments to benchmark against industry standards.

“Finally,” De Villiers says, “we focus on putting people at the centre of digital transformation. We believe that proper buy-in and adoption are crucial for success. Our organisational change and adoption management services help employees transition to new ways of working, ensuring the successful rollout of strategic programmes aimed at enhancing organisational performance. We strive to connect people with their digital future, making them integral to the transformation process.”

“NEC XON, through its NXD platform and suite of monitoring and analytics tools, provides a comprehensive solution for mining operations looking to embark on or enhance their digital transformation journey,” states Sanders. “Our platforms ingest data from a wide range of sensors, using AI and ML for analytics, predictive maintenance, and anomaly detection. Our work with cell towers, data centres, and infrastructure projects showcases our capability to monitor and optimise operations in challenging environments. Although we do not currently offer mining-specific IoT solutions, our remote networking capabilities, global partnerships, and technology adaptability make us a valuable ally in creating custom mining solutions for digital transformation.”

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