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Anglo American: Digging smarter, not harder

The last few years have seen a wave of innovation pour down on the mining industry as companies struggle to seek out new ways of maximizing production w...

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|Jun 3|magazine19 min read

The last few years have seen a wave of innovation pour down on the mining industry as companies struggle to seek out new ways of maximizing production while curtailing costs. Anglo American is among the few miners swapping traditional mining methods with technology and innovation to achieve greater results. 

 “Our objective is to drive a more sustainable approach to mining through innovation. It touches on efficiency and productivity, safety, the environment and sustainability, so we can strengthen our competitive position over the long term,” said Donovan Waller, group head of Anglo American’s technology development.

The UK-based miner is in the process of launching FutureSmart, a refined approach to sustainable operations that blends together a number of initiatives—innovative technologies and open collaboration—to deliver greater value to Anglo’s mining activities. 

Next generation mining

The face of mining is changing. Rising costs and declining commodity prices have caused the labor-intensive industry of old to curate newer and more efficient ways of doing business. The goal remains the same for Anglo American, but the process of obtaining it is different.

Representing an initial investment of $30 million a year, FutureSmart is the center of the operational and financial turnaround. The holistic method strives for a more sustainable approach to mining for Anglo American economically, socially and environmentally. The initiative also aims to improve the mining industry’s “big picture” by delivering better value, encouraging innovation and rebuilding the sector’s public image.

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“FutureSmart represents a shift in the way we approach mining at Anglo American, and is represented in many different projects across the breadth of the business,” said Waller.

“At the moment, more than 50 FutureSmart initiatives are under way to find safer, more efficient, environmentally-friendly and, ultimately, more sustainable ways to mine. Some of the innovations will be on a small scale, while others will be more “disruptive,” creating a step-change, worth more than new projects.”

Cutting-edge technology

Anglo American wants to push the boundaries of what typical mining operations can achieve. Through key partnerships, innovative technology and new ways of utilizing information, FutureSmart seeks to increase mining efficiency while simultaneously reducing costs and eliminating potential hazards.

According to Waller, one of the most exciting technology developments in the next ten years will be the use of lasers as cutting tools.

“In the geothermal industry in America, we see drills that are reliant on lasers for penetration, and we are confident that we will be able to adopt a similar technology in mining to replace the traditional drill and blast, eliminating the safety risks and the impact on the surrounding environment and, at the same time, drastically reducing the time, energy, resources and costs. Replacing drill and blast processes with laser technology also has the potential to cut out traditional and expensive truck haulage, replaced with a conveyor belt or pipe system and bring about a step-change for the industry.”

A major component of Anglo American’s FutureSmart initiative is utilizing 3D technology to provide richer information for faster and improved decision making.

 “We have seen too many instances of mining companies losing many millions and sometimes billions of dollars of capital by failing to put enough detailed thought and planning into the concept and the feasibility stages of projects. This has not only resulted in cost overruns and delays but completed projects have then failed to live up to their expectations, and of course the financial expectations of shareholders,” said Waller.

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“We are committed to learning from other industries and from our partners to embed 3D use in planning or, what is otherwise known as, smart or “digital” constructability and we are steadily moving towards building into our planning the ability to virtually construct and deconstruct buildings, plants and mines and the associated infrastructure many times over before we break ground. High fidelity imagery is an important part of this, enabling a detailed analysis of conditions remotely and testing this data—a process that has traditionally taken two to three weeks, can now be done in 20 minutes. As an industry, we must restore our shareholders’ confidence in our ability to deliver what we have set out to, on time and on budget.”

Automation, which has long been a part of the mining industry, is another aspect FutureSmart looks to advance. Anglo has partnered with various companies, including Atlas Copco and ASI Solutions, to transform underground mining and fleet management through automation, and in some cases, robotics.

“We have been able to successfully operate the first multi-OEM automation solution, improving safety and reducing costs by two thirds—compared to purchasing a manufactured automated new heavy vehicle. This is by no means a one-size fits all approach, and will ultimately depend on the operating and labor conditions in a given location,” said Waller.

“In the area of robotics, we are currently trial testing technology to detect cracks behind rock faces, sending low profile vehicles, instead of our people, into deep tunnels to record grades, rock formations and faults on a single pass, significantly reducing the safety risks of manual labor in these types of environments and saving an enormous amount of time and energy.”

Roadmap for the future

For Anglo’s FutureSmart initiative, the icing on the cake is collaboration. According to Waller, the program draws on the expertise of the company’s diverse stakeholders, including employees, partners in academia and civil society, and peers in the mining and parallel industries to focus specifically on global challenges around mining, processing and sustainability.

“These will be ‘think tanks’ open to stakeholders, each focused on carving out a road map to the industry’s most complex challenges in the areas of mining, processing and sustainability. We want to be able to facilitate genuine learning from some of the best. Often, creating solutions to our own specific challenges need not start from scratch. Mining companies will form part of this collective, but there will be many other groups and industries involved, who will also stand to benefit. We will have access to each other’s intellectual property, without sharing sensitive information of course, which provides the access and the momentum we need to reach solutions with greater speed and efficiency.”

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The plan for open forums is to bring together different perspectives to reframe grand challenges and deliver a vision and route for Anglo American going forward. Integrated thinking and broad collaborative partnerships will assist in driving rapid progress from idea to application, thus unlocking the infinite opportunities for the mining company.

“Mining is on the cusp of game changing innovation that will move the industry forward in leaps and bounds. At Anglo American, we’re determined not only to be ready for this innovation, but to lead the way in creating it,” concluded Waller.