Big data has become big business. Information gathering techniques allow us to inform and drive commercial change and nowhere is this more true than in the mining industry, which relies on accurate decision-making to seek out new deposits of minerals in order to process them with maximum efficiency.
Digging for information – Roger Bell (Hannam & Partners)
Understanding the potential of technology and big data in the mining industry is essential for investors. Knowing how companies plan to create value and returns, drives interest from the market. One business aiding this process is Hannam & Partners, that offers expert advice through Roger Bell, Director of Mining Research.
We asked Bell to detail to most significant changes driven by the use of big data in the industry over the last 6-12 months: “I don’t think we have seen any truly revolutionary changes. But automation is increasingly being adopted, whether it is driverless trucks and trains or remote-controlled excavators and blast-hole drilling. This is going hand in hand with the increasing number of sensors gathering data at key steps of an operation, which are being used to drive process optimisations and predictive maintenance in reducing the risk of human error.”
It is clear from Bell’s statement that big data is essential in feeding the range of new technological tools and processes that underline the mining industry. So, how does he believe the rise of new processes will serve to orchestrate future growth? “I see big data applications as an extension of the never-ending process of technological improvement in mining. Companies have and will always be trying to increase output and reduce costs.
“Clearly for some players in various sectors, such as the major iron ore miners, the use of these technologies over several years has helped to drive unit costs lower and margins and returns higher. But as their rivals race to replicate these efficiency improvements, cost curves will eventually fall in real terms, dragging prices lower, and bringing margins and returns back to normalised levels.”
With these leaps in efficiency, Bell looks towards the economic implications created by new processes and optimisations to the end user. “Although leading miners are now trying harder to hang on to gains by protecting their intellectual property, the implications for the industry of technological improvement is almost always eventually lower prices in real-terms. In this way, the history of technology in mining is really the history of human development. If metals never got cheaper we would be stuck in the Stone Age.”
Where the rubber hits the road – Jamie Milne (World Wide Technology)
One of the companies delivering an impact to key stock processes in the mining industry is World Wide Technology. Its engagement manager, Jamie Milne is working with a mining truck client with a view to improving maintenance downtime and productivity. He gave us a unique insight into a specific case where big data had been used to make a difference, focusing on the following details:
“The company we worked with was facing many typical challenges with its truck fleet, including costly maintenance and operations of trucks, road quality and driver behaviour. In order to enact change within the maintenance regime we set out to gather a cache of data which could then be projected into the future. For example, we used recent information collected from the quotidian activity of mine trucks to forecast potential points of failure in the near-future.
“We implemented our models in a number of ways, though reports, alerts, alarms, and mobile and web-based applications. Oil changes, part changes and other maintenance actions can now be carried out before a costly breakdown takes place. Broader insights, from the efficiency of specific truck models to how changes in operations affect model performance, are available through deeper analysis of this data. We aim to provide the experts with the right amount of relevant information to help inform them and facilitate faster and better decision making. Getting the right data points and the right amount of data to provide relevant business insights is often the biggest challenge.”
The measure of this success is proven in the real world with reductions in spend and vital man hours servicing the business need. Milne went on to define the outcomes of the project.
“Initially we measured financial savings in the tens of millions of dollars. We expect there to be many more tangible and intangible benefits. For example, we created one report and a set of alerts to reduce idle time and achieved a significant reduction in idle hours per truck per day, but what we didn’t account for was the improvement in engine health and longevity due to the reduction in inefficient idling.
“We see big data as a continuation of the investment in technology and dedication to data-driven decision-making by the mines. As we continue to show value in analytics, this inspires and motivates more people within the organisation to innovate and create a greater number of larger-scale projects. Due to the efficiencies which we have achieved, the mining experts should have more time to develop these ideas and challenge the status quo.”
The flow of knowledge – Anastasia Mishanina (Severstal)
No one is more acutely aware of how to deploy the findings of big data to its advantage than Severstal. This Russian steelmaker has developed the largest data lake in the country’s mining sector in its drive to optimise operations. Anastasia Mishanina, Head of PR, spoke about some of the advantages this accumulation of information is presenting to the company’s mining operations.
“Data processing is at the heart of all aspects of digital transformation. Infrastructure that is able to store and analyse enormous data files generated by the company is key to our digital strategy. It forms the basis of all our further digital projects. Severstal is a vertically integrated steel and mining company and over the last year we have made considerable progress as part of the steel and mining industry’s digital advancement, with the creation of the largest data lake in Russian industry.
“Severstal’s Data Lake stores data collected from transmitters on industrial equipment (Internet of Things), process management information system servers and MES-systems. We only launched our digital transformation strategy at the end of 2016 and we have ambitious plans that will improve our competitive position globally. For the moment, our main projects are at our steel assets. There, the stored data supports predictive analytics projects in areas including predictive equipment maintenance and product quality optimisation.”
Going on to explore how the company has utilised these data assets, Mishanina highlighted some of the specific ways in which Severstal is already reaping the benefits of this strategy.
“But we also see great potential for digital transformation at our mining assets. Safety is the main priority for us and we have already started using digital tools to improve safety at our mining assets. For example, a new safety system for miners is being created at Vorkutaugol, our coking coal mining asset. It provides wireless connection between the ground level and underground areas of the mine. This improves the gas monitoring system, the system for locating underground personnel, and the alarm system. New equipment with faster signal transmission sensors is being introduced for miners.
“We are also now analysing the potential of initiatives such as: complex digital design of our mines and open pits; digital tools for logistics and inventory optimisation; big data based prediction tools for unsafe operation amongst many others.”
Finally, Mishanina outlined the future financial rewards that are predicted to befall the industry over the next coming five to 10-year period.
“Overall, it has been estimated that digital transformation in metals and mining globally will generate additional industry value of more than $320bn over the next decade: approximately $190bn for the mining sector and $130bn for the metals sector. The total for metals and mining is equivalent to 2.7% of industry revenue and 9% of industry profit. The most significant impact will come from:
For mining, the largest profits are expected from the digitally enabled workforce and automation and the implementation of robotics.”
As processing power continues to grow exponentially and new algorithms demonstrate an unbridled learning power, it is simple enough to extrapolate how these emergent technologies will dictate changes to all industries. However, due to the vast amount of touchpoints where the information systems of mining operators meet with real world environments, this will potentially be one of the sectors that may be truly revolutionised by AI and robotic systems.
Ultimately the benefits this will present to the planet as a whole cannot be underplayed, but most notably will it be the sustainable implementation of key processes that allows the industry to flourish whilst preserving our global bounty.