The importance of partners in mining digital transformation
The new wave of Industry 4.0 has appeared in the mining industry with such disruptive speed that it has surprised even the more futuristic advocates. While offering business and operational improvements, it has also introduced many new challenges. As a result, mining companies and their suppliers have been tested to adjust their strategies, technologies and skills in a short period.
In the mining environment, digital technologies involve a long list of applications that are taking advantage of stream data analytics, machine vision, remote sensing, teleoperation and autonomous systems. While all of them are for different uses and outcomes, they share a common pattern – capturing data in digital format and processing it into relevant information for decision making, often in real-time.
The introduction of digital technologies into the traditional mining environment has reshaped its technical and operational aspects. The design, deployment and use of such technologies require new hardware, software, adjustments to operational practices, as well as new skillsets in the workforce.
Hardware should be ruggedized enough to cope with the harsh environment of mines to carry − without damaging − the new generation of sophisticated devices such as sensors, antennas and chips. Software and (edge) computing platforms should be powerful enough to perform in a demanding data environment with machine learning, deep learning and stream data mining algorithms consuming and processing ever-growing volumes of data. Engineering and operational practices also need to adjust infrastructure, equipment and services so that they can perform over digital platforms efficiently and effectively.
Finally, the introduction and adaptation of new skills into the mining environment is probably the biggest challenge. Due to the multidisciplinary nature of digitalization, the new digital framework not only requires mining expertise but needs to combine it with telecom, computer science and system integrations skills.
New data and information frontiers
The digital mining journey requires more than laying cables, plugging-in boxes and installing antennas and goes far beyond connecting machines or analyzing datasets. Digital technologies are opening new frontiers on the use of data and information to manage large and complex operational processes.
Of course, productivity, efficiency and safety remain key KPIs for mining companies. Therefore, digital mining solutions need to be designed and deployed with a holistic long-term view to assure mines continue to operate safely with higher efficiency and profitability. Therefore, a scalable and flexible ecosystem is needed to cope with the fast-evolving development of the technology – without generating operational interference.
One of the main challenges that mines face is the amount of time needed to integrate new digital systems. To support the immediate needs of the industry, technology suppliers, system integrators and service providers are instrumental in enhancing digital transformation in mining by speeding up readiness and transferring skills and learnings.
Partnering with telecom vendors
Mining companies have started developing new partnerships, not only to expand their digital ecosystems, but also to leverage the experience and expertise partners can offer. Working with partners can provide the mining industry with the required ecosystem, as well as immediate advisory and professional skillsets. But there is one caveat: these partners must also have extensive expertise in the mining domain.
Many equipment manufacturers have already embraced this industrial challenge by developing and testing machinery that’s digital-ready and can be operated remotely or autonomously. Mining companies and their incumbent suppliers are teaming up with network infrastructure companies and telecom operators to obtain the right connectivity solutions for supporting their digital transformation – avoiding the pitfalls of implementing, integrating and testing solutions by themselves.
A good example of such an integrated effort is Komatsu, which tested and qualified the performance of their FrontRunner AHS on Nokia’s private wireless network (LTE) infrastructure on its proving grounds in Tucson, Arizona. Sandvik, is also evolving its underground solution by testing the capabilities of LTE and 5G networks to enhance underground connectivity at its Tampere-based test mine.
As predictable wireless connectivity is fundamental for mission-critical communications, as well as for reliable data collection, transmission and processing, partnering with a telecom vendor that has extensive experience with standardized 4G, LTE and 5G network technologies is key for succeeding in the digital mining race.
Partners can also bring new assets to which a mining operator would normally have no access such as the wireless radio spectrum needed by a 4G/LTE or 5G network. Getting access to that spectrum usually means either licensing it from a government agency partnering with a local mobile operator or a third-party supplier who already owns spectrum. There are several mining operators that have recently teamed up with mobile operators to roll out private wireless networks. Examples include Vale’s partnership with Vivo in Brazil, Teck and Shaw in Canada, and Minera Las Bambas and Telefonica in Peru.
Experience plays a fundamental role in the digital transformation of mining and its further evolution. Getting transformation right the first time is often a challenge, and the industry needs to learn its lessons. One of the first autonomous rail projects in Western Australia ended up 80 percent above budget and four years delayed. It highlights the need to find strong strategic partners that can help navigate the new digital terrain, follow the fast speed of technology development and foresee potential pitfalls.
The large CAPEX involved in digital transformation also highlights that running projects of this scope and complexity in trial-and-error mode is only a recipe for delays and cost overruns. A partner with long-term vision, expertise and experience in the mining domain, and a willingness to make a substantial investment in the industry, is a long-term asset.
The digitalization of mines is key to improving productivity, safety and quickly reducing costs; however, it is not a sprint. It also comes with considerable investment in training and a long learning curve. Unlike operational technology projects of the past, digital is now a mine-wide platform that requires strategic focus and partners with a holistic approach and good expertise in mining to build the digital mine of the future.
As most of the early movers have experienced, the transformation to the connected digital mine will be a journey rather than a destination. But with the right travel companions on board, the expedition will be gratifying - and the big reward will be a safe, connected, efficient and productive environment that is built for the next generation of mining.
Rio Tinto and Alcoa begin construction with ELYSIS tech
Eliminating all direct greenhouse gases from aluminium smelting has taken a major step forward with the start of construction on the first commercial-scale prototype cells of ELYSIS’ inert anode technology, at Rio Tinto’s Alma smelter in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, Quebec.
ELYSIS has the potential to reduce the carbon footprint of aluminium production
ELYSIS is a joint venture company led by Rio Tinto and Alcoa that is developing a new breakthrough technology, known as inert anode, that eliminates all direct greenhouse gases (GHGs) from the traditional smelting process and instead produces oxygen.
The technology has the potential to transform the aluminium industry, with a significant reduction in its carbon footprint.
The inert anode prototype cells will operate on a commercial scale typical for large modern aluminium smelters, using an electrical current of 450 kiloamperes (kA).
The Honourable Francois-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry joined representatives from ELYSIS, Rio Tinto and Alcoa to mark the start of construction and announce a further CAD $20mn financial contribution from the Government of Canada to support the project.
The federal government's financial support will enable the creation of a unique commercial size inert anode technology showroom for future customers and will help develop the supply chain by involving local and regional equipment manufacturers and suppliers in the project.
ELYSIS is working to complete the technology demonstration by 2024 followed by the commercialization activities.
ELYSIS technology at a glance:
- The ELYSIS technology addresses the global trend towards producing low carbon footprint products, from mobile phones to cars, planes and building materials.
- The new process will reduce operating costs ofaluminiumsmelters while increasing production capacity. It could be used in both new and existing aluminium smelters.
- In Canada alone, the ELYSIS technology has the potential to reduce GHG emissions by 7 million tons, the equivalent of removing 1.8 million cars from the roads.
- ELYSIS will also sell next-generation anode and cathode materials, which will last more than 30 times longer than traditional components.
Alcoa and Rio Tinto will continue to support the ELYSIS development program alongside the Governments of Canada and Quebec.
ELYSIS is working closely with Alcoa's Technical Center, where the zero-carbon smelting technology was invented, and the Rio Tinto technology design team in France.
Alcoa's Technical Center supports ELYSIS in the manufacture of proprietary materials for the new anodes and cathodes that are essential to the ELYSIS process. The Rio Tinto technology team in France is creating commercial scale designs for the ELYSIS technology.
Vincent Christ, CEO, ELYSIS commented: “This is a great day for ELYSIS. It means that we are becoming the first technology company in the world to build commercial-size inert anode cells. While we refine the technology in our R&D Centre, we start the construction of our prototype cells. This shows our confidence in our process and in the know-how of our team. The combination of ELYSIS' zero CO2 technology and Quebec's renewable energy will be great competitive advantage for the future. I would like to thank the government for its support and all the partners for their commitment.”
Samir Cairae, Rio Tinto Aluminium managing director Atlantic Operations and ELYSIS board member added: “Today marks a real step towards the future of the aluminium industry, by progressing this breakthrough technology to cut carbon emissions. Rio Tinto is committed to supporting its ongoing development here in Quebec where we already use clean hydropower to deliver some of the world’s lowest carbon aluminium. Combining this technology with renewable hydropower holds the promise of zero carbon aluminium smelting.”