Q&A: Innovation and productivity in the mining sector
Austmine 2015: Transforming Mining is just around the corner, so with its emphasis on innovation and productivity, we decided to catch up with SRO Technology's Managing Director, Peter Seligman about innovation, collaboration, productivity and the greatest challenges across the mining value chain right now. Peter is a qualified engineer, who has been at the helm of SRO Technology for 2 years now, the latest role in a career spanning property, infrastructure, mining and investment banking.
As an Australian-owned mining equipment, technology and services (METS) company recognized as the world leaders in innovation and technological advancement, how important is it to keep innovating and collaborating within the industry as a whole to ensure its future?
No single mining equipment, technology and services (METS) business can solve all the challenges faced by the customers in our industry. Real innovation and advancement comes from connecting adjacent technologies in an effective and efficient way.
For example, at SRO Technology, we focus primarily on designing and installing belt scale, metal detector, bin level and density gauge systems for the mining industry. However, we regularly collaborate with a range of partners to ensure that our customers get the right mix of technology and support to solve their problem.
METS in Australia is a highly fragmented industry, made up of many great niche players and a few larger generalists. In order to obtain its strong global reputation, businesses within the Australian METS sector have had to collaborate to both compete on a global stage and access the combination of technology required to solve high-end problems.
To remain competitive and profitable, it is critical that METS businesses continually innovate in a collaborative way. Fundamentally, collaboration (and in many ways innovation) are not optional extras--they must be core to business as usual.
SRO Technology has a field service team of engineers and technicians as part of your wider service offering. Field service management is a huge area of focus for many organizations, with significant opportunities existing to improve customer satisfaction, efficiency and productivity. What are the biggest challenges with having a field service team? How does it allow you to better deliver for your customers?
It all comes down to the customer, followed by the team and then our profitability.
The first and most important challenge is having the right technician with the right expertise available at the right time to solve the problem for the customer. This reliability requires a business focus on recruiting, training and retaining a great team of people, and then having sufficient unutilized capacity to respond to customer needs. This approach demands real confidence in the vision and strategy of the company in order to invest in the team--any lacking clarity of purpose will only undermine the confidence to build and field a strong team.
Ultimately our customers want accurate and reliable output from their measurement instruments. Our field service team frequently fixes problems on site before those problems begin to significantly impact accuracy. They do this by working with what’s available on site to keep the customer operating reliably whilst a longer term solution is resolved. This real-time problem solving is valued by our customers in an environment where the cost of downtime can have a significant impact on net productivity and efficiency. Extending the useful life of critical instruments is also of great value in the current capital-constrained, productivity-focused environment.
Our field service team is on the front line of our customer relationships – their insight and regular feedback allows us to constantly look for ways to improve the customer experience.
The transport of ore around the site and processing plant is obviously a critical part of the overall mining value chain. Where are the biggest risks in this part of the chain? How can miners ensure the most efficient conveyance of resource on site?
I believe that a significant commercial risk in the movement of ore and product through the mining process is not having accurate and reliable measurement information. If you cannot rely on your information, or you are inadvertently relying on inaccurate information, you will make decisions that will drastically impact your efficiency and you may not truly understand the flow and position of material and product across the site.
A great opportunity to improve the efficiency of material movements, and therefore productivity, on site is to improve the accuracy and reliability of measurement instruments. More accurate information will more readily identify inefficiencies in the system and allow process engineers and other members of the mining team to refine the process.
For example, a small error in the belt weighers supporting a crushing and screening process may influence a misinterpretation of the sizing of the screen or the effectiveness of the crusher. A minor error in the bin level system that controls the loading of trains or trucks may under or overload vehicles, requiring either material to be removed or dispatch vehicles to not be fully loaded. A small error in the resolution of a tramp metal detector could allow tramp to pass into a critical process, or cause a false trip that results in unnecessary, costly downtime. The smallest error in a density gauge may influence the wrong specific gravity in a float tank, sinking valuable material, or sending precious product slurry to tailings when it should be retained.
Improving the accuracy and reliability of measurement instruments across the site will increase the resolution of information available to key decision makers and allow them to refine their process to maximize efficiency.
What do you see as the biggest opportunities for the mining industry in Australia in 2015 to improve productivity?
Increasing productivity is all about getting more output from less input. Therefore, more accurate and more comprehensive measurement of product and processes on site will allow for a better understanding of the productivity challenge--and subsequently the success or failure of productivity initiatives.
Firstly, measurement instruments must be properly applied on site to avoid errors inherent in application and deliver more accurate information to decision makers. These instruments are essentially the nerve endings of the mining information system. Regardless of the inherent accuracy in any instrument, if it is not properly applied it will never deliver its optimum accuracy. Technology is increasingly ‘plug-and-play’; however, failure to ensure proper physical application will not deliver accurate results.
Raw data can be interesting, but relevant and useful information derived from that data is far more insightful. Translating raw data into useful information to target critical key points in the production chain and then communicating those insights effectively from the site through to the boardroom will allow a better understanding of productivity at every level in the organization and the steps required to improve it.
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Axora: driving safety, sustainability and efficiency
“Axora was conceived to bring collaboration and industrial digital innovation to the next level,” pledges CEO Ritz Steytler. “We spoke with the heads of innovation and the operations leaders of oil & gas and metals & mining organisations. We understand the intense pressure they face to modernise their operations. We’re focused on offering solutions to support mining companies with the three biggest challenges they face: safety, sustainability and efficiency."
Safety, Sustainability & Efficiency
"We can help with everything from discovering the right solutions to solve specific problems, to evaluating physical innovation and then supporting the end to end process for actually getting that technology to deliver business value," continues Steytler. That’s realised through our support of the procurement cycle and helping companies with the deployment and maintenance of their chosen solutions to ensure they continue to deliver value where it’s needed most.”
Axora hosts over 150 innovative solutions from sector leaders to start-ups, universities, and consultancies. Examples include machine vision technology that identifies mineral ore contaminants three times faster than the human eye, and predictive modelling for oil rigs which uses built-in sensors and AI to maximise production. Axora's proven digital solutions help to reduce wasted investment, avoid duplication and accelerate business growth.
The World Economic Forum estimates digitalisation can create value to the tune of $400bn across the coming decade. However, the emergence of ‘digital mines’ isn’t just about the numbers. Digitalisation can transform mining into a far more sustainable enterprise by mitigating some of the big risks the industry faces. A digital mine can optimise operations, unleashing the power of data to understand and implement changes in the business.
With the right solutions it’s possible to effect radical changes in a process that is understood better. Solutions that have been road-tested across the oil and gas industry can deliver real benefits for mining companies, including early adopters like Glencore, explains Axora’s Mining Innovation Director Joe Carr: “Opex Group are using Machine Learning with an AI algorithm to pull in all the available sensor data to monitor a processing plant. Its solutions analyse output and look across all the pumps and motors to offer exact data on where to tweak them down. It’s cloud-based and can monitor, reduce and control operational emissions, optimise energy use and minimise environmental impact. It’s currently being used in the oil and gas industry and it's been shown to save up to 10% of power, but the driver of it was actually Co2.
“If you're running an oil platform, your power is essentially free because you're pumping it out of the ground. But in a mine the biggest power user, outside of the trucks and shovels, is the process plant. It uses around 21 kilowatt hours per tonne of processing power to run, right? Obviously, that's dependent on the plant, but it's a power-hungry situation. Diesel is not cheap, especially in remote locations. Being able to save five to 10% of your power usage for no issue in terms of production could be a big win for mining.”
Carr highlights there is also the real opportunity to significantly reduce Scope 1, Scope 2 and even into Scope 3 emissions where Opex Group’s solutions could be used in a smelter to go for the “low hanging fruit” and cut Co2 emissions. “It's a win-win all around, and yet it's a technology which the mining industry doesn't use today, but it exists in a parallel industry.”
To further reduce emissions, Axora is offering solutions which are involved in the scheduling and optimisation of haul truck fleets. “If your fleet is idling for even 10 minutes a cycle, that is wasted fuel,” notes Carr. “It just goes into the atmosphere. And very rarely do the drivers turn the trucks off because they don't want to be stopping and starting those big engines. The mine may be in an extreme climate so even something as basic as saving idling can contribute towards a company’s net zero targets.” The Axora platform also features a system to manage shipping and logistics. “Are you moving your material in the most effective way in terms of routing for fuel usage and speed?” asks Carr.
“Being able to program those variables in terms of Co2 tonnage produced offers new capabilities. We’re able to help our customers understand what they want to achieve. Scope 1 emissions might be the easiest to impact with the haul fleet. Scope 2 focuses on the processing plant and the downstream movement. Understanding what a mining company’s customers are using its materials for makes Scope 3 more difficult to impact – for iron ore it would be a steel melt…”
To that end, Axora offers a predictive maintenance system for aluminum smelting which Carr notes can reduce downtime by up to 20%. “Aluminum smelting tends to come from hydro which can be very clean – it’s energy intensive,” he explains. “But the same system could easily be applied to steel or copper processes where you don't want to be turning them on and off. You don't want to be running your autoclave in a gold mine with a varying sulfide input because the heat goes up and down and it messes with your recovery and you're using a lot more power to heat and cool your autoclave.”
The Axora Platform
“Challenge us and we will find it for you,” asserts Steytler when explaining how he envisages the Axora platform developing. “We aim to match a technology provider to a particular business buyer, somebody that has a real problem that needs to get solved. They can then collaborate to deploy that technology successfully.” Steytler is positioning Axora beyond the sales and procurement process. “There’s no such thing as on time and on budget with a digital transformation effort, right? It’s a difficult thing to achieve, we’re not talking about shrink-wrapped software. That’s why partnerships are extremely important and we can help facilitate those to deliver the value required.”
Reacting to Trends
Against the backdrop of record years for many mining companies – with copper and gold production and prices on the rise – what trends are the team at Axora seeing across the industry that will necessitate a response from its multi-solution platform? “Despite the uncertainties of the global pandemic, mining companies have taken a practical approach,” notes Carr. “What we’ve seen during the pandemic is that miners have realised they need to embrace the digitisation journey. The past year has proved to be a gateway with younger guys coming through the system ready for change.”
Carr highlights that with Covid, engineers couldn’t simply fly to West Africa or Chile so the door to digitsation opened. Where has he seen the biggest push? “How do we get the data we want and then what do we do with it?” he counters. “Miners have so much data that it's in Excel sheets, and it's got macros, and it's historically stored on a server somewhere that nobody's looked at for five years since it was sent out. Our clients' demands today are more around how do we do something with that data? Because we know the benefits are there. The sensor data around predictive maintenance and all these things exist, but they're having such a struggle to deal with it and deliver meaningful insights.”
However, Carr concedes it's a cyclical business. “If it comes down to buying another truck or buying a data server, what's going to get more tonnes out of the ground? But with the right data we can see what will actually benefit operations in the long term… That push towards digital has seen what we thought would take the next five years actually happen in one year because remote capabilities and enhancement to operations centres have advanced to meet demand. At Axora, we’re seeing mining companies assess solutions to improve health and safety on their sites by reducing members of the workforce exposed to risk and in harm’s way and keen to discover how they can drive efficiencies to make more tonnes for less. Ultimately, it’s part of our job to make it simple in terms of a value calculation.”
“Axora is here to accelerate digital transformation in the mining industry,” asserts Steytler. “We can simplify that process. And with investment in that transformation expected to reach $6.8trn between 2020 and 2023 as the world economy digitizes, there’s never been a better time to realise the benefits.”