The concept of ‘the digital mine’ has been around for several years, however a recent survey conducted by Nerospec SK indicates the underground mining sector is much closer to the beginning of its digitalisation journey than the end.
The ‘How Digital Is Your Mine?’ survey from Nerospec SK, a company focused on a suite of digital and automation solutions for the sector, focused on six key themes and messages in its report, which was based on replies from 43 participants from across the global mining sector.
The first theme indicated that digitalisation was continuing to grow, with more than 70% of participants expecting increased investments in projects going forward.
This expected growth was influenced by the second theme: ‘digitalisation pays off’. The survey highlighted three quarters of the projects pursued to digitalise operations had been deemed successful, and 70% of them had come with a return on investment of less than three years.
To this point, mine safety has been the biggest beneficiary, according to the survey, with some 64% of participants agreeing that digitalisation projects had positively impacted operational safety. This has been seen with the likes of proximity detection, collision avoidance and vehicle intervention systems underground, preventing collisions between people, machinery and mine infrastructure.
The added transparency that comes with these digitalisation endeavours was expected to translate into productivity gains down the line, according to survey participants.
“Knowing what the machines have been doing during their shifts and, with that, identifying systematic improvement opportunities is the real game changer, enabling the sector to unleash the next frontier of operations improvements,” Nerospec SK said.
One of the biggest hurdles to achieving these gains is the availability of data communication networks, more than half of survey participants pointed out. “As regular wireless communication equipment is not effective underground, this is still a hurdle that many mines have not tackled,” Nerospec SK said, explaining that new solutions such as LTE and the like were only just becoming available.
At the same time, survey participants (68%) highlighted that the “simplicity of digital solutions” as well as the “technology readiness” for underground mining applications were major challenges associated with leveraging more digitalisation projects. “This indicates that the industry is not yet convinced of the availability of robust underground mining proven solutions that can be installed and maintained with the available mining personnel,” Nerospec SK said.
Of the most promising digital technologies available to the underground mining sector, automation of machinery was highlighted, being named the biggest single game-changing technology innovation with the greatest business value contribution by 38% of participants. This surprised the survey analyst team given electrification, ventilation on demand and connectivity have been highlighted as transformative in other similar industry polls.
The last theme centred on digital training and the industry-wide need for obtaining local mine and service crews with updated knowledge on new digital technologies. Around 35% of survey participants highlighted the digital readiness of service and maintenance personnel when asked the question: ‘What skills developments are required to become ready for the digital mine?’
“Finally, in terms of people qualification the survey participants are not so worried about the underlying fundamental software development, data analytics, or automation capabilities of developers,” Nerospec SK said. “The greatest need is seen in getting the local mine and service crews ready to work with the new digital technologies.”