BHP opens up on the future of maintenance and the role of strategic partners

International Mining had the chance to hear from BHP’s Vice President Maintenance & Engineering Centre of Excellence Maria Joyce in person at the International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC) this week when she presented a keynote on how the company sees the future of maintenance, technology and innovation.

Joyce said BHP’s focus remains squarely on productivity and sustainability. “Productivity remains our single biggest lever to extract more from the resources and assets we have and grow value from the business. Our BHP operating system, coupled with our centres of excellence, will ensure we safely and responsibly drive productivity. We see opportunity at the intersection points of maintenance, innovation, and technology.”

She then covered three key opportunities in some detail, namely: data and technological innovation; operational efficiency and cost reductions; and the co-development role of OEMs and strategic partners.

BHP “has determined, and proven, that the most effective way to unlock innovation through ways of working or technology, is through our centres of excellence and our BHP operating system that empowers the front line. This enables us to take ideas from our teams that physically execute the work and assess these opportunities at a macro scale. And conversely ensure the high-quality execution of maintenance activities on the ground. Delivering on strategy and as planned.” Through the centre of excellence, Joyce says it is able to hold tension on this performance and can drive macro continuous improvement into its global operations, consistently at scale and pace.

Over the past few years, the global miner has strengthened its capability in data access, data integrity, and machine-assisted data analytics. These sit alongside its globally common approach to asset management, centralised maintenance strategies and governance in the maintenance and engineering centre of excellence.

For common mining equipment, like an ultra-class truck, Joyce says it means that it centrally trades off the right balance between risk of component failure, cost and equipment performance at an enterprise level. “We then centrally govern and optimise these equipment strategies to ensure  global best practice performance across our operating footprint. We have built up a substantive central archive of data and intelligence [Ironman]. This has enabled us to achieve top quartile truck performance across several of our Australian operations. We can now mine our data in the same way we mine our commodities.”

With the foundation of centralised data and strategy governance BHP has also developed proprietary tools and in-house capability that uses artificial intelligence in its decisions along the value chain. “These models are fully integrated into our BHP frameworks and systems and at an enterprise level. But they are smart enough to adapt to the high-altitude operating environment of Escondida, all the way through to a metallurgical coal mine in the Bowen Basin. Both open cut mines but very different mining, haulage and dump conditions.”

The models help BHP run advanced analytics [using APM] and dynamic system modelling to predict supply chain performance. And pressure test the supply chain to anticipate potential performance deviations and compliance challenges. “Allowing us to take action early, before a problem presents itself in the day of operation. It is defining new ways to operate and maintain. Autonomy is a good example. An autonomous site faces a range of complications including interactions between manual and autonomous vehicles and obstacles between the machinery  itself and other objects. It is a highly complex and dynamic environment with lots of moving parts, which can make it more difficult to identify the root causes of underperformance in a fleet. Condition monitoring and sensor data attached to those assets becomes even more important to help us work smarter.”

BHP takes these tens of millions of data points into a machine learning model that does the hard lifting. “Identifying factors correlated with good and bad performance. That performance is then mapped over time to predict variability across the mining system, as we flex operating conditions. This allows us to optimise our equipment strategies and drive rapid improvement back into the system. In a very recent example, it allowed us to increase productive movement by 10% per annum in one of our Australian autonomous operations.”

Operational efficiency, cost reduction
Next is cost efficiency, which is a constant focus in mining. Maintenance is one of the biggest drivers of operating costs globally. Joyce: “We know that predictive maintenance minimises unexpected equipment failures and costly downtime, making our operations more reliable and resilient. When we can accurately predict when equipment will require maintenance [using APM], we can schedule repairs during planned downtime, minimising production disruptions and costs. That is the opportunity. We have predictive analytic models running across most of our load and haul fleets globally, as well as our materials handling systems.”

These models are developed and maintained by a small footprint of people in its maintenance centre of excellence, which provide real time and long-range indications of machine health and potential failure or degradation. In West Australia Iron Ore one of the material handling facilities was challenged by ongoing vibration and material handling impacts that threatened to shorten the structures’ lifespan. “Through our technical centres, we developed a scalable framework where hundreds of gigabytes of sensor data were processed to diagnose and solve for the challenge. Way faster than any human brain could. In fact, it enabled us to identify other locations in the fixed plant structures where we could make changes to prevent the same risk from occurring.”

Co-developed technology roadmaps
The third area of opportunity is technology and innovation that is delivered with BHP and its business partners. A good example of this, is across its decarbonisation efforts, where displacing diesel at the scale of BHP is not just about buying new equipment. “The sources of our Scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions is mixed, which is why our decarbonisation pathway is non-linear and reliant on new technologies that are not yet commercially available. Our approach is to collaborate with our OEMs and others across industry to  accelerate development, where for example, we have partnered with Caterpillar and Komatsu to collaboratively develop commercially viable zero emission mining trucks. Every part of the mine will be touched by this change, particularly maintenance.”

Diesel displacement requires a whole new operational ecosystem to surround the fleet. Joyce: “Changing the energy source of mining trucks will change the way we maintain and manage our equipment. Let me help you visualise this change. Let’s take the battery in a large electric haul truck, it may have around 10,000 individual cells that need to be mapped, monitored and maintained. When we scale this up, across our global footprint of fleets, the magnitude of data intensity, management and evaluation we are introducing into the maintenance world is nothing short of remarkable.”

At Jansen, in its Potash business, BHP has partnered with Sandvik to pioneer a world first, ultra large underground borer – 10 times the size of typical systems, with three times the number of process sensors and 10 times the number of asset health sensors. “It is these kinds of collaborations which will accelerate our industry’s rate of development. Our centres of excellence position BHP strongly to navigate and realise these opportunities both those in our existing footprint, and those in new Greenfields expansions like Jansen.”

Near-term challenges
Joyce then turned towards a few of the challenges that BHP sees on the horizon. “The first is investment costs. The remote nature of mining operations, coupled with the industrial scale requires high investment to ensure the right technology infrastructure and connectivity. The reality is that this investment must be made into existing operations and infrastructures, which requires a phased approach constrained by technology readiness, capital, and supply chains.”

The second challenge, perhaps not surprisingly, future skills and technical expertise. “We increasingly need more people with digital skills sector wide, from innovators to the front lines of production and maintenance. We need to bring workers on that journey. We simply don’t have enough of them. This isn’t just a challenge for BHP but industry alike as we draw from the very same talent pools.”

The third challenge exists in global supply chains. The future is heading towards increased global supply chain demand for technology components and future facing commodities. “We saw recent examples of the disruption that can occur in the motor vehicle industry. Where the supply of semi-conductors significantly impacted new vehicle production rates.These are all areas BHP are navigating in the here and now. Our strong Capital Allocation Framework to prioritise funding, through to our Future Fit Academies developing and growing the trades skills that will be brought on by technology and decarbonisation. Strong partnerships with communities, vendors and OEMS will also be pivotal to solve for pressures on the end-to-end supply chain and future skills capability.”

Long-term opportunities in technology and data
Finally, Joyce turned to the long term view. “If we all stood here together in 10-to-15-years, the operating environment for BHP will be very different again. We expect to see the quality of datasets to grow exponentially as we deploy next generation devices and sensors that capture more data, in real time. These always-on, advanced devices and sensors across our operations will provide a real time view in a 3D space. The ability to harness this data will need to be underpinned by the ongoing expansion of our digital backbone, in areas such as next generation networks and edge computing. We expect network solutions, such as 5G+ and Low Earth Orbit satellites to provide high bandwidth, low latency network connections in all areas of a mining operation. A far cry from connectivity challenges we face in some of our remote operations today.”

She added: “Closed loop, AI driven, automation and predictive maintenance we will help us to achieve new heights of asset performance, as we respond to the early warning signals and optimise strategies in real time. And for our people, a world where we leverage responsible AI to augment our workforce, driving even greater productivity and cost efficiency. And most importantly, above all else, remove people from harm’s way.”

For its supply chain, BHP will stretch way beyond the AI tools it uses today into an era of Quantum and space-based computing. “Allowing us to sense and rapidly respond to supply chain demands to any location in our global footprint, at any time. These technologies present exciting opportunities that will fundamentally change the way we will work in the future.”

She concluded her talk as follows: “The leading edge of maintenance, technology and innovation will deliver the next frontier of mining productivity more rapidly. As we apply new technology and at pace we will require new innovative maintenance practices and new skills in our people. The opportunities for data and technology innovation to deliver even greater cost efficiency is huge. More importantly, it will make our work environments safer. Our OEMs, local suppliers and other partners will play a key role at setting the pace at which the future arrives. The future for maintenance is bright and exciting.”