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BHP signs cloud technology pacts with Amazon Web Services and Microsoft

BHP has selected Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft as long-term cloud providers to help improve safety, productivity, and reliability across its globally-operated assets.

The collaborations with AWS and Microsoft will support two distinct parts of BHP’s operations, it said.

AWS will power BHP’s digital transformation by providing capabilities in data analytics and machine learning to rapidly deploy digital solutions globally to improve operational performance.

Microsoft, through its Azure platform, will host BHP’s global applications portfolio. This will enable BHP to leverage its existing Microsoft licences and SAP applications portfolio and help to reduce its reliance on regional data centres, it said.

Microsoft says its multi-year strategic partnership with BHP will build on its existing Microsoft Cloud foundations with Office 365, Dynamics 365 and Azure, and will enable BHP to improve safety, productivity and sustainably at its frontline operations across Australia, the Americas and globally.

It added: “Microsoft will help deliver strong digital capability, data support and security, which will help BHP accelerate its journey to cloud, transitioning its global applications including SAP, in a portfolio move to Azure. This represents the transition of up to 17,500 TB of data to Azure.”

BHP Chief Technical Officer, Laura Tyler, said collaborating with two world-leading cloud providers highlighted the importance of cloud to support BHP’s digital transformation.

“Digital technology is in everything we do at BHP, from how we connect to our customers and partners every day to how we extract and find resources more safely and sustainably,” she said.

“We are leveraging next-generation technologies like cloud, machine learning, and data analytics to solve complex business problems and unlock value even faster.

“Cloud is the foundation to our plans, and it will enable us to deploy digital solutions to the frontline quickly and at scale. Cloud will dramatically reduce the amount of hardware on sites and reduce costs.

“We are thrilled to have AWS and Microsoft on board to ensure we have a strong foundation to accelerate our digital transformation plans and lift capability across the business.”

Collaboration key to unlocking digital transformation, BHP’s Bourke says

BHP has already made great strides in digitalising its processes at mine site and operations centres, but Pat Bourke, VP of Technology for Minerals Australia at BHP, says collaboration will play a critical role in helping the company leverage further operational and safety gains.

Speaking at the IMARC Online event today, he gave examples of how BHP is combining “lean concepts” with digital solutions to improve its performance through in-house collaboration.

One such example was the company’s Maintenance and Engineering Centre of Excellence, which develops advanced maintenance strategies based on data analysis to decide on what assets to maintain, when to maintain them and how to maintain them for “superior performance”.

The BHP Operating System, meanwhile, supports the company’s “front line” to improve day-to-day operations through the use of standard systems underpinned by technology, he said.

“To fully capture the next wave of productivity at speed, we need to integrate technology and our digital solutions with these initiatives,” Bourke said, explaining that this will further enhance the company’s agenda of safety and productivity.

He then moved onto the external collaboration side, saying one of the critical elements to unlocking digital transformation was the ability to collaborate within the broader ecosystem as well.

“We can do a lot as an organisation…and as an industry…in partnership with our supplier, communities and government to solve for the future,” Bourke said. “We can do even more when we effectively combine our capabilities and bring multiple partners to collaborate on shared problems.”

Thinking differently about who the company connects and creates synergies with has led BHP to find partners outside its usual circles such as the Australian Defence Force, it said. This partnership, in particular, has seen the organisations collaborate on workforce learning, culture, technology, training and shared apprenticeships.

“Through these synergies, we can stack hands together to gain further insights and understand the similarities around areas such as quantum technologies, automation and cyber defences, for example,” Bourke said.

And, even during COVID-19, the company has been collaborating to produce productivity outcomes.

This has seen it work with Microsoft to deploy augmented reality headsets that combine video with advanced 3D sensing technologies, allowing BHP engineering teams based in the Perth office, some 1,300 km away from the Pilbara operations, to oversee complex installation of mine equipment remotely.

“But it’s not just the big partners who are helping us to find a competitive edge,” Bourke said. “In today’s world we know we need to innovate and deploy new technologies even more quickly to keep up with the pace of change.”

A collaboration with start-up Plotlogic is seeing BHP pilot precision mining technology, for instance.

“This technology will map the face of a pit wall to provide a detailed view of ore versus waste,” Bourke explained. “This type of precision mining will give us the step change in productivity that we are chasing to improve the quality of the ore we extract…this will enable further efficiencies.”

Earlier this year, Plotlogic confirmed it had signed its first contract to embed OreSense, its new AI ore characterisation technology, into an iron ore mine site of BHP’s in the Pilbara of Western Australia. This technology uses hyperspectral analysis and AI to optimise ore recovery on mine sites.

Plotlogic’s vision is to enable autonomous mining operations using precise grade control with its new AI ore-characterisation technology, bringing technology that can “see and grade ore” to optimise operations and maximise yield, it says.

Microsoft mixed reality tech keeps BHP’s Pilbara sites on track

BHP, through the deployment of mixed reality Microsoft HoloLens technology, has managed to keep equipment inspected, serviced and maintained at its iron ore operations in the Pilbara of Western Australia in the face of COVID-19.

Workplace restrictions designed to keep people safe from COVID-19 mean that BHP hasn’t been able to fly people to and from its mine sites as freely as it did in the past.

To get around this issue, it has equipped people like Andrew ‘Woody’ Wood, a Mechanical Fitter with 30 years’ experience under his belt, with HoloLens 2 – a head mounted computer with a see-through display. This has allowed employees like Woody to coach his peers at site, anytime, from anywhere using Microsoft Dynamics 365 Remote Assist.

Woody is instantly able to see what mechanical fitters at site can see, send them helpful documentation, videos and schematics on the fly, and even use digital ink and arrows to annotate real things in the physical world in order to help them complete tasks and inspections on remote sites, Microsoft says.

For Alex Bertram, Digital Products Manager at BHP, the rollout of the technology was accelerated by BHP’s ability to innovate during the COVID-19 pandemic, with strong support from its partnership with Microsoft.

Safety, speed and smarts

“Using mixed reality in its day-to-day operations is one of a series of innovations that BHP is undertaking to keep its people safe and its productivity up,” Microsoft says.

Dash Maintainer Tools, developed by BHP’s maintenance and innovation teams, allow front line personnel to securely collect data from machinery remotely, avoiding the potential risks associated with manually checking dials or taking readings from heavy mobile equipment such as trucks, excavators, drills and dozers.

Leveraging IoT sensors and industrial computers connected to Azure the Dash solution gets data into the hands of maintenance technicians on their smartphone or tablet, the company says.

“Productivity and safety go hand in hand and are guiding lights for BHP and its innovation efforts,” Microsoft explains. “This focus enabled the team to have the first version of Dash in the field on a 400 t excavator within 16 weeks of it being an idea on a white board.”

To keep its people, families and communities safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, BHP introduced many rigorous measures and controls to reduce the risk of transmission.

This has included limiting numbers at its mine sites to only those required to enable safe operations; anyone who can work from home has done so.

At first, it meant that Bertram couldn’t get his team to the South Flank iron ore development to keep developing the Dash tool at the same velocity. Nor could many other experts who would typically be flown to a mine to set up new equipment, solve a problem or conduct an inspection.

Even so; “Our people on the front line are empowered to try new things to safely get on with the job”, Bertram says.

“During COVID-19, I expected the pace of innovation to slow, but we’ve seen the opposite. People really rally together and are open to trying new things to safely get the job done.”

He had already witnessed the potential of HoloLens and mixed reality, and was convinced that in combination with Dynamics 365 Remote Assist it would allow expertise to be delivered virtually to the teams still working at BHP’s Pilbara operations to support continued development of the Dash Maintainer Tools, Microsoft says.

“Given many of us were working from home due to COVID-19, the first device was delivered to my house to test and by the following week, we’d undertaken trials in our workshop environment in Perth,” Bertram says.

The team were able to test the system on real machinery at BHP’s Innovation Centre Lab, located at the Perth Repair Centre, which provides a safe and controlled environment to trial new technologies and ways of working on mining equipment.

“The following week, we ran a dry run and test at the mine, and five or six days later we supported the installation of the first prototype of Dash Maintainer Tools on a 300 t haul truck,” Bertram said. “A process like that would normally take a few months at least.”

It took less than four weeks from the HoloLens2 arriving at Bertram’s Perth home to it being used to install the first prototype of Dash tool on a Komatsu dump truck in the heart of the Pilbara, according to Microsoft.

The deployment of mixed reality technology has the potential to be rolled out more widely, and deliver safety and productivity benefits long after COVID-19 abates, Microsoft says. And there is further scope in making the physical delivery of equipment to sites more efficient.

“This technology can help us reduce the time and cost associated with regular travel, increase the speed of maintenance and new equipment deployment without compromising safety, and support greater inclusion and diversity,” Bertram said.

Having proven the HoloLens2 solution’s potential, BHP is now running further trials across its rail workshops and maintenance teams in Perth and the Pilbara, and at several other global locations in Australia, the US and Chile, according to Microsoft.

“We are seeing promising early results,” Bertram said. “If those trials are successful, we will look at how we can scale up. We are not getting ahead of ourselves, but we are well placed because the HoloLens2 solution speaks to our existing systems such as security controls, and device management.”

Microsoft urges South Africa miners to adopt digital solutions in recovery plans

Microsoft South Africa says it is working with its partner ecosystem and customers to showcase the power of technology, particularly AI and cloud technologies, in helping the country’s mining industry accelerate digital transformation to “reimagine new and better ways of working, drive sustainable recovery, and transform mining communities”.

This follows the launch of Microsoft’s Mining Core – AI Centre of Excellence for Mining facility in Johannesburg earlier this month. The Mining Core, which is the first of its kind in South Africa, makes use of the company’s extensive partner ecosystem. “It allows customers to immerse themselves in emerging technologies to build and create solutions that not only overcome specific business challenges but also broadly enable the sector to grow and prosper,” Microsoft said.

Amr Kamel, Enterprise Director at Microsoft South Africa, explained the industry’s importance to South Africa: “Mining is a critical industry in South Africa, and has historically been a major contributor to the country’s GDP, tax revenue and employment: last year alone, the mining sector employed over 450 000 people, contributed ZAR24.3 billion ($1.5 billion) in taxes and ZAR360.9 billion to GDP.”

The sector has faced challenges in recent years. These include declining output, weakening global cost competitiveness based on the volatility of commodity prices, regulatory uncertainty and unreliable energy supply, according to a report by the country’s Minerals Council.

Combined with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become clear the sector needs solutions that help it regain its competitiveness and become a key contributor and driver of economic recovery in the wake of the pandemic.

Technology holds the key to achieving those goals, according to Microsoft.

“Accelerated digital transformation, and the introduction of solutions through emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and data analytics, have the power to help the industry adapt, reinvent and transform in a sustainable and responsible way,” it said.

Kamel added: “Together with our partner ecosystem, we are working to help our customers to navigate three phases – response, recovery, and reimagine – in order to maintain continuity, remain open, drive operational performance and create new business models even in the most difficult of circumstances.”

These solutions, which are conceptualised and built collaboratively, are anchored in four main areas: community services and social impact; health and safety; environment; and responsible digital transformation.

  • Community involvement and engagement is vital for mining companies, and these organisations can use technology to play an important part in empowering surrounding communities, Microsoft says. This includes building critical digital literacy skills that will help the employability of community members, as well as introducing solutions in areas like healthcare, education, agriculture and community support services;
  • Emerging technologies can also help with health and safety, which is always a priority but particularly so in the face of a pandemic. Introducing solutions using technologies like autonomous systems such as drones, drills and vehicles, cognitive services and video analytics for safety management, such as detecting if a worker is wearing a hardhat or protective clothing, can make an impact. These kinds of technologies can also be used to support and manage health and safety protocols related to the pandemic, including social distancing and hygiene measures, Microsoft says;
  • Mining companies are also increasingly using digital solutions to enable sustainable recovery and decrease their environmental footprint, using them to reduce water consumption, waste and work towards being carbon neutral or even carbon negative. A growing trend is companies operating in coal, specifically, pivoting to renewables; and
  • Above all, solutions that are introduced need to have responsible digital transformation and AI at their heart. “Responsible AI needs good guiding principles to ensure that systems are fair, reliable and safe, private and secure, inclusive, transparent and accountable, and we use our rich partner ecosystem to help with this,” Kamel said.

He concluded: “Digital is the future of mining, and the question now is how quickly companies in the sector can transform to drive growth. This requires partnering with technology companies like Microsoft to reimagine solutions that address specific business challenges and improve operational performance and efficiencies.”

Suncor to move towards cloud-based computing with Microsoft Azure

Suncor has announced a multi-year strategic alliance with Microsoft Canada as a part of the company’s effort to further accelerate its digital transformation journey.

The oil sands miner has selected Microsoft as its “strategic cloud provider”, tapping into the full range of Microsoft’s cloud solutions to empower a connected and collaborative workforce, upgrade data centres, and increase analytics capabilities, it said.

Suncor will also collaborate with Microsoft on innovation projects, drawing on expertise and opportunities from both organisations.

Mark Little, Suncor President and CEO, said: “We’re excited to be partnering with Microsoft because they’re a global leader in the digital technology space, and they will bring value and insights into global innovation best practices.

“This is an example of how we are driving to improve our business in ways that were not possible before – to make our people safer, increase reliability and productivity, reduce costs and improve sustainability.”

In this multi-year strategic alliance, Suncor will take advantage of Microsoft’s full range of cloud solutions and will move towards cloud-based computing with Microsoft Azure as a preferred cloud platform. The move to Azure is expected to enable the rapid deployment of new technologies to improve safety and productivity through artificial intelligence, machine learning, enhanced automation, and industrial internet of things and visualisation, according to Suncor.

“Although we are an industry leader in many respects, we still have much to learn in the digital space, which is why we’re working with a number of organisations including Microsoft to challenge us,” Little said. “Similar to how we partner with and learn from innovators across our physical value chain, we’re choosing to partner with the experts in digital innovation.”

The company said: “Collaborating on innovation will include Microsoft resources embedded at the core of innovation teams, working together to explore a wide range of business capabilities. Additionally, value will come from accessing the Microsoft innovation ecosystem and real-world lessons from a curated community of global peers.”

Kevin Peesker, President of Microsoft Canada, said Suncor was embarking on a journey to transform the energy industry, and his company could help Suncor achieve its goals.

“They are creating new business value for their customers, empowering and upskilling their workforce, and innovating for a sustainable future,” he said. “The world’s leading companies run on our cloud, and we look forward to helping Suncor accelerate their digital transformation with Azure, Dynamics 365, Surface and Microsoft 365.”

Through this strategic alliance with Microsoft, Suncor expects to better improve the employee and customer experiences across its business, from front line workers in industrial settings, to gas station attendants at Petro-Canada gas and EV stations, to office workers across Suncor, it said. Digital technologies will be a means to draw superior insights from data and will open new ways to drive improved economic, social and environmental performance.

Suncor’s oil sands mining projects, located in the Athabasca region of Canada, are projected to produce a reliable, long-term energy supply while leveraging technology to minimise environmental and social impacts of resource development, it says. Located near Fort McMurray in northern Alberta, the assets include the Millennium and North Steepbank sites as well as the Suncor-operated Fort Hills mine. Suncor also has a 58.74% interest in the Syncrude joint venture and a 100% interest in the Voyageur South mining lease. Suncor holds a 36.75% interest in a joint venture partnership with Total to develop the Joslyn oil sands mining project.

Komatsu looks for productivity Edge with Microsoft partnership

Komatsu, in order to continue its production momentum in the face of continued market uncertainty, is boosting its manufacturing capabilities and productivity through the use of Microsoft cloud, Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI).

The company, one of the world’s top makers of excavators, bulldozers, and other heavy equipment, needed help gathering and handling data to boost its own manufacturing capabilities and productivity, turning to the Azure cloud and specialists at Microsoft.

Microsoft said: “Komatsu is an innovative manufacturing enterprise that competes in an increasingly unpredictable international marketplace. Ever-shifting economic and other forces – like booms and busts in resource markets – are constantly pushing demand for its equipment up and down from country to country.

“Maintaining production momentum in the face of this sort of uncertainty can be a big challenge for factory managers.”

Nobuyoshi Yamanaka, General Manager for Komatsu’s Manufacturing Engineering Development Center (pictured above) Production Division, said: “Keeping pace with these fluctuations is our primary issue. The best way to do that is by raising our productivity. And, to do that … we need data.”

With the right data and the right insights, decision makers can visualise situations. From there they can opt to speed up or slow down production runs, manage supply chains, and accommodate factory downtime for retooling and maintenance, Microsoft said.

They can also optimise the use of personnel – a key factor in Japan’s sophisticated manufacturing sector, which is grappling with a shortage of skilled workers as the nation’s demographics age.

Acknowledging that it had a need for data, Komatsu went about seeking advice on what technology and data solutions would be best for its ambitious productivity quest, Microsoft said. “They searched widely and settled on Microsoft.”

Adopting a cloud solution

“Microsoft asked us what we wanted to do and how we wanted to expand the solution in the future, then it gave us exactly the right support,” said Yamanaka whose team is now studying how AI and Intelligent Edge solutions might further boost efficiencies.

The company first set out to collect production data in 2009 by using on-premises servers. Five years later, it went further and launched “KOM-MICS” – an IoT system that collects data from sensors installed on a myriad of machine tools and welding robots.

“Komatsu uses a high-mix/low-volume manufacturing system. Plant equipment is not always operating at full capacity as machines may be down for many hours due to setup changes, and so on,” Yamanaka says. “Visualising this situation and reducing machine downtime increases manufacturing output without extra equipment or personnel. Our ultimate goal is to double productivity while reducing equipment and personnel.”

KOM-MICS was a success. And, soon so much information was coming in that Komatsu realised its on-premises approach to data needed a rethink, Microsoft said. It also wanted to collect and visualise data from a network of outside partners and other factories, both in Japan and abroad, that contribute around 80% of its overall production work.

In 2016, it began looking around for a cloud solution.

A Komatsu worker checks a KOM-MICS screen

Keisuke Tsuboi, from Komatsu’s Numerical Controller Team, Advanced Technology Promotion Office, said: “We needed to roll out KOM-MICS to our partners and overseas manufacturing bases to increase the overall productivity of Komatsu.

“Because KOM-MICS collects 20-30 GB of data from each machine tool per year, adding the required resources to the on-premise system, and increasing the number of connected machine tools, would have been difficult. So, we decided the cloud could overcome these problems.”

Weighing up the options

Komatsu moved its data onto Azure in early 2017. According to Tsuboi, a primary reason behind the choice was trust: Azure has extensive security measures backed by Microsoft’s expertise. It also made Komatsu’s data capabilities immediately compliant with GDPR – the European Union’s new data protection measure.

The flexibility and scalability of Azure were also deciding factors that has allowed KOM-MICS coverage to be ramped up almost seamlessly, Microsoft said.

“We are connecting 100 to 200 extra machines to KOM-MICS per year,” Tsuboi says. “We have around 700 connected machine tools and 350 connected welding robots. Komatsu has around 1,200 machine tools and 700 welding robots that can be connected to KOM-MICS. This scale of data is no problem for our system on Azure.”

Expanding its scope

Komatsu connected its Thai and Indonesian bases to KOM-MICS in 2017. Since then, the number of Komatsu’s partners connected to KOM-MICS has been increasing rapidly.

“The transition to Azure instantly expanded the potential scope of the KOM-MICS rollout. The meticulous support of Microsoft enabled us to complete the migration in a short time,” Yamanaka said.

More data from more machines in more places means the company can improve quality measures, plan and adjust with agility, and better anticipate equipment failure, according to Microsoft.

“Before we started collecting data, we didn’t know to what extent our machines were working within a 24-hour period,” says Tsuboi. “With KOM-MICS, data is visualised so we can work on improving production efficiency by increasing areas with low production conditions to be equal to those that are high.

“By analysing the machine data from a certain production line we have been able to increase the machine operation rate by about 25%.”

AI and the Intelligent Edge

Looking ahead, Yamanaka believes AI on the Intelligent Edge can potentially deliver more productivity dividends, such as freeing up the time of skilled workers and opening the door to predictive maintenance.

“I believe that data can be used in a variety of ways,” he says. “We would like to automatically realise optimal machining conditions and have AI do some tasks that are currently handled by skilled workers.

“Also, there is quality. We would like features that can automatically detect signs of failures before they happen. We need to make use of AI. But because processing data in the cloud takes time, we are thinking about adopting Azure IoT Edge so we can run Microsoft Azure services on IoT devices.”