The spread of COVID-19 has seen renewed interest in remote operating centres (ROCs) and how they can be better managed to maximise efficiencies and reduce the number of personnel required on a mine site at a time, according to MST Global.
Rio Tinto was one of the early adopters of ROCs, introducing the world’s first fully autonomous haul trucks at its Pilbara iron ore operations in 2008 followed by the launch of an automated hub in Perth, Western Australia, in June 2010, which controlled its rail systems, infrastructure facilities and port operations, 1,500 km away from site.
In July 2013, BHP followed suit, opening an automated ROC in Perth for its seven Pilbara mines. Today, all the major players globally have introduced similar ROCs to their operations.
“As an underground mining technology provider, it has been an exciting time to be a part of the industry as we develop hardware and software solutions that help our mining partners through this digital transition,” MST Global said.
In a recent report, McKinsey & Company confirmed MST’s observations, citing, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, mining executives had shown a greater interest in ROCs to unlock further value for their operations.
“As mining companies seek to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and act to safeguard employees, some have started to relocate around 15-20% of their on-site workforce by setting up ‘control towers’ to facilitate remote working (especially for non-frontline roles like subject-matter experts),” McKinsey & Company stated.
“This is helping the industry develop more resilient, responsive and flexible operating models suited to an increasingly uncertain environment.”
MST Global says it has seen this first-hand, with many existing and new clients reaching out to the mining tech provider to assist in streamlining their operations, and looking at ways to effectively increase remote work capabilities.
MST Global CEO, Haydn Roberts, said the discussion has also centred on the transition to a smart mine, where systems and processes in place on site work together to unlock greater value for ROCs.
“COVID has really focused our minds on the importance of having enough bandwidth underground and adopting IoT and digitalisation strategies so we can have a smart mine where our sensors and video cameras are connected, and we can operate in a remote way,” Roberts said.
“Remote operation centres have become really key because of all those things, so that’s driving the change.”
Mining companies are admittedly still in the early stages of their digital transformation, continuously looking at ways to improve to deliver on objectives.
McKinsey & Company said: “Some companies have implemented cloud-based systems that aggregate site data into a single data lake that can be accessed, analysed, and visualised for decision support, creating a ‘room of screens’; other companies manage and actively control plant automation systems, fleet management systems, and remote-controlled machines from the ROC.
“The most sophisticated companies manage all these functions on a larger geographic scale, covering the value chain from end to end, optimising post-processed ore logistics and port facilities used by multiple mine sites within a region, with regional parts and supply warehouses monitored across multiple assets for supply-chain optimisation.”
McKinsey said while the technology adoption was “the easy part”, its research revealed a common challenge: “insufficient emphasis on and investment in developing a robust change-management strategy and subsequent implementation.”
It highlighted the importance for leaders to set clear expectations of bottom-line impacts from ROCs to measure value and the need for a new decision-making structure to allow ROCs to reach their full potential.
“Without a new mandate, a new way of working, and a new decision-making structure, the ROC staff will struggle to capture the frontline team’s attention,” the report stated. “And, although the ROC is implemented and functional, it never reaches full potential for value. Without a conscious focus on organisation, a ROC can be counterproductive, creating redundant organisational structures.”
It added careful consideration must also be given to data and systems reliability, location of primary physical storage infrastructure, back-up systems and having a robust cybersecurity approach to protect ROCs from potential threats.
“These decisions can impact connectivity, bandwidth, and latency, each of which must be sufficient to enable the ROC to effectively control on-site operations in real-time: for example, adjustment of plant processing parameters or remote control of mobile equipment and process optimisation tools, such as machine-learning algorithms,” it stated.
“With the right technology foundation, the ROC can function as the analytical centre of excellence, setting data standards, creating and updating analytical optimisation models, building analytics capability and driving partnerships to co-develop solutions aligned with the new planning process for optimising site-level profit. Such actions can move the organisation toward new ways of thinking about hierarchy, decision rights, and ways of working.”
Digitalisation: what this means for jobs
There was also the issue of jobs, and how transitioning to autonomous operations and ROCs will impact workers on site.
MST Global’s Roberts said from his experience, so far with ROCs, this wasn’t something the industry should be too concerned about.
“I know some people talk about a fear that we’re going to take people out of mining and people will lose jobs,” he said. “I actually see the exact opposite of that. I think it is going to bring more people together in more meaningful work, more productive relationships.
“We’ll focus on things that will bring a new lease of life to mines. Yes, we will remove people out of harm’s way and perhaps machines, but the amount of upside there is to actually work with these solutions, from AI to big data analysis to automating and adopting more smart sensors, this is going to create a more interesting future for a lot of people.
“Mining is not going away. We obviously have to adapt it and change it to these new technologies and solutions that we have available. The people that we’re bringing into this industry expect that.”
MST Global concluded: “At MST Global, we are proud to be helping our mining partners globally embrace the transition to the smart mine and ROCs – no matter where they are at in their journey – through our leading software and hardware solutions.
“Our brand-new software platform HELIX helps underground miners create a complete digital ecosystem underground, connecting all their hardware and third-party integrations into one single platform that provides real-time data anywhere, anytime, on-site or thousands of kilometres away in a ROC.”