What’s ahead for mining? Which trends will continue to drive the future of an industry that equips us with everyday essentials?
By Max Luedtke
Remote operations and commissioning; health and safety; collaboration; and decarbonisation are four key trends that I predict will continue to top the agendas of mining company CEOs, OEMs and service providers in 2022 – all of them underpinned and enabled by electrification, digital and automation technologies.
Industry 4.0 in the shape of artificial intelligence (AI), the industrial internet of things (IIoT) and data analytics continues to transform every facet of mining, improving visualisation of the entire production cycle, optimising throughput, reducing downtime and helping operators to reduce their carbon footprint.
Digital and automation tools have also enabled miners to maintain production and protect workers throughout the pandemic. So, will the use of remote connectivity for plant commissioning and asset maintenance decline as the world recovers from COVID-19? In fact, the opposite seems more likely.
1. Remote possibilities enabled by digitalisation
While the deployment of remote technologies pre-dates the emergence of pandemic in late 2019, data shows that we have vaulted five years forward in digital adoption in response. What was born of necessity has now become a highly effective way to minimise set-up time, reduce both labor and equipment costs, improve response times to reduce downtime, and mitigate health and safety risks.
Some examples: in a first of-its-kind project, operation and execution teams from ABB in India remotely commissioned a complete 34kA 160V DC high power rectifier for a mining and minerals processing company in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Having worked in Africa for six years, I have first-hand experience of the logistical challenges of deploying teams to remote locations. In this case, despite international travel restrictions, the ABB team managed to carry out the project engineering, manufacturing and installation of the high-power rectifier system within the project timelines completely through remote support.
ABB also recently partnered with a zinc mine in Kazakhstan in order to help carry out commissioning of water-cooling towers using Microsoft HoloLens headsets, allowing ABB’s team of experts in Spain to collaborate with the client in real time and access hands-free data on field assets.
This is indicative not just of companies’ willingness to adopt new technologies, but also to radically rethink their approach, replacing more entrenched practices with new, innovative ways of working.
There is also a cybersecurity dimension at play here. Remote commissioning is enabled by improved connectivity, allowing for seamless engagement between vendor and client, who may be thousands of miles apart.
But with this improved connectivity comes the need to protect proprietary data as well as leverage the power of the cloud and data analytics. For this reason, the use of solutions such as ABB Ability Genix is set to increase, helping customers to unlock the value of contextualized data from disparate databases using IIoT in order to reduce downtime and optimise productivity.
2. Maintaining safety first
Health and safety remains a business imperative for the extractive industries, a fact borne out by the results of The C-Suite, a recent report by Mining Journal Intelligence, in which industry professionals and C-suite executives from mining’s leading companies identified their current and future priorities.
Topping the list of current concerns was safety. Here again, digitalisation has a major role to play. In both open-pit and underground operations, greater connectivity equals greater safety. For example, more and more workers are connected to a central operations hub in real time using short interval geo-location tools managed by an algorithm or from an integrated remote Collaborative Operations Centre (COC).
Mining operators may track staff using geolocation devices in smart phones and wearables, enabling them to pinpoint their location in proximity to hazardous locations or processes, such as vehicles.
ABB’s new Grinding Connect smartphone app – part of the cloud-based ABB Ability Predictive Maintenance for grinding platform – allows mine operators to check the performance of gearless mill drive systems at any time and from any place. In addition to extending the lifetime of grinding assets, the mobile iOS and Android app improves safety by removing people from hazardous areas.
In northern Sweden, ABB is working with mining company Boliden and mining and infrastructure equipment manufacturer Epiroc to develop and demonstrate an electric trolley truck system on a test track at the Kristineberg mine. The development project by the three companies is expected to lower CO2 emissions and improve the work environment at the underground copper-zinc mine. As well as removing gases from the air, the use of electric trucks are known to be more driver friendly, including reduced noise impacts.
3. Collaboration is key to drive the change
This ABB/Boliden/Epiroc project plays into another of the key trends impacting mining in 2022 and beyond: collaboration. There is an increasing recognition that industry-wide sustainability and productivity goals cannot be achieved alone. Collaboration across the supply chain – particularly early in the project lifecycle – is not just desirable but essential in order to hit targets and KPIs.
When I talk to mining customers they tell me they that, increasingly, what they want from OEMs and technology vendors is not one-off solutions to isolated issues, but instead more standardised, vendor-agnostic solutions built around alliances of key technical suppliers and OEMs, each with their own domain expertise, to jointly develop solutions that evolve over time and offer real value for money in terms of ROI – rather than one party being responsible for the whole project scope.
We see this becoming the working model of choice for electrification projects, particularly when it comes to mobile fleet integration. ABB, for instance, is calling for more collaboration and recently signed MoU agreements with Hitachi Construction Machinery, Stäubli, MEDATech and Liebherr Mining Equipment to explore opportunities to apply ABB’s electrification, automation and digital solutions to heavy machinery.
ABB has also been shortlisted to progress to the next phase of the Charge On Innovation Challenge, in which the founding patrons BHP, Rio Tinto and Vale, together with several mining leading companies, are looking beyond the mining sector for decarbonisation solutions.
Facilitated by Austmine, the collaborative global initiative calls for technology innovators to develop concepts for large-scale haul truck electrification systems that will help the mining industry reduce its consumption of diesel fuel and significantly cut harmful emissions from surface mine operations.
As The C-Suite List report notes, the climate challenge is a catalyst for innovation. Anglo American is working on hydrogen vehicles, Fortescue Metals Group is pushing ‘green steel’, renewable energy facilities are emerging at remote operations, and a collective of miners is working to decarbonize heavy haulage. All of these programs demonstrate a newfound spirit of collaboration in mining. To this end, ABB is also working with Amazon Web Services (AWS) and mining electric vehicle drivetrain developer MEDATech to develop digitally integrated all-electric operations for net-zero emissions mining and demonstrate secure exchange of operational data for production optimisation.
4. Decarbonisation, enabled by electrification, digital and automation, will accelerate
And so to sustainability. In mid-November 2021, COP26 in Glasgow concluded with every party –representing almost 200 countries – agreeing the Glasgow Climate Pact, to accelerate action on climate change this decade, and keep alive the hope of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C.
Mining has a significant role to play in realizing these goals and those of the 2015 Paris Agreement. The industry is responsible for around 4% to 7% of greenhouse gas emissions, a lot of it produced by diesel trucks. In Ernst and Young’s (EY) ‘Top 10 business risks and opportunities for mining and metals in 2022” report mining and metals companies ranked environment and social issues as their number-one risk, the first time this has happened in EY’s annual analysis of the mining sector.
I believe that the adoption of trolley lines will continue to be a major driver of decarbonisation efforts and that’s why at the most recent MINExpo, where we launched our purposeful ABB Ability eMine portfolio of integrated electrification and digital solutions, nearly every truck was equipped with trolley capability.
Charging innovations such as ABB Ability eMine FastCharge – part of the new ABB Ability eMine portfolio – is the only fully automated charging system for mining haul trucks offering up to 600 kW of power, allowing both underground and open pit mines to seamlessly integrate charging into their work order schedule, an ultra-fast charging to maximising productivity, digitally enabled to optimise energy use.
However, there is an important point to be made here, one that ties in with the aforementioned trend for increased collaboration between operators, OEMs and technology vendors. For mining companies to realize the full benefits of technology advancements, all parties must play their part. Further collaboration and evolution are happening around green energy and the value chain to ensure the sources of energy that are put into mining equipment are also sustainable.
After all, advances in charging capability are only useful if mines have the necessary infrastructure, vehicles and software to take advantage. For this reason, we must all pull together in the same direction. Global initiatives such as Charge On make me very hopeful that everyone – from Tier 1 multinational mining companies to vendors and OEMs – are committed to making this happen.
Remote operations and commissioning, health and safety, collaboration, decarbonisation. Four key trends that will further drive the mining industry forward, helping it to reach productivity goals, remain competitive and grow with technology in 2022 and beyond. I look forward to continuing on this journey of discovery together.
Max Luedtke is ABB’s global head of mining.