Digging in: how digital transformation is reenergizing global mining

The global mining industry is at something of a crossroads. Mining companies have seen their revenues fall dramatically over the past several years and metals commodity prices are continuing to fall. The world’s 40 biggest mining companies saw their market value drop $156 billion last year, around 16 percent of their total worth – so while the industry is not in full-blown crisis mode, it is at least in need of some new ways of thinking.

Changing times, new challenges

Today’s mining companies face a range of new challenges. To meet rising demand for natural resources over the last decade, they took operations into more remote locations to grow production capacity – which meant a rise in the costs of production and increased risk.

New competition from China, Indonesia and Mongolia has further forced prices down. The year 2014 was the first in a decade that no South African companies featured in the world’s top 40 mining companies. It was also the second year that the bulk of the top 40 companies came from emerging markets like Brazil‚ Central and Eastern Europe‚ China‚ India‚ and Saudi Arabia‚ as opposed to the traditional members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Can technology provide a way forward?

In a world of lower prices for resources, mining companies need to find new ways of keep costs under control, while not compromising site safety and security.

Digital transformation using technologies such as the Internet of things (IoT) and machine-to-machine (M2M) communications, could provide the answer. It builds on established technologies such as supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), a tool that helps gather and analyze real time data, and satellite broadband connectivity, which have already helped the industry progress.

This is because smart devices can really empower change for mining companies. Systems that increase monitoring and surveillance on remote and dangerous sites improve safety. For example telemetry makes vehicles safer for drivers, while self-driving mining vehicles and trucks can take humans out of the danger zone entirely.

Similarly IoT-linked devices are helping improve mine workers’ health through consistent monitoring of both individuals along with gas or other harmful substance levels in the environment. This helps develop a better reputation for safety, which ultimately makes mining companies more attractive to the industry’s top skills and talent.

Improving productivity and efficiency

In terms of productivity, technology is helping make enhancements as well. From small data-capturing sensors up to automated, driverless trucks that transport tons of ore, sites are becoming more efficient.

Processes and practices that have been around in the sector for a long time are gradually being updated and improved via technology. Where previously mining companies would have physical teams and managers at each mine site, IoT-enabled systems and solutions now enable centralized teams to monitor multiple remote sites. Worker safety can be improved by technology, something that was previously the responsibility of the on-site mine manager. Manual management of equipment availability and location has been superseded by sensors feeding data up to a central operations center and employing predictive maintenance and asset deployment techniques.

In addition, automation is increasingly playing a part in the mining industry, with 77 percent of mining specialists stating that they consider it a high priority. Increased automation dovetails perfectly with the IoT, and enables processes like fully-technology powered remote operations that are able to control all mines, ports and site rail systems from a central point.

Similarly the automated haulage systems employed on riskier remote sites can be controlled centrally, ensuring resources can be moved safely and efficiently. Driverless trains and trucks are already in deployment, as are intelligent drills that can be managed remotely.

Kevin Griffen, country manager Australasia Orange Business, comments, “At Orange we help mining companies connect their remote sites with central management offices via the latest IoT-enabled digital solutions and unified communications tools like instant messaging, email, VoIP and videoconferencing. VPN and satellite deliver connectivity and Orange has over 40 years of experience in delivering these solutions to the remotest regions.”

Further tech changes to come

As one of the world’s key vertical markets operating on a truly global basis, the mining industry must continue to employ technological systems and solutions to its advantage. Together IoT, M2M and automation tools can provide efficiencies through continuous, consistent operations while the improved safety and communications technology brings will help keep making remote sites more viable.

“It looks certain that sophisticated new technologies will continue to play ever-greater roles in improving productivity and safety in the mining sector. In the future mining companies that deploy solutions that leverage robotics, sensors, automation, wearables, drones and connectivity will be those better equipped to operate profitably in more remote locations and at deeper levels, all while ensuring the safety of their staff,” concluded Griffen.

Read the Orange Business and PWC report on how IoT-enabled digital solutions can help improve profitability and safety in Australia's mining industry.