Five mining trends to watch beyond 2021

Industry expert weighs in on the top trends and ground-breaking innovations influencing the mining sector this year and beyond.

ABB weighs in on the top trends and ground-breaking innovations influencing the mining sector this year and beyond. Decarbonisation, remote connectivity, predictive analytics, ventilation on demand and electrification are high on the agenda of the industry, while new technologies such as augmented reality for remote management is gradually implemented across the globe.

Industry expert Stuart Cowie, head of ABB Australia’s Process Industries business, discusses how ABB is working with miners to stay ahead of the curve.

1. Sustainability and digitalisation

“Australia is in fact leading the charge on the sustainability front in mining, which is very exciting,” Cowie says.

“We are seeing miners make strong commitments to the zero emissions target, including FMG who have brought forward their net zero target by ten years to achieve this by 2030. This greatly impacts decision-making around technology investment and modernisation.”

Cowie stresses the importance of digitalisation when it comes to supporting sustainability initiatives in this sector.

“Of course, this transition towards sustainability goes hand-in-hand with digitalisation,” Cowie says.

“We have seen a great acceleration of digitally connected, ‘smart mines’ in recent years. We further attribute this acceleration to the global pandemic. People are focusing more on what really matters.

“Data-driven decision making in areas of safety and efficiency, as well as carbon efficient practices have now become the focus of industry leaders.”

According to Cowie, most of the mining companies are focused on achieving a completely autonomous and CO2 free target by 2050 or even earlier, while at the same time increasing their productivity and efficiency.

He highlights research from McKinsey & Company which estimates that mine digitalisation, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and the industrial internet of things (IoT) all have the potential to save the sector an estimated $373 billion by 20251.

Cowie further cites the example of the world’s first digitally connected mine – the Boliden mine in Sweden as that of a ‘smart mine’ in action.

In 2012, the Boliden mine was the first in the world to employ wireless network technology, with 100 per cent connectivity, reaching over 35 kilometres of the mineral-rich site. Today, this network still handles all communication for Boliden, while employing Industry 4.0 technology2.

To sum up on this point, Cowie emphasises the push in 2021 for companies to align their digital and net zero targets with each other to amplify the benefits of smart-mine technology.

“The increase in automated machinery has ensured better production control and significant increases in productivity,” he says.

2. Remote connectivity

Cowie segues to the next trend at the forefront of the mining industry: remote connectivity.

“Recently, ABB has begun to implement remote connectivity across Australia for its mining customers. This has helped to streamline production, prioritise safety, and develop longer term strategies,” Cowie explains.

“At both the Newcrest Telfer and Gold Fields St Ives mines in Western Australia, we have large grinding and crushing applications called Gearless Mill Drives (GMDs).

“If a GMD goes down, downstream processes and ultimately production stops; hence we have implemented a remote connectivity solution, called ABB Ability™ Predictive Maintenance for grinding. This means we can extract data continuously around the operation of GMDs.”

Cowie also stresses the importance that this technology can bring to the end user in terms of data and analytics.

“The data these machines generate can be analysed and compared to other GMD data from around the world. If certain characteristics are logged prior to a failure or to some sort of event, customers can be warned that there is potential for a failure in their system,” Cowie says.

“It also takes it a step further in that the customer can perform predictive maintenance. This enables you to gain foresight into when something needs to be replaced such as motors, bearings, filters, or electrical components.”

3. Predictive analytics

Cowie goes on to highlight predictive analytics as a trend for the sector. He notes how ABB Ability™ Operations Management System (OMS) can assist mining companies in this area, by providing them with an all-in-one predictive analytics software solution that contains modules for augmented reality, remote maintenance, and repair support.

“OMS is essentially a suite of five digital application modules that focus on everything from scheduling to tracking. It knows where people are in the mine at any one time, which is useful should an incident occur,” says Cowie.

“It uses AI for scenario modelling. For instance, it might predict what a yield might be if a different process were applied. OMS can also send up orders for things to be done and track in real time what is happening in the mine so managers can make informed decisions. It’s a real game changer for mining.”

Importantly, Cowie says predictive analytics will give operators the ability to allocate their resources in the “smartest way.”

“OMS ensures operators can allocate the right people who have the right information at the right time. The result is strategic innovation and an estimated 5-10 per cent productivity increase,” he expands.

4. Ventilation on demand

Another trend that Cowie highlights – and one which ABB has been working specifically on with mining customers, is ‘Ventilation on Demand’. It also ties in with the overarching trend towards sustainability, as this can reduce a mine’s energy consumption significantly.

“Mines are constantly pumping cool, fresh air into the mine. This is quite an energy intensive process. With ABB Ability™ Ventilation Optimizer, ABB’s ventilation on demand application, we can switch on air only when and where it is needed. Proximity sensors will also switch on the system if someone inadvertently goes in that direction,” Cowie explains.

Cowie’s comments coincide with research that suggests up to 50 per cent of the electricity used in an underground mine is attributed to ventilation3.

He further used the example of Boliden’s Kankberg mine, where ABB has implemented the on-demand ventilation system. The system can be configured to three different settings to ensure a range of different ventilation solutions for each area of operation. At Kankberg, a level 2 system was implemented that provides fresh air up to 500 meters deep underground.

“During the first year of use at Boliden, ventilation on demand technology has helped to provide fresh air for workers and delivered energy savings of 54 per cent and air heating energy savings of 21 per cent. This system is getting amazing results. The health and safety of miners remains paramount, and the economic advantage is tremendous,” Cowie says.

5. All electric mines

Cowie stated that one of the most exciting areas of innovation – and the fastest growing trend for the mining industry in 2021– is the all-electric mines.

“This is another key progress area towards net zero emissions. ABB has been implementing electrification alongside automation and digital solutions to assist the mining industry in better meeting their sustainability targets and gearing their operations toward carbon neutrality,” Cowie says.

“One way this is happening is the shift to electric vehicles (EV) on mine sites. Diesel-electric trucks can easily be attached to a trolley line, allowing them to run at a higher speed, and reducing diesel consumption and gas emissions from transportation by up to 90 percent.

“Electric vehicles (EVs) not only produce zero emissions but also produce less heat, thus reducing cooling costs in underground mines.”

Cowie again cites the Boliden mines as an example. Boliden has now moved on from its 700-metre trolley line trial installed at Aitik to confirming it will install an additional 3km of trolley line at the mine, plus 1.8km at Kevitsa (in addition to the accompanying conversion of diesel-electric haul trucks).

By doing so, Boliden says it will reduce its diesel consumption by 5,500 cu.m/y when its investment is complete.

“There is a big focus in the mining industry to decarbonise the whole process and we call this the ‘all-electric mine’. We’re already seeing BHP, Rio Tinto, FMG and more are investing in an electric future with an increase in electrification of their lighter vehicles. These are projects that are getting the go ahead right now – we’re excited to see how these progress over the year.”

Looking ahead

To summarise on the trends for this year, Cowie says mining operators will be speeding up their digital and electric transformations in order to prioritise sustainability initiatives and targets.

“We envisage the mining industry 4.0 as a top-down digitalisation, while at the same time staying on target to reduce carbon emissions to net zero,” he concludes.

“Following a year of industry disruptions due to the pandemic, operators are now required to respond more readily to diverse and complex challenges that impact their production. ABB is a key collaborative partner on these challenges.

“We’re helping mining companies keep their operations up to date by implementing systems such as predictive analytics, remote connectivity, and ventilation-on-demand. We think of this as part and parcel of the global movement towards the all-electric, smart mine as a permanent solution.”

This article was first published in Australian Mining, July 2021.

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About the author

Joanne Woo

Storyteller & head of communications for ABB Australia. From large global conglomerates to fast growing start-ups, Joanne Woo has led diverse marketing and communications teams across energy, mining, aviation, transportation, healthcare and technology sectors. Joanne is also a mentor for the Superstars of STEM program which aims to smash society’s gender assumptions about scientists and increase the public visibility of women in STEM.
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