ABB’s digital transformation of Gold Fields in Australia’s Granny Smith Gold Mine
ABB has deployed digitalisation to shine a light into the largely opaque world of underground mining. Being listed among the AFR BOSS Most Innovative Companies in 2021 further illuminates this.
Innovation means little unless it is applied and can be scaled to benefit an organisation as a whole or, in the case of the digital mine, an entire industry and ultimately the world. ABB Australia has been recognised in the Australian Financial Review BOSS Most Innovative Companies 2021 list for its cutting-edge collaboration with global gold miner Gold Fields, to implement one of the world’s most digitally enabled underground mines.
The transformation of Gold Fields bodes well for a resources-hungry world that is simultaneously focused on reducing emissions. For Gold Fields in Australia’s Granny Smith Gold Mine, the flagship for digital transformation across the company’s mine portfolio, it means more efficient and therefore profitable extraction of gold from a mine that has already been operating underground since 2005; and a cleaner environment, as unnecessary equipment and people movements are organised into a seamless workflow.
In October last year, Gold Fields in Australia awarded ABB a $1.1 million contract to digitally optimise mining operations at Granny Smith Gold Mine by implementing and integrating a digital Fleet Management System (FMS) that supports the latest Industry 4.0 interoperability standards.
Operational oversight in underground mines can be “very dark”, says Graeme Ovens, Vice President: Operations at Gold Fields in Australia. Granny Smith, 740 kilometres north-east of Perth, is a mature mining complex, with various mines having been worked there since 1989. The current Wallaby mine, which operated as an open pit from 2001 to 2006, began following its rich seam underground in 2005, and surveys indicate it still has many years of productive life, which justified the business case for modernisation.
Mining companies in Australia are world renowned for their advanced practices. Most mines, says Nik Gresshoff, Head of Mining at ABB Australia, could potentially squeeze only around 1% more productivity from above-ground processes such as milling and concentrating ore. Below the earth’s surface, however, the productivity gains from automating management and scheduling of tasks can be as high as 30%.
The difficulty of enabling wireless communications underground has typically hampered digitalisation of activities below the surface. Gold Fields invested in enabling its own 4G network at Wallaby to Long Term Evolution (LTE) communication standard, which in turn enabled transmission of large volumes of data underground, and from deep in the mine to the surface.
Previously, working with industry-typical radio communications and paper schedules, managers had to routinely build in buffers of time to allow for contingencies in movement of personnel and equipment underground.
Between a rock and a hard place
In mining, each procedure may involve 10 or more different tasks, requiring various pieces of equipment, as well as the specialised employees licensed to operate that machinery. Without oversight of what’s happening underground at any given time, maximising efficiency of personnel and assets is impossible. If equipment breaks down, or a licensed operator is delayed on another procedure, it could take a couple of hours to get new equipment in place, or to bring another operator from the surface to the drill site. Managers couldn’t “see” if there was someone qualified in a nearby tunnel or identify that a team and equipment could be reconfigured to start a different tranche of work while a particular machine was repaired.
Applying ABB’s digital fleet management system, underpinned by the ABB Ability Operations Management System to this scenario is like lifting the lid on an opaque realm and achieving transparency.
Now, sensors applied to machinery at Granny Smith constantly monitor and transmit the whereabouts and operational state of critical equipment and personnel, and employees can receive documents and work orders via computer tablets, as well as report on completion of tasks or interruptions to the schedule. Provided with such real-time data, ABB’s operations and fleet management systems can maximise utilisation of equipment and orchestrate the workforce to progress more seamlessly from task to task, adapting to events as they occur.
Once embedded in mine procedures, this fully interoperable system will allow Gold Fields to manage operations at Granny Smith in real time from a centralised control room.
Testing an industry 4.0 application without causing disruption
During development and tailoring of the digital platform, ABB utilised its partnership with the University of Western Australia’s Energy & Resources Digital interoperability (ERDi) Test Lab — opened in 2020 as part of the Australian Government’s Industry 4.0 Testlabs for Australia initiative — to build a digital twin of the Granny Smith system. This meant ABB could demonstrate to Gold Fields how the digitalisation of processes would work. And it allowed both companies to collaborate offsite on eliminating any bugs, away from the distraction of day-to-day mine procedures. The ABB-Gold Fields team ran multiple scenarios on the digital twin over a four-month period, to verify the interoperability of mining equipment and operations, and optimise functionality.
ERDi TestLab is run by Enterprise Transformation Partners, a consultancy to the resources sector which aims to implement and promote standards-based interoperability in technology that supports new ways of working rather than simply automating existing approaches.
Implementing new ways of working is an intensive and time-consuming aspect of digitalisation, and Michael Place says that Gold Fields’ process of engagement is designed to show its teams that these new flexible, responsive digital capabilities are going to make people’s jobs easier, safer, and less frustrating.
Part of building functionality into the Granny Smith application was customising tablet interfaces to reflect the mine’s organisational culture. ABB also conducted training of Gold Fields’ people and engaged a specialist with experience in enabling the human-to-machine interface, to ensure the mine’s employees were both confident and comfortable with the transition from analogue to digital systems.
As data is aggregated on the ABB Ability Operations Management System for mining platform, this record of procedures and outcomes will also empower Gold Fields’ geologists, engineers and surveyors to make faster, more informed decisions.
ABB Ability, as applied to Granny Smith is gold
Ultimately, the fully operational system is forecast to increase Granny Smith productivity by 5-10%, and lead to 25% cost savings from integrations that optimise the mining value chain, planning and design. Time taken to schedule programs of work will also be reduced by 25%, and will free valued personnel for more productive and satisfying tasks than rescheduling time and again. Plus, efficiencies achieved on site in equipment movements and maintenance are anticipated to reduce the mine’s carbon footprint.
In already congested underground environments, which cannot safely accommodate more personnel or equipment, digitalisation is the only way to wring greater efficiencies from mine workflows and processes.
Innovation by ABB and Gold Fields at Granny Smith Mine has been not only in implementing an advanced, intelligent and interoperable operations-management platform, but in integrating new ways of working with the mine’s culture to ensure that digitalisation is a success. We’re immensely proud of the achievement, and of the AFR accolade.