From Sweden to Australia, productivity and safety are improving with costs also cut across the industry thanks to smart data and technology
Miners use data to dig deeper and smarter
Hundreds of metres below the lush forests of rural Sweden, one of the world’s most ancient mines has been transformed into one of the most modern.
Sensors linked to robotic equipment in Boliden’s Garpenberg zinc mine – which has been in operation since the 13th century – feed data to operators above ground as screens blink and flash in a nearby control room.
Boliden is at the forefront of a global transformation in which mining companies are exploiting huge amounts of data being crunched by computers to dramatically boost productivity and cut costs, according to Reuters.
The advances at Garpenberg, however, have only scratched the surface in exploiting the new technology. Fully automated mines are on the horizon.
“We have a way to go. There’s a big possibility of working 24 hours a day with more automation,” says Jenny Gotthardsson, the general manager at Garpenberg.
To the north of Garpenberg, at other Boliden mines, Volvo is breaking new ground by testing self-driving trucks underground along with Ericsson, which has installed cutting-edge 5G mobile technology in a pilot.
Mining is one of the last sectors to use a surge in computer processing power, cloud data storage and complex algorithms to make sense of huge amounts of scattered information – routine in today’s retail and manufacturing businesses.
The change could benefit the industry and its stakeholders by up to US$373 billion by 2025, according to consultancy McKinsey.
“That value is basically by improving the current processes with the current generation of equipment,” says the McKinsey partner Richard Sellschop. The estimate includes higher output and lower costs to boost profits of mining companies, but also the knock-on impact for mining equipment makers, countries who collect tax from miners and consumers who will benefit from lower raw material costs.
But it also points to seismic change for mining jobs that could spark conflict in developing countries if low-skilled miners are no longer needed in automated operations.
Some workers will retrain for high-tech jobs but full automation will mean fewer jobs overall. There may be opposition from trade unions in places such as South Africa.
“Everywhere where mechanisation has been implemented, even in Australia, it has led to massive retrenchments. We know what’s coming,” says Livhuwani Mammburu, a spokesman for the National Union of Mineworkers.
“Companies must start training workers in preparation for mechanisation and other technologies.”
Boliden was an early mover but other mining groups are also adopting the latest technology, in some cases cloaking their initiatives in secrecy to get ahead of rivals.
The technology firm Daqri, based in Los Angeles, said mining groups using its new augmented reality helmet insisted on anonymity to guard their advantage.
Daqri’s futuristic Smart Helmet funnels data to workers, projecting instructions on repairing equipment, thermal images, map data or video conferences with experts anywhere in the world.
Rio Tinto, the world’s second-biggest iron ore producer, aims to deliver $5bn of productivity improvements over five years, much of it through data and technology.
The chief executive Jean-Sébastien Jacques said this year that each of its global fleet of about 900 trucks has some 40 sensors.
“If we can analyse this data in real time and convert this data into insight, then we will be able to run those trucks even better,” he said.
Rio already has a smartphone app with data on its fleet of trucks in the rich iron ore Pilbara area of Western Australia.
BHP, the world’s biggest mining group, said recently it was trialling sensors to analyse properties of metal in real-time at its huge copper operation Escondida in Chile.
The recent move to exploit data and technology in mining has helped the sector recover from a long-term slump in productivity estimated by accountancy firm EY to be as much as 40 per cent.
But robots are not limited to operational mines. As the global demand for metals increases, some groups are turning to disused flooded old mines.
Unexmin is an €5 million (Dh21.5m) EU-funded project that is developing a novel robotic system, primarily for the autonomous exploration and mapping of Europe’s flooded mines.
“The Robotic Explorer platform, made by three robots – UX-1a, UX-1b and UX-1c, will use non-invasive methods for autonomous 3D mine mapping for gathering valuable geological, mineralogical and spatial information,” says the group, led by Hungary’s University of Miskolc and encompassing numerous geologist associations from across Europe.
“The project can possibly open new exploration scenarios so that strategic decisions on the reopening of Europe’s abandoned mines could be supported by actualised data that cannot be obtained by any other ways, without major costs,” it adds.
Once it is put together, the multi-robot platform “will represent a new technology line that is only made possible by recent developments in autonomy research that allows the development of a completely new class of mine explorer service robots”, capable of operating without remote control.
Such robots do not yet exist and UX-1 will be the first of its kind, Unexmin says.
The main challenges, it says, are related to miniaturisation and adaptation of deep-sea robotics technology to the flooded mines environment and to the interpretation of geoscientific data.
The first real UX-1 prototype will be built starting from the end of this year. This first fully functional UX-1 prototype is envisaged to be ready at mid-2018, in time for the first field demonstration in the Unexmin project, in the Kaatiala Mine, Finland, the group says..
Pre-operational trials will be launched in real-life conditions at four different mine sites.
“The final, most ambitious demonstration will take place in the UK with the resurveying of the entire flooded section of the Ecton underground mine that nobody has seen for over 150 years,” Unexmin says.
The global fall in mining productivity hit bottom in about 2013 and has been clawing higher since then, with productivity for some companies rising by 15 to 20 per cent, according to EY.
“This uptick coincides with the trend toward adoption of digital technology and innovation among many companies,” says Paul Mitchell, EY’s global advisory leader in mining.
The biggest gold producer Barrick Gold plans to spend $100 million on technology in a partnership with Cisco Systems, while Australia’s South32 this year forged an alliance with General Electric.
In 2006, the Garpenberg mine, located about 180 kilometres northwest of Stockholm, was struggling to compete. However, in 2013 Boliden started transforming its operations with automation and data. It is now one of the world’s most productive zinc mines.
“We decided to become an early adopter,” says Mikael Staffas, the president of Boliden Mines. An expansion of output also helped to lower costs through economies of scale.
By 2016, it had halved cash costs to 44 cents per pound, adjusted for inflation, according to the consultancy Wood Mackenzie.
Thousands of sensors, including ones that track every worker, send data above ground at Garpenberg, boosting safety and allowing more efficient ventilation and ore loading.
The Swedish companies Sandvik, Atlas Copco and Volvo are among those to use Boliden as a testing ground for new products.
Kristofer Ruth, a miner who has worked there for 11 years, rarely ventures underground any more. He manoeuvres a joystick that shovels ore into an automated truck about 800 metres below.
He no longer wastes time evacuating the mine during twice-daily blasting and can move the vehicle into areas that might be unsafe for workers.
“We can work at least six hours more a day,” he says.