Why should the mining industry go digital?
Several experts at the 2019 Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada convention had their reasons, emphasizing that data is critical for all aspects of operations and gives all members ownership in the results.
Sudbury’s Maestro Digital Mine hosted a special panel discussion on the subject at the convention’s Northern Ontario Mining Showcase on March 4.
The panel included Theophile Yameogo, vice-president of digital innovation at Dundee Precious Metals; Ethan Hull, CEO of TECHrep Global and former IT manager of Barrick Gold; Chris Burgess, director of innovation and transformation at Yamana Gold; and Michel Samovojski, technology co-ordinator for the Canadian northeast district of Goldcorp.
The panel was moderated by Bob McDonald, host of CBC’s science talk show Quirks and Quarks.
Data is becoming the most valuable asset of the business world, and mining is no exception. Hull explained as mines advance, they need more real-time data from the operation so they can make faster decisions, keep operations on track and protect the safety of workers.
Data can also measure performance, added Samovojski. However, with so much data it will become critical to manage it.
Hull said for him digital is really about giving the data back to the workers, but in a way they can interpret and communicate it effectively. He related a story about a mine at Barrick Gold going to short interval control. Once they had that in place, they were able to integrate the technology to have a portable set of data.
Then they came up with a communications plan for the workers to understand what to do with the tablets they were taking underground.
“We came up with ‘just hit the button here and here,’ simplify use of the tool, the software and the numbers we needed bad,” he said. “Knowing they are being watched, they increased man hours of half an hour. That equated to 400 extra tons a day, or $40 million a year.”
Burgess added one of the hurdles is keeping it practical, which is why Yamana Gold is looking at robotics and automation.
“We look at it end to end and ask ourselves how can we leverage this for the best outcome?” he said.
Implementing digitization means some retraining of the operation, from staff to existing operations.
Yameogo said no one has to go through change management training to learn how to use digital, becuase it’s already user-friendly. To implement it in a mining operation the communication has to be seamless.
“When it comes to user technology, it has to be as close to natural for a human to be useful,” he said.
People can figure out how to use technology practically on their own, he said, but it’s up to people like him to challenge providers to come up with seamless solutions.
Burgess said the average for challenges to a company is seven per cent technology and 93 per cent change management. The issue is making data easy to interpret and access. Once that happens across the company and workforce, change comes easier.
Mining is notorious for having silos, or separate groups working on their own aspects of the operation without being connected to the others. Yameogo explained at Dundee, they came up with the idea of “data democracy,” which means information is visible and available. Having a depository for data, such as the cloud, everyone can see the results rather than having to go through several channels.
It still takes time for digital transformation to be effective. Companies are going to have to take small steps so they can maintain control on their data collection so it is clean, flawless data from the machines.
With digital comes concerns over security. If a hacker gained control over a mine’s ventilation system, for example, people’s lives would be at risk, Hull said. As an information technology manager, security is a major concern for him. As mines and operations become more remote and rely more on artificial intelligence, the possibility of a security breach becomes greater, he added.
There are ways to secure data and systems, mainly through segmenting.
“I know in some platforms, once you are in, you are all the way in,” he said. “Segmenting those things and having authentication set up will stop it.”
But companies have to be sure the systems are tested well to have that capability to respond fast. It’s going to happen, Hull said. The question is how resilient will they be to breaches.