The connected mine concept helps mines to lower costs by providing detailed, real-time control at all levels of operation, says industrial automation multinational Rockwell Automation sub-Saharan Africa MD Barry Elliot.
The concept can be implemented in areas where mines have optimisation challenges or where equipment is already connected.
The idea is to leverage what mines already have a lot of – data – says Rockwell Automation Global Solutions sub-Saharan Africa business manager Graham Stead.
“Mines have significant amounts of data, usually stored and underused or they are not using all the data generated by machines, process controls and other equipment. This represents a significant untapped resource because this data can be used to create actionable information that can provide significant productivity improvements for almost any facet of mining operations, from equipment, to staff, plant and overall company efficiency,” he says.
Further, the investment associated with connecting mines can be low, often consisting of connecting disparate areas of operations, with the emphasis on how mines use connected systems to empower their people, improve operations, benchmark efficiency and control costs, adds Elliot.
A successful project that the company cites is a local mining company, which has 28 large air compressors, ranging from 2 MW to 9 MW in size, which all feed into the same header. While the compressors already had digital control systems in place, connecting the compressors to one system enabled the mine to benchmark their performance.
These compressors are large users of energy and, by having real-time and historic data of their performance, the mine was able to improve the performance of the group of assets, Elliot explains. For example, not all the compressors are equally efficient, and this information enabled the mine to prioritise the use of the most efficient compressors and to start the large compressors outside peak load periods to lower maximum demand.
“The real-time information also enabled it to ensure that compressors were started in the most appropriate sequence and avoid unnecessary start-ups based on real-time demand from operations. Similar benefits as a result of the complete visibility of all the productive assets and operations of a mining company can be provided to executives and operation managers to enable them to manage the company’s overarching strategy and costs,” explains Stead.
Further, the ability of personnel to leverage data is key to enabling a connected mine, and detailed design in collaboration with staff, managers and executives is best practice. Rockwell can also provide expert consulting services to assist in designing and conceptualising the system, emphasises Elliot.
Each person in a connected mine is provided information based on his or her role in the company, and this information is constantly augmented with additional data from all other processes. This allows for quick responses to changes or machine outages, predict expected use that other personnel can also use in their planning, and the proactive management of foreseeable problems, such as bottlenecks as a result of maintenance.
However, while connected mines are usually rolled out iteratively, the process is not ad hoc and Rockwell follows a well- defined methodology to ensure that the architecture is appropriate for current and expected future uses, and new systems and applications can be deployed, emphasises Elliot.
“Successful connected mine projects add momentum to the broader transition to a connected mine, so it is important to get the implementations correct. Most mines are already transitioning to more digital, real-time systems, and we can provide expert advice and best practices to help them identify initial projects that will form part of their long-term goals.”
Real-time connected mine systems enable mines to remain globally competitive, including during times of lower commodity prices, as productive assets can be compared and pared back in the most efficient way that has the least impact, concludes Elliot.