The mining sector is already behind other industries when it comes to the use of new technologies, but the rate of adoption has risen in the past couple of years. How can we keep the momentum going and even pick up the pace? That’s one of the questions a panel of industry experts discussed at the third annual Progressive Mine Forum, organized by The Northern Miner. The panelists at the event, which took place in Toronto in October, discussed trends in automation and big data that are beginning to transform the mining industry and offered ideas on what miners can do to reap the rewards of emerging and existing technology.
The panel of six experts included: Edward Bilborough, business line manager for automation and digitalization at Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology; Stephen de Jong, the CEO of VRIFY and chairman of Integra Resources (TSXV: ITR); Louis-Pierre Campeau, team lead of Artificial Intelligence at Newtrax Technologies; Pavel Abdur-Rahman, head of IBM Services’ data-science consulting practice in Canada; Walter Siggelkow, the president and founder of Hard-Line; and Nadine Miller, an independent director for Wesdome Gold Mines.
Here are six of our takeaways from the discussion.
1. New technology’s compatibility with commitment to communities
New technology is often assumed to detract from local employment, particularly in developing regions, but that assumption should be more closely examined. While it may seem counterintuitive, one of the world’s most automated mines is in West Africa: Resolute Mining’s Syama underground gold mine in Mali. All the mine’s underground equipment is operated from surface via automation using trucks, loaders and production drills, said Edward Bilborough of Sandvik, which has been a partner at the mine for the last two to three years.
“That came around from a vision from their senior management, their CEO saying that we need to do things differently in a country like Mali,” Bilborough said.
Conventionally in West Africa, mining companies bring in an Australian contractor to operate the mine for somewhere in the range of $250,000.
“That really wasn’t a sustainable part of the business for them going forward and in how they saw their business being a partner in their community,” Bilborough said. “So they saw automation and technology as a step change in how they leverage or create a sustainable partnership with the local community.”
Rather than the advanced technology detracting from local employment, the company has found that the two can be compatible. Bilborough noted that Resolute realized that although only 20–30% of the local community might have a high school education, 80–90% are familiar with digital technology simply by knowing how to operate a cell phone.
“That was one of the light-bulb moments for them to say that technology in this community is not such a big step change.”
2. The need to standardize data
Making the most of all available data means finding ways to standardize it.
Stephen de Jong, former CEO of Integra Gold (which was bought by Eldorado Gold in 2017) discussed the company’s experience with opening up its data and creating the Integra Gold Challenge in 2015. Integra bought the Sigma-Lamaque property in Quebec in 2014. The purchase came with a big dataset the company didn’t know what to do with or have time to parse, as it was focused on a large drill program. So Integra took a page from the Goldcorp Challenge from 15 years earlier and put its 6 terrabyte database online for anyone to comb through.
“We spent about $1 million cleaning it out, so one thing that’s very important with big data in general is the quality of that data,” de Jong said. “The data came from two different mines and even though those mines were only 500 metres apart, they never spoke to each other so it might as well have been written in Chinese and Russian.”
One example of standardizing the data was that between the two operations, there were eight different ways to describe granodiorite, which the company narrowed down into just three.
Louis-Pierre Campeau of Newtrax agreed data standardization is key, in mining operations as well as in exploration.
“Right now, there are a lot of datasets coming in from different parts of the mine that are optimized locally, but we’re not taking into consideration the whole big picture,” he said. “There’s a reason why it’s called ‘big data’ and not ‘siloed independent data that doesn’t talk to each other.’ It’s because this is where the real power is with predictive maintenance. We have seen a great improvement in predicting power based on: Do you train on one vehicle, do you train on 10 vehicles, or 10 vehicles from 10 different mines? Standardization to be able to put the data together is really the way to go to make more out of it.”
3. The changing nature of the data scientist
Whereas high-tech industries have thousands of people working on data analytics in internal teams, and less tech-savvy industries like banking may have companies with 400 to 600 people working on analytics, mining and agribusiness are only starting down this path, said IBM’s Pavel Abdur-Rahman. Some companies in the space have up to 100 to 150 people in external teams, while a few are starting to build teams of 20 to 40 internally that are focused on data analytics, he noted.
But this will continue to evolve, and with all the open-source data analytics technology and education that’s available, in the future, geologists will be able to use both backgrounds to apply analytics tools to mining.
“We have to think about data scientists and data engineers in a different way,” he said. “The future geologists, the future mechanics, they’re all going to be data scientists. They’re just going to be geologists [or mechanics] first. Then they’re going to know how to run python code and all sorts of things. The world is moving in a space where everybody is going to be a data-savvy professional.”
4. Importance of change management
While everyone in the mining industry understands that they have no choice but to start adopting new ways of doing things, Walter Siggelkow of Hard-Line — a company that retrofits equipment for remote and teleremote operation — noted that change management is key.
“The real answer to everything is the players — it’s all people at the end of the day,” he said. “If those people are not on board 100% with making this major change — and it is a major change, from sending everybody underground to just sending technicians underground to fix the machines and running [the mine] from surface — you have to have everybody online to make those projects go through.”
5. To speed up adoption, we need to take risks
It may not be what miners want to hear, but they need to take more risks with technology — even if they have tried something in the past that hasn’t worked out.
“We talk a lot about innovation in mining but we have a real problem adopting new technologies,” said Nadine Miller, a director of Wesdome Gold Mines. “We have to learn how to crawl before we walk.”
Miller, who is also a strategic advisor for Awz Ventures, a venture capital fund that invests in advanced technology for cybersecurity and homeland security, noted, for example, that the earliest adopters of SAP software in the chemical industry started implementing the technology in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“I would guarantee you that there are mining companies out there that still don’t have SAP or Oracle. So we’re very slow. We’re on geologic time and cybersecurity — they have got the time machine. They can go backwards and forwards,” she said. “So I say, shame on us — we should really look at people who are coming out with innovative ideas that can help.”
For example, the mindset in mining that technology must be proven in a mining setting before it can be implemented is counterproductive.
“In mining, the first thing they say is “Where else have you put it in? They don’t want to be the first one — nobody does because what’s my return on investment?” she said. “If there’s something that’s off the shelf and it’s working in a different industry, why aren’t we using it? We shouldn’t be 20 years behind. Let’s strive to be with all the other industries. We don’t have to be ahead of the pack, but within the pack.”
6. The need for collaboration
Along with the idea of being willing to take risks comes the understanding that collaboration on an industry-wide level between companies, with universities and other entities is a necessity — and it’s the only way to close the technology gap between mining and other industries, de Jong said.
“We have to accept the fact that R&D is not a linear process and we can put a lot of money into these innovative ideas and a lot of them are going to have a zero-percent internal rate of return — they’re not going to return anything for us because they just didn’t work. We can grab off-the-shelf technologies, but some of them just aren’t going to work. We have to accept that reality — otherwise we’ll just become stagnant and keep doing what we’re doing.”
He added: “We need to create tools as an entire industry where we share that knowledge so if your company has success with your research and development and mine doesn’t, maybe some of that can transfer over because ultimately, if our industry becomes more profitable, that is good for everybody.”
— This story was first published in our sister publication, Canadian Mining Journal.