Industry Deep Dive: IoT and Digitalization in Mining

 Interview with Dr. Catharine Farrow

This week we got the chance to sit down and chat with Dr. Catharine Farrow – a Professional Geoscientist and an influential female figure in the mining sector. As an industry veteran with more than 25 years of experience, Catharine shared with us her insightful perspective on how IoT and innovative last-mile connectivity are fueling digitalization in mining.

Q: What are your thoughts on the current state of digitalization in mining today?

Unfortunately, the mining industry is rather conservative and somewhat resistant to change. Given this nature, we have stayed relatively the same for decades. With respect to digitalization, it mostly pertains to a trial and error approach only. This is especially true in smaller companies with a lot of capital constraints because mining is a capital-intensive industry.

Large and mid-sized companies are slightly more open to digitalization. Mining OEMs are often looking for product advancements, so in some cases, adoption is faster. Also, the challenge in our industry is that ore grade is dwindling, and productivity is decreasing. In the last decade, adjusted for the lower ore grade, we have experienced about 20% lower productivity. This prompts some of the larger and mid-tier companies to take on higher rates of digitization.

Having said that, digitalization is still not across-the-board. This is because, most of the time, companies don’t know the quality of the data they are looking at. The reality is, there isn’t a lot of big data – or really robust data sets.

Q: Amid this resistance to change, do you think new IoT and data communication technologies will help fortify digitalization in mining?

Absolutely. Although we have been a bit conservative and slow to adopt, there is a widespread understanding within the industry that we do need to change and embrace digitalization faster. From my technical background, the big thing I’ve seen with IoT and data communications is the possibility to improve data access and data relevance. That is the key. Right now, it’s very difficult using wires, or physical connections, to enable machine-to-machine communications or upload data to various historians and analytics systems.

Only when you have access to quality data can you create a big data ecosystem to apply corporate solutions. That means data democratization wherein data is shared across traditional silos. This empowers various sectors of the company to be involved in the decision-making process for better business outcomes. Additionally, improved communication with IoT allows for more flexibility in optimizing data collection for testing purposes. This removes the whole speculation from the business optimization process.

Q: Could you elaborate on how better data acquisition with IoT can enhance mining operations?

The first aspect is plant design. Every plant is unique with a different equipment set and flowsheet that details the production flow. Often times, data gathering devices like sensors are placed at pre-determined locations in the flowsheet, based on our speculation during the initial design. Once installed, these wired devices become static and it’s very difficult to make additions or modifications due to the capital-intensive and time-consuming process. Now, with IoT communications technologies, you can be much more flexible. You can move the sensor around and decide which location is optimal for data collection during production.

The other part is troubleshooting. Having an IoT ecosystem speeds up troubleshooting because you can move more seamlessly with your detection equipment and sensors across the plant. I think plant design and troubleshooting are the immediate applications that really excite the industry. Once you have an IoT system installed for these two purposes, other applications like predictive maintenance will fall in naturally.

Q: Could you share your experience on a mining project where you thought IoT applications would be disruptive?

In the period between 2015 and 2017 when I was the CEO of a mining company, we were working on designing and constructing a gold processing plant at a remote site of the Canadian Arctic. This plant would serve to process the ore from several gold mines in our portfolio. During the planning phase, there was a constant dialogue between different levels of technicians and designers about where we should install the sensors for production measurements and if we were going to perform any types of online analysis.

Then we shipped endless amounts of cables and cable trays up to the Arctic and proceeded to wire up a relatively small plant. When you consider constructing a large plant, be it in mining or any other industries, this is one of the most time-consuming and labor-consuming parts. Wiring up everything really limits what you can measure because of the large capital outlays. Also, any changes later on, could have a massive impact on the mechanical and electrical infrastructure in the plant.

The fact that we have to wire everything up so tediously and that we couldn’t be more digitally advanced really astounded me. It really struck me at how far behind we were as an industry. If we want to add something, we still have people running around with a clipboard in a plant. And the mining industry is definitely not an exceptional case. There are a lot of industries in the same situation.

Q: Didn’t you consider wireless options for connecting those sensors?

Viable wireless solutions simply didn’t exist. The standard Wi-Fi and similar options do not function properly in a plant full of metal. Also, as this was a plant in the Arctic of Canada, the only form of communication with the outside world is satellite. This means you’re pretty much isolated and must be able to run everything seamlessly on your own. As it stands right now, I am unaware of any mining and metallurgical plants in the world today that are designed with a fully IIoT-integrated approach.

Q: Do you think MIOTY could potentially solve such communications challenges?

Absolutely. Because MIOTY can robustly transmit data in challenging environments where there are physical walls and large pieces of equipment, or in the license-free spectrum with competing radio transmission. The star topology is also hugely important to mitigate self-interference. Also, we can be flexible in plant design, since MIOTY is agnostic when it comes to the location of the transceiver and what devices you want to transmit data from. This is particularly important because often a plant is arranged based on the gravity feed to enable a logical flow of materials like crushed ore or slurry.

From a troubleshooting perspective, as I discussed earlier, you can really be agile with mobile detection equipment specific to a technician. That’s where I think MIOTY is instantly applicable. I discuss here the example of a plant-based campus because the automotive industry with vast manufacturing plants is for the same reason very interested in this technology.

Q: What IoT applications do you think will benefit the most from MIOTY? In your experience, what applications or what kind of data is the most critical for mining?

A plant is a great starting line, but ultimately the potential of MIOTY is far beyond that. Through previous tests, we have seen MIOTY successfully operate underground, through obstructions like ventilation doors. The technology is additionally being tested in the leach pad in gold mining and is actually working. Health and safety are a huge issue for all industries, not just mining; and we’re testing wearables that can help us understand workers’ conditions and factors like workplace temperature to help us be proactive in keeping our employees safe.

Another aspect is mobile equipment. With MIOTY, we can have a platform to collect telemetry from mobile equipment like haul trucks for diagnostics and predictive maintenance. Also, given the recent disastrous dam failure due to the poor tailings design in Brazil, site monitoring is becoming more and more important. Using MIOTY, we can set up an outdoor environment to capture information like moisture contents, inclinometers and vibration to oversee potentially risky constructions. I think the potential applications are endless; it’s all about where you want to deploy the sensors to promptly create values.

Q: How do you envision the future of MIOTY adoption?

Mining and other industries like oil and gas have been looking for that last-mile connectivity and MIOTY is such a unique technology that solves many problems in the IIoT space. In my opinion, adoption is just a matter of how quickly we get the word out.

Q: What ROI do you predict the mining industry will see with this technology?

The central value of MIOTY is not what it can do, but how it enables other components in the IoT ecosystem. The adoption of MIOTY helps you acquire more relevant data in higher quantities, which is the essence of other IoT solutions. Artificial Intelligence and all of these potential analytical technologies are promising, but if you don’t have the relevant data sets, they simply won’t cut it. So, it’s a cascade of events and the knock-on effects that follow – be it better predictive maintenance, worker safety and so on.

From my calculation, in worst case scenarios, you may get an ROI of 10-20%. That’s the worst case because it really doesn’t cost a lot to implement compared to other capital-intensive approaches. In fact, probably for most cases, ROI can be well over 100% by the time full adoption is in place and you’re running a site that is entirely IIoT-integrated.

Q: Why did you decide to join BehrTech’s Advisory Board?

From my scientific and business background, I see the technical viability of MIOTY and its immediate applications in the industry. Nevertheless, equally important is that I see a great culture in the BehrTech team. You know that with a great corporate culture, great things can happen; and you cannot replace or duplicate this culture. I can say this based on my experience working with a number of start-ups in the mining industry. So, I’m really looking forward to working on a great technical product with a great team.

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