August 2019

Skills needed for digital mines

  • By Kash Sirinanda AAusIMM, Founder, Mine Connector

Digitalised mines need specific professional skill sets that are more familiar for a tech company than a traditional mining corporation. This article highlights key capabilities needed for an effective, efficient digital mine. 

In the last decade, with the advance of digital technology and big-data hype, there have been many discussions on how to digitalise a mine, and more mining companies have started to transform their business by adopting and investing in digital capabilities. However, there is still a gap between where we are now and where we want to be in the future. To close this gap, we need to understand the staffing requirement to deliver digital capabilities in a mining operation. In this article, I explore five distinct skill set areas that I believe are fundamental to any company looking to digitalise its operations.

1. Digital strategy

Potential job roles: Digital Specialist, Senior Digital Expert, Digital Vice President

It is essential to have experts who understand digital strategy and can execute a transformative vision. They should be able to see the long-term benefits and implications of adopting technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and others in day-to-day mining operations. These technologies need to be embedded in the mining company and part of its strategic vision. 

Crucially, these digital strategy professionals should know how to prioritise digital initiatives based on the company budget and business requirements. While these professionals may have specific expertise or crossover in some of the other four capabilities discussed below, leadership should be their primary function. 

Skills for digital strategists may include:

  • an understanding of business and functional requirements for a successful digital transformation
  • ability to clearly define digital goals, KPIs and milestones
  • a working knowledge of different innovative digital techniques and their application to mining
  • ability to prioritise and execute digital initiatives based on organisational needs
  • the confidence to work across multiple teams to lead the digital transformation.

Possible projects: 

  • define the overarching digital strategy of a mining company 
  • define new digital initiatives and optimise ongoing initiatives
  • implement IoT platforms 
  • digital maturity assessments – eg scan digital capabilities and find gaps throughout the mining value chain. 

2. Analytics

Potential job roles: Data Analyst, Data Scientist, Data Engineer, Big Data Architect

In a digital mine, data is generated frequently, and it is essential to use it properly to obtain real-time insights. Well-managed data is the gateway to advanced analytics techniques (eg machine learning algorithms) essential for predictive maintenance, throughput and energy optimisations. These algorithms need to be implemented and used to obtain insights and tune models simultaneously.

 Skills for analytics professionals may include:

  • an in-depth knowledge of selected programming language(s) (eg R, Python, etc) 
  • ability to clearly share insights with both technical and non-technical audiences
  • previous experience with different data platforms and architectures 
  • ability to design and implement complex big data solutions
  • an understanding of machine learning algorithms and their applications.

Possible projects: 

  • improve productivity and efficiency of mills and refineries
  • analyse data to predict failure of mining equipment, saving maintenance costs and reducing unplanned downtimes
  • optimise energy consumption of reactors and other equipment based on data output
  • improve equipment use throughout the value chain, improving efficiency and productivity.

3. Optimisation

Potential job roles: Mathematician, Optimisation Specialist, Research Fellow

Mining is a complex process, but mathematicians and optimisation experts can streamline the process. Mathematical modelling can be used to optimise the supply chain, mine scheduling and mine-to-port optimisation. Sometimes the models are not perfect, but the constraints can be tuned to get near-optimal solutions. 

Skills for optimisation professionals may include:

  • mathematical modelling skills (eg integer programming, linear programming, meta heuristics)
  • expertise in modelling and problem-solving software and languages (eg CPLEX, Matlab or Gurobi)
  • ability to use advanced algorithms to solve complex mining problems or develop optimisation algorithms for open pit and underground environments. 

‘In a digital mine, data is generated frequently, and it is essential to use it properly to obtain real-time insights.’

Possible projects: 

  • NPV optimisation – ie proper mine planning and scheduling, short-term vs long-term (or both)
  • optimise stope design to dig higher grade ore effectively 
  • optimise planning activities from mill-to-port to minimise costs or maximise value 
  • use theory of constraints to minimise bottlenecks 
  • further tune multivariable controllers based on historic data and optimise them. 

4. Software

Potential job roles: Development Operations Engineer, Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters, Software Architect

Front and back-end software, apps and dashboards are necessary to connect systems and people. These skills are in the domain of development engineers who understand not only a specific programming language, but also how to connect the various apps and dashboards with the current IT system. These professionals should also be able to develop tailored mobile apps to cater for operational requirements. 

Skills for software professionals may include:

  • knowledge of product life cycle management, ranging from project planning, development, deployment, maintenance and troubleshooting
  • ability to source control tools, continuous integration tools, team management tools
  • knowledge and execution of Agile methodology, develop the Agile adoption strategy and mentor and educate the project team
  • confidence to work with business teams to determine requirements for new software and applications
  • development of detailed product specifications to match and integrate with existing systems. 

Possible projects: 

  • develop apps for maintenance activities scheduling and spare part management 
  • develop dashboards to visualise mining operations 
  • integrate systems by connecting apps, dashboards and data sources to a common platform, and enable communication between elements
  • build, operate and maintain data centres in different regions. 

5. User journey

Potential job roles: User Interface Engineer, User Experience Designer, Innovation Engineer

Breaking silos is a challenge in the mining sector due to the interaction of many complex processes, and employees who are specially trained on specific systems. One of the easiest ways to break silos is to understand the way users operate and communicate. Personas can be outlined to understand the people–process–system interactions. These personas can be used to design optimised apps and dashboards to make employees’ day-to-day lives easier, and better understand how different teams interact. This process requires in-house user interface and user experience designers. 

Skills for user journey professionals may include: 

  • ability to collect and evaluate information from customers/employees to create user personas
  • artistic flair to design and sketch graphic user interface elements including menus, tabs and widgets
  • an analytical mind to interpret data (taken from personas) to design and test prototypical interfaces
  • ability to imagine new products to satisfy a user’s needs. 

Possible projects: 

  • managing information flow between miners and traders to improve value
  • understand pains and frustrations in different teams (eg sales and marketing)
  • understand the important variables in each silo to develop a strategy to overcome communication challenges
  • define proper communication flows between teams (eg open pit, underground, finance and refinery) 
  • rewire and define the optimal process–people–tasks journey to align executives in each team.

Conclusion

Some mining companies are already starting to recruit the above skill sets by creating new departments in their companies. But others are still far behind. When reviewing the above positions and skill sets, it seems like we are turning mining companies into tech enterprises. But it is exactly this type of disruption of traditional company models that leads to the breakthroughs we have been waiting for.

About the author

Kash Sirinanda has a doctorate in mine planning and optimisation from the University of Melbourne, Australia. He is the founder of Mine Connector and Elite Futurists.  

During his PhD studies and post-doctoral work at the University, Kash developed algorithms for generating designs that maximise the net present value of a mining operation. Kash was also a visiting scholar at the Colorado School of Mines, USA. Kash has been working on various mining projects which include due diligence, operation, AI, innovation, analytics, optimisation and digital. Kash is a keynote speaker and provides mining leaders with strategic direction and visionary leadership.

Visit mineconnector.com for more information and the original version of this article.

Image: GarryKillian /Shutterstock.com.

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