Digital innovation is critical for mining companies looking to gain a competitive advantage. How might this innovation be deployed in drilling and blasting?
In today’s market, digital transformation in mining companies has become a business necessity and is key to maintaining a competitive edge. By 2021, companies investing in digital innovation as a single integrated business process will outperform competitors by 20 per cent on profitability. Yet, a recent poll found that 37 per cent of mining and metals executives have little or no knowledge of the digital landscape (EY, 2018).
A myriad of benefits arise when mining companies embrace digitalisation – it can improve safety, help teams anticipate and deal with failures, optimise scheduling and material flow, and track and maintain mining performance in real time. For drill and blast, fully integrating digitalisation can increase drilling accuracy, enhance online data management, save costs for explosives and create a faster and easier improvement process.
Still, digitalisation becomes meaningless if you do not have solutions for information sharing; software integration and the seamless flow of data is essential.
Commonly, mines will use many independent software packages and systems from different suppliers. Each piece will have its own interface, data and format, and operating staff will have to inspect a range of disconnected screens to connect different parts of the process. Disconnected products create the need for manual input and often the data does not represent a true set of events. This approach is clunky, time-consuming and reduces efficiency and profitability.
‘A myriad of benefits arise when mining companies embrace digitalisation.’
While stand-alone software apps used in isolation can be reasonably powerful tools, many mining software suppliers are moving to better integrate their own apps and support interfaces with third-party systems. For example, Maptek recently collaborated with Sasol (a South African energy and chemicals company) to integrate BlastLogic with the IBIS bulk explosive truck control system. The BlastLogic tablet, which dynamically updates drill and blast plans in the field, can communicate directly with IBIS to control explosives loading. In an environment where even a slip of the finger can waste time, money and be potentially dangerous, this integration removes the need for manual data entry, saves time, preserves data integrity and increases safety.
In terms of the data that can be exploited from drill navigation systems, Maptek has collaborated with leading equipment providers. Epiroc is one example where this has resulted in an automated, integrated solution to streamline data transfer from an Epiroc drill through to Maptek BlastLogic and Eureka applications.
Some vendors position their integrated systems as an idealised solution, but when it comes to trial or implementation, these are found to have significant gaps. On paper, various tech provider offerings appear the same, but if the solution is not built holistically from the beginning, flaws can have a significant impact on long-term mine performance.
Getting isolated apps to integrate with third-party systems after they have been developed is difficult. It generally requires a large effort to work reliably when running data under the pressure of production requirements; any deficiency in how well the various components are integrated leads to additional risk.
Any meaningful solution requires significant resources dedicated to addressing workflow and functional requirements as they change over time. This is the difference with sustainable software systems from specialist mining technology providers.
The expectation for integrated systems has increased significantly. Better tools are needed to deal with the scale of today’s mines. Functional departments are also keen to increase coordination to support better decision making, thereby optimising each element of the mining cycle as part of a total business system. This requires an understanding of all systems, processes and interfaces and how they fit together.
The starting point is sharing accurate information quickly from a variety of data sources. This is no easy task considering the sheer scale of data flow involved and the high production velocity targeted. And without integration, unnecessary burden is placed on the end user to transform and import/export data to enable tasks across other functions.
It’s important to embrace software that can flawlessly integrate with other products to ensure that the information you’re collecting to make decisions truly reflects what is happening at your sites. A true software provider will improve operations through their understanding of your value chain.
Most recently, an open pit gold mine has improved their day-to-day operations and provided greater business intelligence through Maptek’s Blastlogic platform, which has the capability to manage the company’s drill and blast process from design to performance measurement. The integrated tracking of vibration, fragmentation, performance, cost and inventory of each blast allows continuous improvement and informs future planning.
Implementation of the platform led to direct benefits including increased drill accuracy, efficient back analysis, enhanced online data management, cost savings for explosives and a faster and easier improvement process. Results of each blast are fed back automatically, leading to less time spent deciding what needs to change in designs.
Further, digital benchmarking allowed the effect of changes to be measured. For example, with all drill data integrated with blasting results, improvements in accurate charge placement are easily identified, delivering better fragmentation. Blasting can be performed with smarter and safer sequences.
Access to digital drill and blast data also allows easier communication between departments. For this operation, the integration of data has provided:
- detailed control of drill and blast KPIs
- the ability to audit contractors and the blasting process
- synchronisation of drill and blast tasks into a single platform
- data and process transparency
- correlation of data in 3D for simple analysis and summary dashboards to track technical, economic and operational opportunities.
Another company embracing digitalisation is Anglo American. BlastLogic enabled improved design compliance monitoring and downstream productivity optimisation across their open pit operations. Their technical team launched an improvement project in 2017 to provide a foundation for developing sound drill and blast designs that could be effectively executed and easily reconciled.
‘The alignment process gave engineers additional time for other tasks and reduced data management errors.’
The new approach enabled compliance to design metrics and provided confidence in sustainably achieving desired blast outputs. The technical system included advanced drilling design, blast design and reconciliation and benchmark reporting capability. The solution has enabled efficiency gains through standardisation and alignment of various processes. For example, one operation required normalising four different coordinate systems used by three different drill navigation systems and general mine planning software.
Although systems had previously been in place to manage disparate data, the alignment process gave engineers additional time for other tasks and reduced data management errors. Integration with existing applications has reduced the need for information to pass through different systems and further decreased transformation or re-formatting requirements. Due to the wide geographic distribution of operations, the technical system is hosted in centralised data centres on each continent and the validated data is consolidated through a global reporting platform. This has led to improved integration between different business unit technical teams, allowing benchmarking and aligning operations on key compliance to design metrics. Importantly, it has resulted in a reduction of inconsistencies and discrepancies in metrics reported between operations, as the calculations and data are derived from a single, standardised source of truth.
Common access to centrally stored and managed data allowed different functional teams to meaningfully collaborate, start delivering sustainable operational value and identify additional improvement opportunities. In particular, the coordination shone a light on the importance of tracking and analysis of drill and blast metrics in a consistent manner across the global business. Inefficiencies are now clearly identified at critical stages of the process, and site personnel are empowered to devise strategies for improvement.
Improving industry practice
When generating a charge design for each hole, site practice has been based on rule-of-thumb and ‘gut-feel’ and then carrying out a number of checks, including for confinement. Recently, a coal operation looked for a new approach. The scaled depth of burial (SDOB) calculation in charge design provides an indication of confinement of an explosive charge based on variables including explosive quantity, explosive location and hole diameter. Rather than calculating the SDOB values as a manual ‘check’ for charge confinement, an algorithm was designed whereby desired SDOB values are input to determine the correct explosive position to achieve the user-specified confinement. The process is accurate and able to be repeated at the click of a button. The benefits included removing variability around blast confinement and coal seam protection. Now the drill and blast engineer simply specifies the desired confinement values, and the newly adopted platform calculates the charge plan that will achieve the required result.
While the need for software integration and a seamless data flow is essential, a forward-thinking approach to digital transformation remains critical to gaining a competitive advantage. According to IDC, by 2024, 25 per cent of companies will have digital twins integrating geospatial, geological and mine operation insights to integrate planning, execution and maintenance. Through a recent collaboration with Maptek and PETRA, mining companies will, for the first time, be able to use all their historical performance and resource data for mine value chain optimisation.
For mining companies to embrace digitalisation and software integration, aligning with credible mining technology partners is critical. These partners ultimately understand how operational functions intersect, and can build integrated, agile, cutting-edge solutions accordingly.
Mark Roberts has an extensive background specialising in strategy, technology and innovation that he brings to improving mine performance by enhancing the processes around drill and blast activities.
EY, 2018. 10 business risks facing mining and metals [online]. Available from: www.ey.com/en_gl/mining-metals/10-business-risks-facing-mining-and-metals
Image: Courtesy Anglo American.