How Digital Tech Is Making Space and Time Collide for Mine Operators

Operating a mine is a logistical challenge of epic proportions. Today, operators are using digital solutions to dramatically simplify the process.

Every mine site is an intricate puzzle made of many moving parts. To get the ore “from rock to dock” as efficiently as possible, operators must balance dozens of complex variables. Information overload is a persistent threat, so mining companies need easy-to-use tools to manage their data and analytics.

To wrangle all that critical information, production managers have traditionally had to chase down many different pieces of manual reporting from various shift supervisors. This hunter-gatherer approach to collecting data consumes a lot of time and effort, and so they end up solving the puzzle for last week or last month, not for right now.

With digital tools, space and time are no longer an issue. Today, all kinds of data are available in the digital mine in real-time, from maintenance to finance to production data. But the richness and diversity of that data can be seriously complex, so operators need interactive analytics to see what is going on at the plant level.  This way, they can troubleshoot and solve problems almost as quickly as they appear.

Here we follow the steps from troubleshooting to deploying a solution in a hypothetical platinum mine that’s been outfitted with GE’s Operations Performance Management software.

Operational Optimization in a Digital MineStep One: Check the Forecast

Imagine you’re the production manager at a platinum mine. The VP of Operations has given you a target of 20,000 ounces this month. You’re two weeks in, and you want to figure out if you’ll meet the goal. In the past, you would have gone on a scavenger hunt, gathering reports from across the operation. Now, you just pull up an interactive screen  and easily see both the current state of the mine and where you’re forecasted to be.

Bad news. You’re forecasted  to produce 17,500 ounces, 12.5% below target. What do you do? 

Step Two: Review the Data

First things first: check how well the operation is running. You look at how much platinum you’re recovering after extraction, how smoothly it’s traveling through the mine, and how effectively you’re using all your resources. The numbers all look good, but despite how well the mine is operating, the throughput—or total volume of production—is still off.

You click into the throughput numbers and notice that the quality of ore from one mine has been steadily decreasing, but you’re not sure why.  You also notice that there had been a build-up of deposits and the grinding circuit had to be cleaned one day, causing a delay. Now you know why your forecast is below target. Next, it’s time to come up with a solution. Your best bet is to find a way to improve ore quality.  

Step Three: Identify the Key Variables

Normally, this would be the moment to brush up on your regression analysis skills, so you can identify which factors are most impactful. Instead, a tool in the software  does this for you. With a click, you see that the three variables influencing production are feed rate, particle size, and feed grade. (Or in other words, the amount of material passing through, the size of that material, and how much of it is platinum.)

On your digital interactive screen , you can play with the levels: if you decrease particle size, what happens? How about if you increase the feed rate? 

Step Four: Connect with an Expert

You’re starting to get a sense of your options, but before making a decision, you want to connect with an expert. She’s based halfway across the world in Illinois, but you both log into a live-feed from the mine to help troubleshoot the issue. As you review the interactive screens together—looking at the same data and video footage in real-time—you both come to the conclusion:  the particle size is the problem.

That’s key information, because you can play with the particle size to improve the production rate. After experimenting with the levels, you find a new balance that looks like it’s going to bring your production levels back to the target.

Step 5: Optimize and Deploy

From here, there are two more easy steps. First, you’ll want to hit the optimize button, which will apply a machine-learning algorithm to do some more fine-tuning of the levels. But it’s the final step that seems the most daunting: deployment.

How do you transmit the details of the changes you want to make as rapidly as possible with the least likelihood of error? Again, the answer is simple. Just press the “deploy” button on your digital dashboard. Messages will go  to the automation team and the mine manager, who will use their own pre-configured analytics and custom screens to figure out the best way to reach that particle size.  

In less than an hour, you’ve performed a diagnostic, verified a strategy, and deployed an effective solution. It’s one more way that digital tools are giving mine operators greater flexibility and precision.

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