Catching Up: Trends in IT deployment and automation in mining

Trends in IT deployment and automation in mining

There is tremendous scope for technology adoption in the mining industry going forward, since most mining companies have been reluctant so far to deploy new mechanised and technologically advanced equipment. The commodity super-cycle resulted in robust revenue streams, which led to players being complacent with regard to technology adoption. However, as the cycle reversed, cost cutting assumed greater importance, which, in turn, boiled down to the need to book efficiency gains on the production front. In light of this, the industry has started looking at various technology solutions.

Indian Infrastructure takes a look at some trends…

Greater usage of large-sized equipment, but small ones still find use

A number of mining companies are now moving towards the deployment of large equipment, as these offer economies of scale and aid in containing operation costs. Over the past decade, the mining equipment being used has steadily increased in size and complexity. Earlier, 35 tonne dumpers and 4.6 m3 shovels were popular in opencast mines, but these increased neither production nor productivity. Thereafter, there was a trend of using 70 tonne dumpers and 10 m3 shovels, followed by a shift to the use of at least 110 tonne capacity dumpers with 20 m3 shovels. The most recent trend is to use 240 tonne dumpers with 30 m3 shovels.

Further, the economics of surface mining has improved (for in-pit crushing and conveying operations), as large equipment improves loading and haulage equipment efficiency.

The trend of using large equipment does not take away from the fact that smaller equipment is equally important, as it provides some flexibility in operations. Besides, it also helps achieve cost efficiency due to lower capital costs and fuel consumption.

Thus, there exists a parallel trend of using both types of equipment, given rising concerns regarding equipment crowding, safety and balance. The growth of the market share of smaller-sized equipment is testimony to its cost efficiency. This has become especially critical in view of the fact that auctions are now the route to obtain mining licences and these entail substantial upfront and production-linked financial commitments.

Demand for technologies compatible with enterprise resource planning (ERP)

At present, one of the key focus areas in the mining sector is to put in place solutions for strategic resource development, resource and reserves estimation, orebody knowledge development, mine planning and methods of extraction.

This has created a demand for technologies such as industrial automation and control systems, simulator training systems, equipment control and guidance systems, advanced mine surveying technologies, underground mining and surface drilling technologies and machine guidance and control systems, that are compatible with ERP software solutions.

Increased use of surface miners

There is an increasing practice of surface or opencast mining in the country. Surface mining offers economies of scale, is less labour intensive and deploys large-sized tools. Further, there is higher recovery of the mineral through improved separation of waste and mineral ores. Besides this, surface mining does not entail drilling or blasting. Other factors increasing the adoption of surface miners include the capability of carrying out selective mining in some deposits and efficiency gains due to continuous operation.

Focus on reducing the carbon footprint

India’s mining industry is focusing on enhancing operational sustainability through the increased adoption of energy-efficient equipment. This trend also aligns well with the objective of higher profitability, stemming from lower fuel requirements. For instance, the availability of fossil fuel additives, such as FuelSpec Combustion Catalysts from Efficient Fuel Solution LLC (USA), which enhances combustion efficiency (by 6-8 per cent) and reduces fuel consumption, bodes well from the perspective of a reduction in emissions and cost of extraction. Some of these products also promise to enhance the life of mining equipment, which, in turn, reduces operation and maintenance costs.

Coal India Limited, the biggest mining company in the country, is in advanced stages of implementing clean coal technologies such as underground coal gasification (UCG) and the extraction of cleaner fuels such as coal bed methane. For UCG, eight lignite blocks and six coal blocks have already been identified.

Re-emergence of longwall mining

With factors such as lower grades of minerals, deep-seated deposits and growing concerns around loss of tree cover and land degradation, underground mining projects are inevitable, and it is here that longwall mining is being deployed.

While longwall mining is an old mining technology, it has made a fresh foray in India after failure in earlier years. Recently, longwall mining has been implemented to produce 2.34 million tonnes per annum of coal at Singareni Collieries Company Limited’s Adriyala mine. This success has led to renewed enthusiasm in investigating possible applications of the technology in appropriate coal mining projects. The method is also being used in mines where opencast mining is uneconomical.

Use of advanced software packages

Mining companies are utilising advanced software packages for mine planning and design. For instance, 3D modelling of the orebody using software products is being carried out. Advanced software packages such as Micromine, Gemcom Minex, Surpac, CAE Mining Datamin and Vulcan are gaining traction. For exploration, geophysics applications using 2D and 3D seismic surveys as well as high capacity hydrostatic drills are being used.

Geotagging of vehicles/manpower

To streamline mine traffic, traffic controllers and radio frequency identification-based control systems are being deployed. The real-time analysis of truck fleets, for instance, helps in streamlining the supply chain in mining operations and helps keep a check on utilisation levels.

Geotagging of equipment/vehicles/manpower (tracked on a 3D map)/boundaries of mining areas has a number of benefits such as alerts for zone violation, tracking machine health, movement of machines and materials from source to destination, monitoring mis-dumps, cycle time and perimeter breaches, etc.

Limited data usage

At various stages of mining operations, data analysis has a big role to play. However, the sector has been plagued by poor handling, accessing, mining and further use of data. Data analytics has been minimal, at less than 1 per cent. As a result, data generated at various mining stages does not get included in the final decision making. According to global consulting firm McKinsey, over 60 per cent of the mining companies in the country have started using big data in specific cases. However, only 2 per cent of these companies consider themselves mature enough to carry out the associated analytics.

Problems associated with the adoption of big data by India’s mining companies include managing the complex and voluminous data generated, consolidating data across several systems and platforms and prioritising data pools to be captured and analysed.

In sum

While the country’s mining industry still has a long way to go in terms of deploying technology solutions comparable to those in global markets, perseverance by mining players is the key. Corrections in the commodity cycle, it is feared, may again halt the long-drawn process of technology enhancement. However, mining companies need to realise that continuing technology adoption is beneficial in the long run, not only in terms of productivity and output, but financially as well.