Trends in Mine Maintenance Technology
Today, the emerging digital technologies empowered by Artificial Intelligence (AI) are transforming the Swedish mining industry where failure is not an option owing to severe downtime costs. Such costs can be as high as 30-40 percent of the total equipment operating costs
James Cameron's Avatar paints a dark vision of the future of mining, where sophisticated remote technologies are used to ruthlessly exploit a vulnerable community's heritage and natural landscape. The movie, set in the 22nd century, shows humans mining minerals on a remote planet. Expansion of the mining colony threatens the existence of a local tribe, a situation evocative of earlier colonization efforts on Earth. The film has an important message: damaging the environment with no regard for local communities is a real risk. Yet from a technological point of view, if James Cameron and his advisers are right, the future of the mining industry is exciting – mining equipment may be triple the size of today’s equipment, and real-time 3D models of the mine may be in play.
The current developments are gradually heading towards as was imagined in the technological breakthroughs in James Cameron's Avatar, but with one major difference, namely the aspect of sustainability. The mining industry today has environmental sustainability at the top of their agenda when deploying new and emerging technologies. These technologies are expected to facilitate and accelerate innovation and stimulate co-creation leading to effective and efficient decision-making processes, and simultaneously contribute to achievement of the global sustainability goals.
A consortium of mining companies, equipment and system manufacturers and universities has started a new European Union-funded collaboration project NEXTGEN SIMS, a three-year project that will support new technologies, methods and processes enabling a more sustainable and efficient carbon neutral mining operation. A key aspect of the project is to develop autonomous carbon-neutral mining processes. This includes the use of battery-electric mining equipment, full utilization of 5G for optimal connectivity and positioning, autonomous material handling, AI powered traffic and fleet control and collaboration among machines. The project also focuses on the mine worker of the future - ‘the modern miner’ and safety, for example by developing autonomous mine inspection technology facilitating correct maintenance decision-making.
Furthermore, for social acceptability and increased attractiveness there is a spoken intension from the mining sector on becoming information-driven through adaptation of digital transformation in every part of production and management processes.
Autonomous equipment in mining
Cameron´s movie shows a small team of people operating the mine thanks to automation. It seems that protecting the mine's assets requires more staff than operating the mining equipment. In fact, this is a feasible future for mining. Since mining operations imply a degree of repeatability, mining equipment, such as excavators, wheel loaders, mining dump trucks, and so on, has huge potential to be automated, as automation yields cost, safety, efficiency, and environmental benefits to mining enterprises.
Deep mining calls for technological and innovative solutions, and these, in turn, demand new strategic partnerships. LKAB, in collaboration with leading industrial partners, is working on the Sustainable Underground Mining (SUM) project with other globally-leading Swedish companies like Epirock, Sandvik, ABB, and Combitech since 2018. SUM’s exciting view of the future of mining stretches from robot dogs and underground drones to self-driving electric behemoths conquering new depths and setting a new world standard for mining. Accordingly, each company involved in SUM contributes its specific expertise, and by working together, the partners will link digital systems and mining operations.
Dog-bots are useful in this context, as they can access almost every place in the mine. LKAB, Vale and many other mining companies are using these robots as an inspection tool in its operational areas. The dog-bot carries a robotic arm capable of acting with dexterity in the operational environment; it can reposition sensors and collect samples in places with difficult access.
Both performance and the working environment are more complex in mines than in conventional scenarios. This makes the control and health-assessment of equipment more difficult. Condition-monitoring algorithms must have better adaptability and robustness. In this regard, Internet of Things (IoT) provides a good solution to connect vehicles in the mine and transmit all kinds of information to the central processing unit to realize intelligent traffic management, vehicle control, and health assessment of mobile units.
Turning a conventional mine into a fully automatized mine or “dark mine” has several implications for maintenance. First, maintainers are not close to the assets and cannot make small adjustments or perform level-one maintenance tasks, so machines need to be more reliable from a design point of view, and traditional maintenance plans will be ineffective. Second, failure is not an option as any machine stoppages may lead to production stoppage - digital butterfly effect. Moreover, a failed machine may be working in an atmosphere with gases, and it may be dangerous for humans to repair it on site. The only solution is to have excellent PHM algorithms embedded into the machines in such a way that an asset perceiving a potential failure that will eventually affect its functionality may go to a point safe for humans where it can be repaired and restored.
It is relevant to note that Cameron´s mines need to consider maintenance in the design phase, as the RAMS requirements are more demanding; moreover, the PHM algorithms for the operation phase must be more sophisticated to avoid unexpected shutdowns.
Digital twins in mining
The idea of digital twin (DT) was initiated by NASA in 1970. Simply stated, based on input data, DTs provide process prediction and risk prevention in the physical world. A digital twin is not a static model but a responsive system connecting physical and digital systems, with numerous potential applications in industry. Other terms for digital twin are digital shadow, digital mirror, digital model, and digital avatar, etc.
A digital twin or digital avatar is a model of a real system that is coupled with the digital realisation of the abstracted model via data generated by and collected from the real system. Coupling the digital representation with its physical counterpart yields the digital twin. The result is not a realistic digital representation of a physical thing; it is an abstracted digital representation of an observed complex physical system.
DTs enable operators to predict the future condition of assets and prevent possible risks. Additionally, DTs show the effect of real things (products) and simulate their behaviour in different environments so that the company owners are at no risk. It is accepted that the first and most popular application of DTs is to be as Crystal balls where failure forecasting can be performed. Moreover, the increasing popularity of prescriptive analytics in maintenance has turned the DTs into potential test sets for different operational and contextual profiles in order to define the best O&M solutions. A digital twin is in part a model of a real system that is coupled with the digital realisation of the abstracted model via data generated by and collected from the real system. Coupling this digital avatar with its physical counterpart yields the digital twin. The result is far from a realistic digital representation of a physical thing; it is, however, an appropriately abstracted digital representation of an observed complex physical system. With the enormous potential to support better maintenance decisions, leading to better outcomes. Digital twins in mining can definitely provide noticeable benefit in remote monitoring and maintenance activities. Smart applications can upload health data to a cloud infrastructure, allowing for real-time monitoring of multiple mining assets, each of which are modelled by digital twin software.
DTs enables operators to simulate the impact of different design modifications on the global site productivity, cost, energy consumption, and emissions, and therefore predict the future condition of assets and prevent possible risks. DTs also show the effect of real things (products) and simulate their behaviour in different environments so that company owners have no risk. A popular application of DTs is failure forecasting. In fact, the increasing popularity of prescriptive analytics in maintenance has turned DTs into test sites for different operational and contextual profiles in order to define the best O&M solutions.
Given their enormous potential to support better maintenance decisions, leading to better outcomes, DTs in mine equipment maintenance is providing noticeable benefits in remote monitoring and maintenance activities. Smart applications can upload health data to a cloud infrastructure, allowing real-time monitoring of multiple mining assets, each of which is modelled by DT software.
One example from the Swedish mining sector is the initiative and project of ‘Ai Factory for Mining (AIF/M)’, which is supported by LKAB, Boliden, Epiroc, IBM, and Ericsson, etc.
The objective of ‘AI Factory for Mining (AIF/M)’ is to enable a Digital Twin through the development and provision of an integrated platform and toolkit for fact-based decision-making in mining asset management, empowered by AI and digital technologies. This platform and toolkit aim to contribute to the achievement of sustainable and resilient operational excellence in the mining industry. AIF/M will have a special focus on a) AI and sharing of data and models; b) AI for context-aware analytics; c) cybersecurity; d) innovative business models; and e) distributed computing. The outcome from this project will enable Digital Twin and enhanced analytics based on AI.
Metaverse in mining
If we think of the mine as the universe, then the metaverse is the digital dimension where the mine’s digital entities interact. The metaverse is the expansion of DTs. It is not an augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) application. While VR-related studies focus on a physical approach and rendering, the metaverse represents a service with more content and social meaning. The metaverse may use AR and VR technologies to augment immersive perception, but platforms without VR and AR can be metaverse applications.
Importantly, the metaverse has a scalable environment that can accommodate many entities, thus reinforcing social meaning among the DTs coexisting in the space, immersed in that space and participating in it. That is why maintainers have to keep an eye on the evolution of DTs and how they transfer those replicas to the metaverse, as degradation mechanisms, maintenance plans, and prognostics will seriously affect the DT once it starts interacting in the digital arena with its counterparts. Maintainers will have to be immersed in the metaverse to observe as avatars how assets behave; this will obviously have an effect on maintainers and maintenance.
Boliden is already streamlining mining so that production can continue around the clock, thanks to 5G networking. In this case, the first 5G underground network allows greater accuracy in terms of determining hazardous areas in the mine itself and targeting employees who are stuck in a particular area by showing a 3D model of the mine with real-time information.
The mine as an immersive virtual reality universe will become the operator’s playground. The virtual mine will be a place where the limits of reality are simply the limits of our own imagination. We can do anything with our assets, go anywhere and test everything. This will transform our mining maintenance team, as team members will interact with digital entities every day. Immersive virtual worlds will command an increasing portion of their time. In these virtual mines, maintainers will take the form of avatars in the movie’s sense of the word – digital representations of themselves (but not necessarily tall and blue).
Last but by no means least, this way of working will modify our behaviour and way of thinking as maintainers. The Proteus effect is the phenomenon whereby our behaviours within virtual worlds are influenced by the characteristics of our avatar. Avatars with different roles behave differently with virtual entities and modify their decision-making process in a different. This will be relevant in maintenance, as maintainers need to assess risk in a permanent way, but perception in the digital arena may be compromised due to the Proteus effect.
The human factor should be considered in the adoption of new technologies as we move towards the metaverse. Over the next decade, we will spend more time on digital premises – both professionally and personally – with more control over our digital representations. The Proteus effect will take hold. Furthermore, for social acceptability and increased attractiveness there is a spoken intension from the mining sector on becoming information-driven through the adaptation of digital transformation in every part of production and management processes.
The mining industry today is conducting several initiatives to face the challenges of becoming information driven.
The Swedish Mining industry is becoming information-driven and maintenance managers are getting used to data driven decision making and learning to deal with various challenges arising out of data driven decisions strategy in their day-to-day decisions. Their challenges can be broadly classified into three groups-
- Technology-related challenges,
- Business model-related challenges
- Governance-related challenges
As mining in Sweden and other parts of the world becomes increasingly data-driven and dependent on automation, cyber security is of increased concern. These initiatives together make the fantasy become a reality!
The importance of materials technology usually only becomes clear when something goes wrong, such as if a component fails during a production process or breaks under wear. The number one question should be “how do we prevent this from happening again”.
Equipment troubleshooting can be both an art and a science at the same time. If taken to the next level, a systematic approach to troubleshooting can elevate it beyond just trial-and-error and into a streamlined process to identify and rectify adverse conditions. When executed correctly, troubleshooting can help plant maintenance operations overcome work order backlog, lost production, and safety and compliance issues much more efficiently.