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Sep 13 2019

The big picture and the digital mine

Working with different mining customers, I often observe that their operations teams get very focused on point solutions for specific functions, and they treat the issue of network connectivity in the same way. It makes sense given their goals, but as mines become increasingly digital, they need to look at the forest and not just the trees. A mine-wide, industrial-strength wireless network is an essential ingredient for digital transformation.

The need for continuous improvement in safety, productivity and efficiency has created an unprecedented demand for automating and optimizing all aspects of open pit and underground mining operations, from mine to port. This focus is putting the mining industry at the cutting edge of industrial automation in the 21st century.

In our work with mining operators around the globe, it is clear that building a state-of-the-art network is the best starting point for achieving more agile and automated open pit and underground mining facilities and better managing the safety, performance and decision making of personnel.

We are working closely with mining solution providers like Komatsu and Sandvik to ensure that their equipment and applications run seamlessly on our network. The commitment of these major industry players to LTE and 5G communications proves the importance of this technology for digital mining applications. Together we’re paving the way for the future of mining.

In our experience, once the LTE network is in place, customers begin to realize that there are a broad range of point solutions that can make use of it. Applications range from remote and autonomous hauling, carrying video feeds from remote security cameras to supporting person-to-person and group communications (replacing legacy TETRA or P25 networks). There is a long list of potential applications.

The point is that the case for moving to a private LTE network starts to look like a strategic priority when you look at everything it can do as a whole. As mines pursue Industry 4.0-type operations, they need to think about wireless network connectivity as an essential part of that strategy.

The biggest justification for Industry 4.0 and automation in general in most industries is the increase in predictability and continuous operations. Taking autonomous ore haulers as an example, the estimates on the increase in productivity ranges from 15–25 percent, simply because they run virtually 24/7 with none of the interruptions that occur as driver’s take breaks, stop for lunch or move between shifts.

This is one example of many. Complexity is one of the biggest enemies of predictability because it multiplies the possible points of failure. Running multiple networks for a mine, with each application employing a different communications technology, increases complexity in terms of operating, maintaining and securing the different networks. Running all applications on a single LTE network reduces that complexity and improves operational continuity.

Another systemic benefit of having one site-wide network is the ability to share data among applications. One of the principal advantages of digital transformation is that analytics programs can process, filter and sort through reams of logged data to identify very useful insights that we humans might miss. These might lead to workflow optimization or more accurately predict the time-to-failure of key assets.

Having a total digital picture of the mine’s operations also enables analytics software to fully understand the system-level risks and their impact on the bottom line. They can red flag operational and maintenance priorities, whether they concern environmental hazards, worker safety or possible points of asset failure. Pulling all this data together is much simpler when the majority of applications share the same connectivity platform.

The beauty of LTE is that it does so many things well. I’m not making an argument for making compromises on the individual application level in order to realize nebulous system-wide benefits. If you need wireless connectivity, LTE will be a better choice in virtually all cases than the alternative. And combining with IP/MPLS technology can further boost application performance with its service-centric capabilities.

Wi-Fi is the right wireless technology when it comes to day-to-day business communications, but when it comes to operational needs, there is no aspect in which it is ever a better alternative. LTE has greater capacity, coverage, quality control, performance, mobility and security. From the point of view of automation, it has lower latency for time-sensitive applications. And it is much easier to operate and manage. And, most importantly, it is very predictable, reliable and service-centric, thanks to its underlying industry-grade all-IP architecture.

This brings me back to my initial point. Along with all the other system-wide advantages of LTE, the more applications you can connect to LTE, the less the shared costs of running the network are. So, on many fronts, it really pays for mines to think about the big digital picture when thinking about network connectivity.

We’ve recently published a white paper that looks at all these issues in much greater depth, examining current digital trends in mining and the various use cases for private LTE. You can download it here. For more information about Nokia’s value proposition for the mining industry, please visit our web page.

Nokia will be present at the upcoming Perumin 34 Mining Convention in Arequipa, Peru. Join us in the Innovation Pavilion G, booth #1443  to learn more about our solutions.

Share your thoughts on this topic by joining the Twitter discussion with @nokiaindustries using #innovation #IoT #5G #digitaltime

About Gary Conway

Gary Conway is Nokia’s Global Head of Mining, based in Melbourne, Australia; his team is serving customers in the Mining and Oil and Gas Sector by helping them address the rapid changes and developments in their respective markets.

Outside of the office, Gary can be found in the kitchen. He’s a passionate amateur chef; Asian food, especially Indian cuisine is his specialty.

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