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Jun 18 2019

Why you need to transform your mining network — and how to do it

Although mining is an ancient industry, with a history that dates back to 8000 BCE, it continues to play a key role in today’s world. The mining industry supplies essential minerals such as iron, copper and zinc for traditional manufacturing, and lithium, cobalt and cadmium for the fast-growing renewable energy industry.

Mining companies face the challenges of working in harsh, remote and sometimes even uninhabitable regions. They’re also affected by unpredictable world political events, constantly fluctuating commodity prices and rising production costs. In this environment, they strive to improve safety, boost productivity, increase efficiency— and also be profitable. It’s a tall order!

In response, mining companies are embracing Industry 4.0, a new industrial revolution that promises the automation of everything through the adoption of digital technologies. (Learn more about Industry 4.0 here.) With these technologies, mining companies can automate and optimize the entire mining operations chain — and boost productivity and efficiency while attaining safety and profitability.

Digital technologies require ubiquitous broadband network infrastructure throughout the operations chain to link machines, people and compute resources everywhere: from mine sites and processing facilities, throughout pit-to-port transport infrastructure and loading terminals, to operations centers, data centers and corporate offices.

The network needs to be resilient, QoS-enabled and secure as it carries delay-sensitive applications and business-critical data. When communication stops, mining activities stop, resulting in massive economic loss. The network also needs to be smart to adapt to mining operations change and dynamic cloud reconfiguration. And it needs to be multiservice, to support a wide spectrum of applications with very diverse requirements on payloads, bandwidth and latency.

However, most mining networks were born in an era when a new network was built to deploy a new application. This model worked when communications technology was primarily limited to narrowband radio such as ultra high frequency/very high frequency (UHF/VHF) and land mobile radio (LMR) plus TDM-based transmission technology. But, with limited bandwidth, these technologies are not well suited to support the new bandwidth-intensive but bursty applications being deployed.

In response, some mines are considering deployment of a parallel Wi-Fi® mesh network to accommodate new applications. However, with primitive Wi-Fi QoS, mine operators very often need to resort to configuring individual service set identifiers (SSID) for each application.

This application-specific network model results in many disparate networks and high operating costs. The solution is also ill-suited to embrace Industry 4.0 to harness the power of automation and cloud-based analytics, thereby hampering future technology evolution. What’s needed is end-to-end network transformation to connect everything and everyone, everywhere, and lay the foundation of digital transformation.  

Transformation to a converged service network

Transformation to a converged service network

Three pillars of network transformation

The network transformation comprises three major pillars:

  • WAN modernization
  • Broadband LTE radio communications with evolution to 5G
  • A data center powered by software-defined networking (SDN)

Digital transformation touches every link of the operations chain. Applications, from automation to sensors to CCTV cameras, are deployed everywhere: in mines, on board mining machines, along rail tracks and in port terminals. The applications communicate with machines and controllers in the mine, applications in the control center and data center, and even intelligent edge compute.

Modernizing the network infrastructure with IP/MPLS technology to a converged WAN can provide broad IP/MPLS service reach anywhere required using whatever transport medium is available: optical fiber, microwave or cellular.

LTE has become a prevalent wireless technology not just for large-scale commercial network, but also for critical industrial networks. It exhibits great potential as a broadband, non-line of sight radio technology for in-pit and pit-to-port applications, complementing today’s LMR and Wi-Fi networks. Furthermore, it’s standards-based, field proven, and offers a smooth evolution path towards 5G.

LTE propagates better than legacy radio technology such as Wi-Fi and proprietary VHF or private mobile radio. It supports broadband speed with QoS prioritization, to provide in-pit, real-time, machine-to-machine communications along with high-definition video surveillance and broadband radio access.

When LTE is complemented with overlaid IP/MPLS services, the wireless network becomes a converged mining automation network and can provide network slicing capability to support a multitude of applications, including machine automation and CCTV with performance assurance and secure traffic segregation.

As mining operations become data-centric, the data center has become a hub of mining intelligence, with various Internet of Things and data analytics applications dynamically running over virtualized compute resources in the cloud, which can be on-premise (in data centers) or distributed in the form of mobile edge computing deployed in the field. This environment enables mining companies to try out new technologies and methodologies quickly. Speed and agility are vital for mining companies to adapt and thrive, and to seamlessly interconnect mining sites, operations centers and company headquarters.

However, this new cloud paradigm requires an equally agile data center network fabric. Today, it may take only minutes to instantiate a new virtual machine (VM) or move it to another location through a cloud orchestrator. However, it often takes hours or even days to configure the underlay network fabric to provide the required connectivity.

SDN has emerged as the data center networking solution to speed up the process. Through seamless coordination with a cloud orchestrator in the data center, the SDN overlay network can respond to VM creation and movement automatically by reconfiguring itself over the existing underlying network, typically an IP or Ethernet network.

Mining companies are at a tipping point. As they strive to boost productivity and efficiency, attain safety and ecosustainability, and deliver higher shareholder value, they need to reimagine their operations paradigms and embrace new digital innovations and technologies. Fundamental to the new paradigms is a revamped and transformed network infrastructure that delivers information when and where needed without compromise.

To learn more about mining networks transformation, read the white paper “Reimagine mining networks for Industry 4.0.”

Share your thoughts on this topic by joining the Twitter discussion with @nokiaindustries using #LTE #SDN #missioncritical #industry40 #mining #cloud

About Hansen Chan

Hansen Chan is senior marketing manager for the IP product portfolio at Nokia with a special focus on industries. With over 25 years of protocol testing, network consulting and product management experience, he’s a go-to speaker at international industry conferences. When he’s not talking networks, he’s reading up on history and religion, and listening to Baroque and 20th century classical music.

Tweet him @hchan888