December 20, 2022
Over the past 100 years, the basis of the question has little changed except for the addition of the word ‘autonomous’ and a shift in the context in which it is asked (from the miner to the supplier). As with many general questions, solutions inherently succumb to a bias formed through opinion, experience, and perceived influence. The industry has attempted to address it through offering countless solutions shaping the digital and physical landscape of the mine, creating highways to scaleable automation. However, in this pursuit, it has also forced a marching direction towards a new problem where it promotes a dichotomy between interoperability and a focus on the components of the value chain.
Interoperability vs Focus
It is known within the industry that there is a mining value chain acting as an envelope to all major decisions at a mine, yet it is so often diluted by day-to-day operations within individual components. To mitigate this dilution, mines ask for a strong degree of interoperability in the value chain, spanning from equipment control through to data. At the same time, each process and piece of equipment is getting smarter, more efficient, and thus producing more data; all of which can effectively use the context of the value chain to improve productivity and safety.
The problem arises as system integration solutions are developed to be interoperable within this value chain, but consequently lose focus in their individual layer. These solutions individually expand out of a particular focused scope into the wider value chain, creating large yet poor overlap. Simply put, the systems which are solving the interoperability problem are not leveraging the depth or focus within individual layers at a mine. One example is a large fleet management system, which aims to connect execution management across multiple equipment types, but ends up dropping much of the detailed data and control capability of each asset type. This proposes an unhealthy dichotomy between the value generated from highly focused data and control of equipment, and the value of connecting the chain.
Epiroc, along with ASI Mining, has attempted to solve this problem in several ways, and this is one of the major goals of the recently released Mobius for Drills. It acts to provide standalone and focused control and data layers of drills, yet exists as part of the Mobius platform where a fully scaleable implementation of interoperability is inherited. The Mobius platform allows Epiroc (and therefore the mine) to not only combine focused layers of the value chain, but continue to scale automation into each layer in a clear and effective way.
In doing so, this receives the benefit of interoperability while minimising the loss of information and control between each layer of the mining value chain. More specifically, Epiroc can continue to develop and improve the drilling platform with a steady cadence all the way from physical hardware to autonomous control.
Mobius for Drills then provides the capability to immediately embed the maximum value of those changes; both into the most detailed data and control layer for the drill, as well as an ecosystem shared by the value chain. It is likely that these types of shared development platforms will become more and more important in the future.
Decisions in a highly interrelated environment
As the digital landscape of a mine gets closer to representing its physical reality, it reveals the universal truth that mines are a highly interrelated environment. Making a simple decision, such as where to place two assets in a shared work area or the response to a small machine error, can have significant impacts, both upstream and downstream. As more sensors and parameters are added to machines and points of measurement and control are improved, desired outcomes may be achieved faster in one area, but may also often result in unexpected inefficiencies being discovered elsewhere. It is fair to say that most of the time, these inefficiencies are created without intent and never truly identified, but always realised at the bottom line. Ultimately, however, every decision cannot always be made with absolute confidence. In fact, attempting to do so will create decision delays. However, being able to better predict and measure these interrelated impacts is impossible without a value chain perspective. This highlights the importance of an interoperable environment, as it creates the required links that result in shared transparency and accountability of decisions in such an environment.
Mobius for Drills has two ways to empower decisions in context of an interrelated environment. The first is in reporting, which is essentially the visualisation and dissemination of data as information. In this regard, reports are not limited a single data source – this allows reports to be constructed in a hierarchy that shows high level impact across the value chain, as well as detailed drill down into individual factors. This is motivated by the idea that data should be process centric, and governance of data should allow for leverage such that a process can be fully described by all its relevant data.
The second way it empowers decisions is through a shared situational awareness and control layer. This means that a single interface can show every asset in a single area, including their mission status and managing the way that they interface with each other.
Matching change with flexibility
A common misconception in the industry is the idea that mining processes (such as drilling, blasting, loading, and hauling) become simpler with robotics and digitalisation. In fact, they become more complex, as it effectively gives the mine more tools to identify and address areas of improvement. As much as companies may try, they cannot fully automate the iterative process of monitor, control, and optimise. Standard end-of-shift reports and a deviation reporting between long term plan and short interval control will always exist as ways to interface with operations. This results in a constant stream of change, as mines identify new value drivers or constantly find ways to improve.
One of the goals of Mobius for Drills in this regard is to instead recognise that it can help facilitate change. Management of change is a broad concept applied everywhere, but in its essence is a process to control the impact of change and ensure it is positively received. The flexibility of systems to change where needed, in a controlled way, is therefore key. To achieve this, the visualisation and wrangling of data must be as flexible as possible. This must span from changing the types of graphs used in reports, to the selection of key performance indicators and targets to the way that data is filtered. From a situational awareness perspective, it spans from what alerts are brought to the operator or supervisor to the way status is represented.
Case study: Aitik Mine, Sweden
Epiroc recently launched Mobius for Drills in order to pursue a roadmap centred around optimising the drilling layer through unlocking its full impact in the value chain. Designed for small or large operations, and at varying levels of automation, it aims to assist the user in making both day-to-day decisions and strategic long-term decisions.
In partnership with Boliden, Epiroc ran a trial of Mobius for Drills at the Aitik mine in Sweden, encouraging the exploration of the tool and development of key features. The mine, an existing key partner of Epiroc, operates multiple autonomous electric Pit Viper 351s and utilises the full suite of Epiroc applications. The trial provided Epiroc with valuable feedback and allowed the mine to explore the wide benefits of Mobius for Drills. Once the trial was complete, Mobius for Drills (once ready for release) continued to be utilised at the mine.
Mobius for Drills allowed the drill operators to continue to utilise the stack of technology that enabled their fully autonomous drills and allowed them to get even more out of it. With Mobius for Drills, operators could manage drill plans alongside full situational awareness of the equipment. Furthermore, all stakeholders of the drilling operation could access detailed reports that displayed much more of the data generated by their existing fleet. Operators could analyse their shift performance with more granularity and managers had valuable fleet reports to reference.
The future for mining
Mobius for Drills is likely just one of a few innovative applications in mining attempting to push the boundaries of interoperability, whilst maintaining a focus level of control and reporting on assets. The value potentially generated from this approach, and the feedback from the industry in implementing these technologies, will continue to be vital in dictating the speed its adoption.