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How to design your mine automation roadmap: Four key mileposts

Successful mining automation requires a combination of technological readiness, adaptability, and an understanding of where automation will create the maximum benefit. Here are four critical points to consider as you map out your mine automation journey.

Topics covered:

1. How to identify where automation will yield the most benefits

2. How to define your telecommunication network requirements

3. How to build flexibility and scalability into your automation roadmap

4. How to build human-focused change management across an organization

Key Takeaways:

- Most miners need to take a gradual and pragmatic approach to automation

- OEM-agnostic automation solutions support consistency and scalability

- Change management must focus on more than just technology integration

Milepost 1: Identify areas where automation can yield the most significant benefits

Automation initiatives need to be aligned with real business value for the mining operation. A detailed preliminary analysis of your operation is a good first step to identify that value before investing in automation.


This initial analysis should involve a detailed examination of the machines, applications, and potential areas for automation. Based on the macro-overview of the scoping study, mining businesses can more easily identify the "sweet spot" where technology can add the most value.


Instead of automating everything at once, most miners will need to take a more balanced approach, focusing on specific equipment or processes. Compared to more complex machinery like graders, automating equipment such as trucks, loaders, or dozers can often provide a more immediate result in terms of safety.

Milepost 2: Define your telecommunications network requirements

Telecommunications infrastructure is the backbone of automation. As your mining operation becomes more sophisticated, your reliance on the network will increase.

There are many nuances to consider when designing your mine’s telecom network. You will have to consider challenges including access to coverage, durability, and the changing nature of the mine site.


Your investment in telecommunications technologies is also dependent on what types of applications you want to automate today, and five-to-seven-years into the future. So, your network requirements are directly related to the projected lifespan of your mine. Mines with an operational life of two or three decades can afford to invest more heavily in a network that will support long-term plans. In that case, it becomes a question of how to build a future-proof network, and whether to invest in LTE, 5G or hybrid technology solutions.


A mine that is operating on a relatively short timeline of three-to-five-years may not foresee the need to invest heavily in automation. You may only need some line-of-site control or basic tele-remote capabilities. In that case, it doesn’t usually make sense to invest in robust network infrastructure that may take six months to a year to install. But as you go deeper and better define the ore body, your approach to automation might need to change. Based on new objectives, you may want to automate more functions underground, such as drilling. So, to stay flexible, miners need a telecommunications network that is designed to support the gradual advancement of automation solutions.

Milepost 3: Build a foundation for flexibility and scalability as you increase automation

Larger tier-one miners might consider a top-down automation strategy, partnering with a single OEM for the integration of machines and technologies. But even for the big players, getting locked in with one vendor limits flexibility and scalability.


In contrast, a bottom-up automation strategy offers a scalable approach that allows for a more flexible fleet expansion and the gradual addition of automated features. This OEM-agnostic approach ensures that miners can adapt at their own pace and avoid a complete overhaul of existing systems.


With an OEM-agnostic automation strategy, you can take a personalized approach to scaling automation. You also have more power to create consistency when you can install a base automation technology that fits across all types of machines, regardless of the manufacturer.


When it comes to maintenance, with an OEM-agnostic approach to automation, you don’t need an OEM-specific technician to work on your gear. If all the technicians on site are familiar with how the control solution operates, it doesn't matter what type of machine it is, any tech can work on it.


For the people in the operator station, an OEM-agnostic automation solution means all the controls look the same, whether they are operating a loader, a truck, or some other weird and wonderful machine. That type of consistency makes training easier and supports operator efficiency.

Milepost 4: Make change management initiatives people-focused

In any industry, people are naturally resistant to change. In mining, where operations have basically been the same for the past 40-plus years, you may have to work hard to mitigate the disruption caused by automation and digital transformation. That’s why change management is a critical aspect of any mining innovation project. Change must be sponsored by the top management, and the value of change must be clearly defined both for the business, and for individual team members.


Machine operators can be especially resistant to automation. These are people who are accustomed to sitting in a machine’s cabin, listening to the engine, and feeling the way the machine moves. So, it is natural that they feel out of place in a quiet and calm remote operating station. That can be especially true for operators who are used to working underground.


Change management and incentivization can help operators get over that initial skepticism. Once they have the chance to work in a safe environment, where the coffee machine is never far away, operators tend to embrace the change automation brings. When your change management strategy is focused on people rather than just implementing technology, you can create alignment across the strategic, supervisory, and operational levels of your mine. With a unified organization that’s built for continual change and innovation, the milestones on your automation roadmap will become easier to reach.

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