Improving the balance

Operating at the top of an industry recognised for continually pushing the envelope when it comes to export figures, it is unsurprising Rio Tinto would look to improve processes at port. 

The iron ore giant shipped 154.6 million tonnes of the commodity from its Pilbara operations in the first half of the 2019 calendar year and, according to its half-year report, expects this figure to more than double to 320 to 330 million tonnes over the full 12 months. 

With the end of the miner’s supply chain marked by a loaded ship, the last few years have seen it implement new technologies at port in an e ort to improve efficiencies and safety. 

A job traditionally relying on visual observation of markers on a vessel which show changes in water displacement?as it is loaded or unloaded, draft surveying is an integral task in port operations which has long been affected by traditional limitations. 

In reviewing Rio Tinto’s early implementation of technology able to assist in this task, BAEconomics’ 2016 Productivity and Innovation in the Mining Industry report noted there was a significant information gap in traditional loading processes, which were conducted without detailed information on how the vessel was responding to its load and position in the water. 

“The current practice to keep the vessel upright during loading relies on ship-loader operator visual observation, list indicator lights on the vessel’s bridge and frequent radio instructions from the vessel’s chief officer,” the report said. 

“The ship-loader operator needs regular feedback?to avoid consistently loading off-centre and causing excessive and unsafe list. List indicator lights on the bridge give a measure of list, however, it is very coarse and frequent radio communications are still required, which are sometimes complicated by language issues and simultaneous task requirements.” 

Speaking at MATLAB for Resources Industry Innovation in July – an event examining the work machine-learning platform provider MathWorks has done with mining companies – Rio Tinto Principal Automation Engineer Growth and Innovation Troy Epskamp further underlined the importance of draft surveying to Rio’s operations. 

“Draft surveying has a very important commercial aspect to it in that it is actually the means by which the amount of cargo sold is determined,” he said. 

“It is also very important from a safety perspective, because if a ship is loaded incorrectly it can actually sink the ship. Ships bend when they are loading, and if you load the ship incorrectly you can literally snap it in half. 

“To be able to accurately calculate the cargo on board during a traditional draft survey you need to read the six draft measurements on the ship at the same time and you need to stop loading when doing the reading. 

“It takes about 10 to 20 minutes for the draft surveyor and the draft officer to walk along a 300m ship to do their readings and calculations.” 

Looking for a more efficient and safer way to conduct this work, Rio landed on a remote draft surveying (RDS) solution. 

Employing six high-precision GPS units, three sensor packs on the wharfside of the ship being loaded and MathWorks’ MATLAB analysis software, the solution has enabled surveyors to read and act on data without interrupting loading. 

“A combination of the machine vision and GPS system allows us to accurately measure the draft marks,” Mr Epskamp said. 

“By synchronising the drafts in an automated system, the draft surveyor can do their work while loading is continuing, therefore we don’t have to stop loading. 

“Now it is so easy to do, draft surveys do it more often throughout loading, and issues are detected more often and earlier.” 

From a safety perspective, Mr Epskamp said the RDS technology helped to keep workers out of harm’s way. 

Draft marks on the oceanside of the vessel being loaded were traditionally read by a surveyor who climbed overboard to do so, with Rio clamping down on the practice following the drowning death of a second mate who fell off a rope ladder while conducting survey readings at Cape Lambert in 2015. 

Despite RDS simplifying the shiploading process and the work of surveyors, Mr Epskamp said there was still a significant role to be played by human workers. 

“Implementing RDS was not necessarily about making the draft survey itself more accurate,” he said. “It was more about saving time and the safety aspects of it. 

“In certain conditions humans are pretty good, but we find that in worst-case conditions, machine vision algorithms will do a bit better.” 

 

 

 

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