A system worth getting right 

While its multitude of potential benefits have long been touted for every level of the industrial supply chain, it seems getting implementation of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) right has proved a stumbling block for many miners.

Research by global mobile satellite communications provider Inmarsat predicted those companies able to perfect their IIoT systems – a network of connected computers, sensors and machinery – would achieve a 16 per cent reduction in operating costs in five years.

That said, the company’s survey of 125 mining companies revealed IIoT systems had only been fully deployed by two per cent of respondents.

Twenty-nine per cent of the mining companies surveyed were in the trial stages of using IIoT technology and only six per cent had been able to use the data extracted from IIoT applications successfully, with many not able to effectively use the information they gathered.

While IIoT technology carries promises of automated processes, increased productivity and improved environmental monitoring and safety, issues around connectivity, lag between data collection and analysis, data shelf life and skills shortages are common bugbears.

Two-thirds (66 per cent) of those surveyed reported a lack of reliable connectivity was hampering the success of their IIoT deployments, further underlining the importance of robust communication networks.

Inmarsat Enterprise Director of Mining Joe Carr said satellite communication networks could prove the solution to this.

“Companies need to keep mining production going at all costs, and satellite connectivity can play a critical role in enabling mining companies to gather data and operate IIoT solutions, wherever they are located,” he said.

Even where miners manage to achieve good connectivity, lag can occur, with 46 per cent of companies surveyed blaming the time it took for data to go from collection to being available for use for their inability to generate full value.

With much of the data generated through IIoT systems related to real-time operations, its shelf-life is relatively short.

“If mining organisations are not able to analyse this data in real-time, they may not be able to respond quickly enough to potential issues, such as staff being in danger or machinery breaking down, and implement remedial action to rectify the issue,” Mr Carr said.

Data Analysis Australia Managing Director John Henstridge said connectivity had improved to a fair degree, which had allowed for more information to be stored and processed with more ease, even outside of IIoT applications.

“Ten years ago, it would have been di cult to store and analyse such information, but these days it’s just naturally stored and we could move it across from South America to our offices in Australia to start looking at it very easily because of the internet,” he said.

“The big revolution that has been taking place is that these days the same information – or more information – is being collected, but it is being used instead of thrown away.

“In many cases, the attitude is when in doubt, store the data because you don’t know whether it will turn out to be useful in the future, so these data systems start behaving a bit like a black box on a plane.”

Dr Henstridge said analysis of the data generally proved to be the biggest struggle.

A lack of necessary skills amongst workers was quoted as a barrier to IIoT adoption by 59 per cent of respondents to the Inmarsat survey, making it the largest hurdle.

Dr Henstridge said this issue was particularly evident in Australia.

“The skills required include a mixture of mathematics, statistics and computer science,” he said.

“My estimate is we’re roughly training at about 40 per cent of the level of other countries that we regard as our peers, and that’s a big problem.

“I would say it’s something which organisations these days can’t ignore – if they do ignore it they do so at their peril.”

In addition to the required technical skill, Mr Carr said a shortage of labour posed another problem.

“Onsite infrastructure requires a range of skills, from installation and network maintenance to mechatronics and data-management skills, which smaller mining companies don’t have,” he said.

Though this may be the case, Mr Carr said conquering IIoT could be beneficial for miners large and small.

“When we consider that over the last 15 years the average cost of producing copper has risen more than 300 per cent, while the grade has dropped by 30 per cent, the efficiencies that IIoT can generate may offer a cost-effective way for any mining organisation to increase profitability,” he said.

“With machines becoming progressively more capable of acting with little manual intervention, a future where adaptable and autonomous machines carry out the onsite, operational tasks of mining while human employees work in more comfortable and safe operations centres looks probable and pro table.”

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