February 2008

In the loop

Delivering high-speed communications into harsh environments

By E. Sullivan and B. Booze

Advances in the design and manufacture of extremely rugged fiber optic cables have now enabled the successful installation of 10-Gigabit transmission links in the most unlikely places.

In today’s information age, the adage “knowledge is power” has never rung so true. Ensuring that an organization’s knowledge base extends to the far reaches of its enterprise can’t help but have a positive impact on operations. However, until recently, mining field operations were often left out of the loop, as extending high-bandwidth communications into harsh environments often proved to be impossible due to thermal extremes, physical hazards and the presence of caustic chemicals.

Fortunately, advances in the design and manufacture of extremely rugged fibre optic cables have allowed for the successful installation of 10 gigabit transmission links in even the harshest of environments, including mining operations.

Digging for solutions

The experience of CONSOL Energy Inc. — the U.S.’s largest underground coal producer — exemplifies how tight buffered cables can help carry the efficiency of enterprise resource planning (ERP) communications into even the most challenging work environments. Like other industries that operate within demanding environments, engineers at CONSOL sought to fully extend the high-speed communications previously restricted to administration areas.

“We use mining systems that are highly mechanized and capital-intensive and they operate in tough conditions, so maintenance of these systems is a normal occurrence,” explained Tom Prokop, manager of site support for CONSOL. “We need access to the corporate network to allow the tracking of our maintenance in real time. However, it is not uncommon for our main shafts to go down anywhere from 300 to 2,000 feet and then have mine entries that extend horizontally for three to twenty miles. It can take up to two hours — depending on what is going on underground — to travel from the warehouse to the active mining areas.”

CONSOL’s switch to SAP in 2002 provided the impetus for Prokop and his team to search for a fibre optic cable that could withstand the mining environment, knowing that copper conductors would not work because of the excessive noise generated by mining equipment.

“We found very few fibre optic cables that filled the bill for our tough demands, but we finally narrowed it down to the tight-buffered cable from Optical Cable Corporation,” recalled Prokop. “We’ve actually had roof falls bury the cable between rocks and still not lose data communications.”

Safety issues also played a role in CONSOL’s choice of cable. “All underground cables have to carry the Mine Safety Health Administration certification to make sure they will not propagate a flame or give off toxic fumes,” said Prokop.

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