June/July 2007

Innovation Page

Connectivity and technology standards for the surface mining industry

By T. Skinner and G. Winkel

As computing and network technology evolved over time, it soon became apparent that a common set of technology standards was required to provide the interconnectivity of new software applications, irrespective of their origin. This flexibility has allowed technology users to effectively “plug and play” to creatively apply different software solutions to meet their unique needs.

A similar capability is needed in surface mining equipment. The expanding use of computing and network technology in the surface mining industry on large mining equipment and for mine control has been beneficial for efficiency and productivity improvements. Full utilization of all potential computing applications, quick speed of delivery, and cost-effective operations, however, also require that a common standard be adopted for mobile mining equipment control and information systems. Recently, a movement began within the North American mining industry to address and improve the situation.

The initiative was based on the following observations concerning supplier-computing product strategies related to mine equipment systems:

  • Some strategies were based on providing proprietary technologies that were incompatible with other industry standard technology available in the market.
  • This in turn required higher costs and effort to develop, implement, integrate, and operate these products to realize their benefits.
  • It also resulted in duplication of effort and systems at a mine, or between mines, to achieve the benefits, and often also resulted in solutions that were unique and not nontransferable to other operations, again resulting in higher costs.
  • And there initially wasn’t a lot of coordination between mines and receptivity among suppliers to address the above situation.

Given the previous, the stage was set for mining customers and suppliers to realize an opportunity for working collaboratively in a proactive and open manner beneficial to all when it came to leveraging mine equipment control and information systems more effectively into the future.

The initiative to standardize these systems had some initial hurdles to overcome. The issue of proprietary versus standard technology solutions has been an ongoing issue in many industries for years. Computing and network industry standards using “off the shelf components” are beneficial due to cost, reliability, systems integration, global inter-operability, multi-vendor accommodation, reduced developmental and maintenance support costs and time, buying power, staff productivity, and elimination of redundancy and duplication. Said another way, the cost and time should be in putting the technology to work, not trying to make it work.

Prior to this initiative, there had been frequent communications between vendors and individual mining companies concerning a more standardized approach for utilizing mine technology systems. Many individual mining companies interested in this subject began talking with each other and learning that they had common issues and views. At the CIM conference in 2005 in Toronto, an informal meeting of mining companies resulted in an agreement to pursue and explore the matter. This was followed by a more formal meeting, resulting in the development of a vision statement and scope, and a communication plan for the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), original technology manufacturers (OTMs), and the mining industry. The initiative was folded under the auspices of the Surface Mining Association for Research and Technology (SMART), and a formal letter to the OEMs and OTMs was developed and distributed. The next step consisted of directly contacting the OEMs and OTMs to discuss the initiative. In addition, technical mining representatives met to develop the originally sought-after technology standards representing the needs of the surface mining industry. This work was compiled into a final report to document the achieved objectives.

The OEMs and OTMs were mostly receptive and open to this initiative. The participants understood the benefits of a standard for mine equipment information systems and were generally receptive with all expressing a willingness to support the work. In many cases, actions were underway to support the initiative, and work was being done to understand the full implications for mine operators. A legitimate concern the OEMs expressed was protection of their IP software control algorithms and related data. The OEMs also tested the commitment by the mining industry to ensure their efforts were utilized and worthwhile. Finally there was also an interest by OEMs to further work with the mining industry and possibly establishing a joint standards group.

Engagement of mining operators and firms was key to implementing this initiative. Because the developed standards for mine equipment control and information systems are now developed, moving into an operational phase requires these standards to be specified in the procurement cycle for new equipment.

Innovation does not occur in one giant leap. It is achieved through incremental steps building on each other with the support of multiple participants. There are some special participants that must be recognized on this initiative: Mark Bartlett and Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc., Elk Valley Coal Corporation, Jon Peck at Queen’s University, and Tom Demorest and the SMART group. Without these individuals, companies, and industry efforts and support, this initiative would not have progressed.

The work to standardize mine equipment information systems will become increasingly important as computing and network technology will continue to significantly improve mobile mining equipment through intelligence, not iron. The mining community has, through this initiative, once again demonstrated their ability to collaborate and make innovative improvements.

Tim Skinner (left) is the president of SMART Systems Group. Gord Winkel (right) is the vice president, Aurora Bitumen Production, Syncrude Canada Ltd.

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