June/July 2010

Voices from Industry

Making the right innovative technology connections

By Tim Skinner

Tim SkinnerInnovation is not a one-time event that occurs like a bolt of lightning from the sky — it is a constant evolution of ideas and insights that builds on previous work and capability to deliver incremental performance. There are times when a technology will act as a catalyst to stimulate a wave of innovation.  Wireless networking applied to surface mining is such a technology.

Wireless networking is a strategic enabling technology for surface mining, as unlimited and high-capacity connectivity will instigate new automation opportunities.  These opportunities will improve the performance of individual equipment and operators and, more importantly, will enhance the performance of the entire mine through optimization of all its operating components. Greater benefits are gained from improving the total system versus the individual pieces.

The benefit of networking is the ease and unrestricted ability it brings to maximize the connection between as many components as possible. It is this “connectivity” that is strategic. The obvious example is the World Wide Web.  The strategic advantage and benefit of the Internet is its ability to connect to “anyone, anywhere.” This provides unlimited opportunities to all but eliminate the disadvantages of time and distance and enhances the delivery of business and personal capability, products, services, knowledge, etc. This “technology” has fundamentally changed the way business is done, e.g. banking, integrated manufacturing, telecommunications and retail.

One sector that has lagged behind is our mining industry. Both mine operators, OEMs (original equeptment manufacturers) and some OTMs (original technology manufacturers) have been resistant to open up and drive the development and implementation of open technology and networking standards in the operating mine. The industry has been victim to proprietary, expensive and closed technology solutions by OEMs and OTMs and, to a great extent, the mine operator has passively allowed this approach.

This largely occurred due to lack of operational knowledge and understanding of the benefits of automation and networking. It is not a shortage in funding, as mining companies will pour millions of dollars into ERP (enterprise resource planning) solutions that do not
provide any competitive strategic advantage. In fact, the industry has appeared to have gone backwards — as an example, activity-based costing, or knowledge-based costing, seems to have disappeared. When you are in a commodity-based business, the competitive advantage is gained by being able to “put together” the product value chain better than your competition. Operating excellence is the competitive advantage, which is where we need to improve, and automated technology and networking is a key enabler.

The times they are a-changin’

The Surface Mining Association for Research and Technology (SMART) has, for a number of years, been driving the need and establishment of intelligent technology and networking standards for mobile mining equipment.  The purpose of the initiative is to establish a set of standards that will enable easy and low-cost delivery and operation of automated applications for mobile mining equipment and, even more importantly, for the integration, optimization and performance of the whole mine.  There is a step change opportunity to improve the entire mining performance through effective integration and total systems thinking and management.

A significant step forward was accomplished in Vancouver on May 8, 2010, just prior to the CIM Conference and Exhibition. A SMART industry meeting was held, sponsored by Teck Resources Limited, with a representative committee of mine operators, and the major OEMs and OTMs. For the first time, universal alignment, in principal, was achieved regarding the acceptance and application of common “off-the-shelf” industry standards for wireless networking and onboard data access and integration. This is a significant accomplishment and a move forward for the industry. The OEMs and OTMs must be complimented for managing their competitive spirits and recognizing the need and the benefits to the industry, and themselves. This evolution to fundamental “open” technology infrastructure will provide the catapult for the next level of mining innovation.

The final, and most important, success factor is the openness, commitment and support of the leadership of the mining companies to standards and integrated systems thinking, as they are the only ones that can make it happen. The future is going to bring a wave of new technology and automation innovation that will ride on high-speed wireless networking and drive a higher level of operating excellence. It is up to us to catch that wave.

Tim Skinner is the president of SMART Systems Group.
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