Challenges to overcome in applying information technology in the mining industry
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Mining has several characteristics, uncommon in other business sectors, which pose additional challenges to the implementation or design of IT and management systems that use the information. Understanding these characteristics would improve the chances of successfully importing new information technology and management techniques to mineral producers. The most important characteristics that should be understood are workplace issues, the industry’s dual nature of being a continuous construction project using cyclical factory processes, labour challenges, workplace culture, information availability, and the nature of technical education. These characteristics were taken into account in and application of engineering management. The project focused on the development of an IT-enabled performance management system at several underground metal mines in Canada.
Unlike a factory, identical work tasks in different workplaces rarely result in identical performance. For example, drilling a hole in a piece of sheet metal on one side of a factory could be compared and benchmarked against drilling the same type of sheet metal on the opposite side of the factory. However, in mining, the workplace is a key factor in the performance of a process. For example, ramp development in one part of the mine would be substantially different from ramp development in a part of the mine with different rock strength, stability, and proximity to interfering processes. Workplaces and their properties would therefore be a key attribute when tracking the performance of processes in databases.
Mining is also different in that it is a hybrid of a construction project and rock manufacturing plant. Other than certain block cave mines, most operations are under construction throughout their lives where a continuous construction process is underway to create rock factories until the stope is mined out, wherein the process begins anew. The construction process uses cyclical processes as manufacturing processes. Manufacturing IT and management tools are currently employed; however, the engineering and construction IT and management tools could also be exploited. This would instigate changes in which database tools are linked and how those links are designed.
Culture is a key factor that must be considered when developing IT solutions. IT creates significant visibility of performance and transparency of processes that may conflict with traditional cultural norms. Anthropological studies have characterized two distinct cultural groups within a mine environment. Understanding these characteristics may help managers design systems to use cultural levers rather than conflict with culture.
The educational system for technical personnel is one of the key challenges to the effective use of IT in mining. The educational requirements are clearly defined for what makes the mining engineering profession unique from other types of engineering: rock mechanics, geology, and economics. However, most of the activities of technical and management personnel in mining relate to the collecting, collating, storing, manipulating, cleaning, and analysis of data. Yet few engineering undergraduate programs have a class that covers the use and analysis of commercial mining data and is not even considered sufficiently important for a mention in the accreditation description.
Information technology is often seen as the source for the next great wave of productivity improvements. Technologies developed in other business sectors, such as data warehousing and data mining, are becoming available to the mining industry as the mine IT systems mature. However, the key challenges that differentiate mining from other businesses and that might impede the implementation of these new tools should be analyzed for solutions as is done in this paper.