Over recent years, the mining industry has faced unparalleled challenges. Companies battling increasing costs and declining ore grades are trying to ramp up productivity to meet renewed demand for minerals as they enhance safety, sustainability, and technological capabilities at sites.
Many are leveraging digital technologies such as Industry 4.0 to help them do this, with one aspect of digitalisation gaining significant traction – the use of digital twins for mining.
Digital twins are nothing new, beginning in the 1960s at NASA when a physical duplication of Apollo 13 was constructed at ground level, allowing teams to conduct tests to overcome the problems created following an oxygen tank explosion.
Today, digital twins have become virtual representations of the physical and are created using real-time data feeds from Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) sensors, machinery, devices, and other sources. Using this data, companies can leverage a virtual replica of a system, process or object for greater visibility and better decision-making.
One example of this could be in a manufacturing environment, where a digital twin of a product can be used for a company to understand how new components or processes will impact it, or to gain user feedback ahead of real-world production. Alternatively, a cellular operator could create a digital twin of the network to understand how it reacts to the demands being placed on it by subscribers, to enhance network planning or to better allocate resources.
Converging mining data across the value chain for true digital twins
Today, mining companies can take advantage of digital twins to enhance productivity, safety, sustainability, and efficiency of their operations by reducing disruptions. How they do this will depend on their processes and the goals they want to achieve, but they should start by defining the operational areas that they want to virtualise.
Companies must look beyond their own operations to those across the value chain, thinking about data held in systems from suppliers and logistics companies as well as market data on customer demand. Then, as they implement digital twin(s), they will begin to see myriad benefits.
For example, by accessing operational technology (OT) data from huge assets such as drills, trucks, blasters, diggers and haulers at a mine, companies can apply predictive maintenance techniques. With a real-time health feed from machines, they can see when data falls out of an expected range, using this to trigger alerts to maintenance teams to correct a potential issue before downtime occurs.
Similarly, using a digital twin of operations, teams can make virtual adjustments to processes and see the impact these have on productivity and efficiency, thereby reducing the cost of implementing changes that fail to achieve results in a real-world environment.
As well as enhancing productivity, by reducing the chance of failure – particularly as more operations are automated – companies can, in turn, better protect workers, while also prolonging the life of their huge, expensive equipment. Digital twins can also be used to enhance safety by simulating a range of hazardous scenarios for training, ensuring workers are better prepared for any eventuality without being placed at risk.
Using digital twins, mining companies can also reduce their impact on the environment. By connecting and accessing continuous real time measurements from the soil, air quality, water levels, waste piles and on energy consumption, they can visualise the impact their operations are having and take steps to better utilize resources and reduce emissions.
Looking beyond internal operations, by creating a digital twin of the supply chain, mining companies can reduce complexity and synchronise supply and demand through more detailed, real-time information on inventories, shipping and rail facilities and customer needs. With clear visibility of delivery dates from equipment supplier and logistics company systems, companies can also better plan maintenance windows.
Challenge of implementing digital twins
To access the greatest benefits, companies must implement multiple digital twins that can be integrated. This requires a collaborative approach, leveraging the expertise of stakeholders including engineers, managers, suppliers, regulators and customers. It also requires extensive knowledge of the goals the company wants to achieve, the operations managed across the supply chain and the relevant data required – and, in turn, the systems that must be connected.
With that, connectivity is key. Companies must implement a robust digital network that will allow them to support the reliable connectivity of vehicles and equipment, IIoT sensors and systems, to collect, process and use the data they contain for better decision making. With no public cellular network available in many remote mines, 4G and 5G private wireless network platforms that leverage industrial on-premises edge data processing make this connectivity achievable.
By deploying a 4G/LTE or 5G private wireless platform that allows companies to implement and converge many digital twins and visualise the data they provide in a meaningful way via clear dashboards, mining companies can achieve their goals more rapidly.
Additionally, with a digital twin of the private wireless network itself, now you can monitor your network operations in real time and predict maintenance needs and potential downtime in advance.
The visibility of the network and end devices, the ability for troubleshooting before something happens and to identify performance gaps in the network, is key to their operations to understand how they can best implement new capabilities.
Digital twins: a new frontier for innovation
Digital twins provide mining companies with a vital tool to overcome their challenges and achieve goals, giving them a competitive edge. Implementation requires a collaborative approach, leveraging expertise across the company and beyond. It requires a clear strategic vision and a comprehensive mindset.
Crucially, by implementing a robust, reliable private wireless platform, mining companies will be able to accelerate the adoption of digital twins to achieve their goals more rapidly.
Jaime Laguna is global business development & incubation manager for Oil & Gas and Mining at Nokia.