The spread of COVID-19 has seen many organisations globally embrace ‘remote work’ as a way of keeping personnel safe during these unprecedented times.
Automation and Remote Operating Centres (ROC) have been around for some time, streamlining operations, improving productivity and safety, and reducing costs.
Rio Tinto was one of the early adopters of remote operation centres, introducing the world’s first fully autonomous haul trucks at its Pilbara iron ore operations in 2008 followed by the launch of an automated hub in Perth, WA in June 2010, which controlled its rail systems, infrastructure facilities and port operations, 1500km away from the site.
In July 2013, BHP followed suit, opening an automated ROC in Perth for its seven Pilbara mines. And today all the major players globally have introduced similar ROCs to their operations.
As an underground mining technology provider, it has been an exciting time to be a part of the industry as we develop hardware and software solutions that help our mining partners through this digital transition.
What’s been particularly interesting over the last 12 months, has been the renewed interest in these remote operating centres and how they can be better managed to maximise efficiencies and reduce the number of personnel required on site at a time.
In a recent report, McKinsey & Company confirmed MST Global’s observations, citing in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, mining executives had shown a greater interest in ROCs to unlock further value for their operations.
“As mining companies seek to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and act to safeguard employees, some have started to relocate around 15–20 per cent of their on-site workforce by setting up ‘control towers’ to facilitate remote working (especially for non-frontline roles like subject-matter experts),” McKinsey & Company stated.
“This is helping the industry develop more resilient, responsive, and flexible operating models suited to an increasingly uncertain environment.”
MST Global have seen this firsthand, with many of our existing and new clients reaching out to MST to assist in streamlining their operations and looking at ways to effectively increase remote work capabilities.
MST Global CEO Haydn Roberts said the discussion has also centred on the transition to a smart mine, where systems and processes in place on-site work together to unlock greater value for ROCs.
“COVID has really focused our minds on the importance of having enough bandwidth underground and adopting IOT and digitalisation strategies so we can have a smart mine where our sensors and video cameras are connected, and we can operate in a remote way,” Mr Roberts said.
“Remote operation centres have become really key because of all those things, so that’s driving the change.”
Remote Operating Centres: The Challenges
While ROCs have been around for some time, mining companies were still in the early stages of this digital transformation, continuously looking at ways to improve to deliver on objectives.
“Some companies have implemented cloud-based systems that aggregate site data into a single data lake that can be accessed, analysed, and visualised for decision support, creating a “room of screens”; other companies manage and actively control plant automation systems, fleet management systems, and remote-controlled machines from the ROC,” McKinsey & Company stated.
“The most sophisticated companies manage all these functions on a larger geographic scale, covering the value chain from end to end, optimizing post-processed ore logistics and port facilities used by multiple mine sites within a region, with regional parts and supply warehouses monitored across multiple assets for supply-chain optimization.”
McKinsey said while the technology adoption was “the easy part”, its research revealed a common challenge: “insufficient emphasis on and investment in developing a robust change-management strategy and subsequent implementation.”
It highlighted the importance for leaders to set clear expectations of bottom-line impacts from ROCs to measure value, and the need for a new decision-making structure to allow ROCs to reach their full potential.
“Without a new mandate, a new way of working, and a new decision-making structure, the ROC staff will struggle to capture the frontline team’s attention. And, although the ROC is implemented and functional, it never reaches full potential for value. Without a conscious focus on organization, a ROC can be counterproductive, creating redundant organizational structures,” the report stated.
It added careful consideration must also be given to data and systems reliability, location of primary physical storage infrastructure, back-up systems, and having a robust cybersecurity approach to protect ROCs from potential threats.
“These decisions can impact connectivity, bandwidth, and latency, each of which must be sufficient to enable the ROC to effectively control on-site operations in real-time: for example, adjustment of plant processing parameters or remote control of mobile equipment and process optimization tools, such as machine-learning algorithms,” it stated.
“With the right technology foundation, the ROC can function as the analytical centre of excellence, setting data standards, creating and updating analytical optimization models, building analytics capability, and driving partnerships to codevelop solutions aligned with the new planning process for optimizing site-level profit. Such actions can move the organization toward new ways of thinking about hierarchy, decision rights, and ways of working.”
Digitalisation: What this means for Jobs
There was also the issue of jobs, and how transitioning to autonomous operations and remote operating centres will impact workers on site.
CEO Mr Roberts said from his experience so far with ROCs, this wasn’t something the industry should be too concerned about.
“I know some people talk about a fear that we’re going to take people out of mining and people will lose jobs. I actually see the exact opposite of that. I think it’s going to bring more people together in more meaningful work, more productive relationships,” Mr Roberts said.
“We’ll focus on things that will bring a new lease of life to mines. Yes, we’ll remove people out of harm’s way and perhaps machines, but the amount of upside there is to actually work with these solutions- from AI to big data analysis to automating and adopting more smart sensors, this is going to create a more interesting future for a lot of people.
“Mining is not going away. We obviously have to adapt it and change it to these new technologies and solutions that we have available. The people that we’re bringing into this industry expect that.”
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