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First published on The Digitalist by Samir Damag

Mining evokes images of men in hard hats, headlamps lit, covered in dust as they trudge through mines. Soon those images may be replaced by ones of workers poring over computer printouts as they guide a robotic excavator to the next dig location.

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Smart products lead the way

The increase in smart, connected equipment presages a changing mining workforce. Tools are shifting the industry from top to bottom, causing firms to rethink business models and processes.

Most importantly, the shift to different kinds of machines makes mining a much safer industry. Workers once were doing dangerous and hazardous tasks in mines with picks and shovels. Today many of those tasks are managed thousands of miles away with computers and spreadsheets.

This digital transformation is changing the way mining employees work, collaborate, and train. They are also changing the way mining firms approach an evolving workforce.

Bonus: Click here to learn more about Digital Transformation in Mining.

Here are a few of the ways mining workforces are being reimagined.

Knowledge sharing

The increased use of Big Data is driving many industries. In mining, it means changing the way data is collected and shared across the organization.

Enterprise collection, analysis, and sharing of information lets decisions be made faster. Dashboards and standard reports get the information deeper into the organization in less time. Information from mine sites, suppliers, and cost centers together help assess return on investment.

Some of this data, combined with geological and mapping info, inform key financial decisions. Staff can better assess whether to buy or sell assets and where to mine next.

In short, regardless of where they are, people who need information have digital access to it in real time.

Many devices, many forms

The increasing power of mobile devices, along with improvements in virtual reality and 3D imaging, will change the way mine workers communicate. Better user interfaces allow for the use of detailed images instead of words. Voice commands and gestures control equipment and automated processes.

Devices play a key role in the way work is done. Smart glasses can feed information to a worker doing a repair on a machine. Work uniforms can include sensors that send data to managers about worksite conditions. These same sensors can send information about the workers’ physical well-being. Both uses will improve safety conditions.

Sensors are already used in driverless mining trucks and debris detection vehicles. Obstructions are removed and loads are delivered automatically. Remote control panels monitor the work and can correct courses on the fly. When needed, remote monitoring staff can deploy other staff for repairs or manual corrections.

Women in mining

The digital transformation is changing the way mining employees work and is making it more attractive to women, which significantly increases to talent pool for mining companies. The movement away from more dangerous and hazardous tasks toward more positions relying on analysis and technology opens up many more attractive opportunities for women. And this trend is already starting to show up, even at the board level. PwC recently surveyed 500 mining companies and found that the percentage of women on boards in the mining industry has increased 3% over the past three years and now is at about 8%. Among the bigger mining companies it is even higher – with 11% of boards being female. Check out the PwC report in its entirety.

Comprehensive workforce management

Like many industries, the mining workforce is evolving. As an aging workforce retires, there are significant skill gaps and high levels of vacancies in many fields. These conditions mean an increasing reliance on contractors for mining firms.

With staff scattered across the globe, there is a greater need for standardized processes. These needs are crucial from an operations view. They also reduce compliance risk by providing consistent onboarding, certification, and training.

Total workforce management systems ensure quality standards are consistent across the enterprise. Tracking employees, streamlined scheduling, and remote training are possible. With training made uniform, the health and safety of workers across mine sites is improved.

Survey says

Let’s take a closer look at how smart technologies are changing one area of mining: surveying.

Mining has an extraordinary number of variables to factor into its decision-making. Mined rock has different structures, value, hardness, chemistry, and density. Precision measurements become critical to success. Small variances in accuracy can have a direct effect on outcomes ranging from output to safety.

Fortunately, the past 20 years have seen dramatic improvements in communication, networking, and sensor technology. Together these technologies have improved the accuracy of mapping. Surveyors gain vast amounts of information in real time with 3D measurements of mine surfaces with laser scanners.

Moved materials can be reconciled against mining plans and designs for stockpiles, pit shapes, roads, and cavities on a daily basis. These measurements let decisions be made from fresh data representing real-world conditions.

Laser scanning has been available for about 20 years. But today, the data collected from these scans can be tied into GPS, color imaging sensors, and software programs that analyze large data sets.

A surveyor today can create 20 3D scans a day, each capable of measuring up to two kilometers from the scanner. Each scan contains 5 million measurement points. Those points also embed time and temperature information and can create high-definition panoramic images. In three hours, a surveyor can collect 1.4 billion pixels of image information.

Software can take that data and, using GPS information, geolocate it. Then the fun begins.

Connected to a centralized database, this information can in turn be shared by many other employees. Reports can be generated about stockpiles, pit walls, and rock faces. The data can be compared against predicted outcomes. Production progress can be assessed on a daily basis with data collected and analyzed that same day.

Conclusion

Technology is shifting the way mining firms use their workforces. Today’s mine employees are plugged in, safer, and better informed. Decisions that had taken weeks now take hours. For mining companies facing a shifting workforce, technological innovation is a must. In moving to these new mindsets, firms will have safer workforces using better data to make better decisions.

For more about digital transformation in mining, visit SAP’s mining solutions center or join a LiveTwitterChat on Digitalization in Mining on May 4th from 10:00-11:00am EST.  Use #digitalmining

The global mining and metals industry is going to come together to talk more about digital innovation impacting the mining industry July 12-14 at the International SAP Conference for Mining and Metals in Frankfurt, Germany. Don’t miss this opportunity to meet with world leaders and learn how your organization can become a connected, digital enterprise. Follow who is coming and speaking and learn about pre-event activities by following sapmmconf and @sapmillmining on Twitter.

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