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See part 3 of 3 of a paper written by Vimal Gaba (vimal.gaba@sap.com), Senior Director- Industry Business Unit, Mining, Metals and Mill Products, SAP Labs India and Indranil Som (indranil.som@sap.com), Value Advisor – Industry Value Engineering, Mining, Metals and Mill Products, SAP India.

This focuses on 3D Printing and Blockchain – aspects of (Industry 4.0: What’s Next, 2017).  Part 1 gave great details on use cases in mining for Machine Learning – link.   Part 2 focused on IoT and Big Data – link.

 

 

3D Printing in Mining

A decline in mining productivity over the past years has meant that industry leaders are forced to look into newer methods and technology for efficiency and cost. 3-D printing (3DP) is the process of making physical objects from a digital model using a printer. Although still in the developmental stages, the technology is already presenting opportunities in new areas, such as in the custom manufacture of prosthetics, dental products and other medical devices or precision automotive and aerospace parts. 3DP has the potential to revolutionize supply chains by impacting the manufacturing location strategies, shrinking delivery lead times and removing excess stock and complexity from the supply chain.

Mines mostly operate in remote and hostile environments, with logistical challenges in ensuring a smooth in-bound supply chain. With a multitude of vehicles and mining equipment in operations, which require millions of spare part components, three-dimensional printing or 3D printing provides an opportunity to revolutionize the concept of parts availability and stock-keeping within the supply chain. Downtime of mining equipment or vehicle could be extremely costly. Mines today have to bear the brunt of excess inventory, warehousing and storage costs, as well as logistical costs of urgently transporting parts to ensure machines are kept up and running. With 3DP capability on site, one needs only access to a digital service parts library for production of a required part when and where needed. With spare parts stored digitally, warehousing and inventory costs can be reduced and time consuming and cost-intensive process of transporting parts to remote sites can be eliminated.

Different mining environment require different tools, which subsequently makes the cost-effective production of unique and customized items, even in small quantities, the most significant advantage of 3D printing, compared with traditional mass-scale manufacturing. 3DP could also help optimize material and energy consumption by only consuming the raw material required to build the final product, thus supporting a leaner and greener approach to production.

3DP addresses many questions of sustainability also that have become so important of late. Not only would transportation costs be reduced as alluded to above, but evolution of the technology could make the designs themselves, more energy and fuel efficient. Unlike traditional manufacturing where raw materials are subtracted resulting in waste, the process of additive manufacturing in itself sees reduced waste in terms of energy used for production and that of raw materials. It is also foreseen that used or faulty parts can be recycled allowing for the re-use of their raw materials further adding to the sustainability of 3DP.The ideas of usage of 3DP will mean simultaneous changes to the supply chain operations of the mines using the technology. These changes to the point of manufacture, inventory, equipment, labour, transportation, and products stand to be significantly simplified, seeing a far more efficient use of financial and material resources in future. As the complexity of the existing supply chains gives way to true on-demand in-sourcing of parts, operations strategies and policies would need to be adapted in order to ensure effectiveness.

Mass adoption of 3DP for mining operations is still a long way to go. It would require development of suitable raw material for production, economic scale of production and sophistication of printing technology required for products required in mining operations. However, looking at the current speed of development and action, 3DP is likely to advance quickly towards the production of ever more refined products at both a larger scale and from highly complex materials. In the coming years 3DP is one of the technology holding the answers to driving higher efficiency and productivity.

Blockchain Technology

What is blockchain after all? Blockchains are ledgers (like excel spreadsheets), but they accept inputs from lots of different parties. The ledger can only be changed when there is consensus among the group. That makes them more secure, and it means there is no need for a central authority to approve transactions. The question is whether blockchain technology in mining can help achieve greater security and productivity. There seem to be multiple areas where blockchain technology can help the mining organization and these areas are still evolving.

The mining industry is under threat from cyber attacks aimed at exploiting its strategic position in global supply chains. As per report published by a security firm, since 2010, there have been major cyber attacks at 22 mining companies. Motivations for breaches have ranged from derailing an M&A transaction to stealing intellectual property and personal information. As devices become more connected and processes more digitised, mining companies will need to contend with an increased number of network borne security threats.

Blockchain thus allows individuals to sign contracts electronically, without having to rely on a third party to verify the contract’s validity. Blockchain is a digital ledger that keeps a record of every transaction and safely encrypts that information. Since the need for a third party to validate the records is eliminated, it reduces the exposure of data to hackers. Since there is no centralized system, any attack could in theory be limited to the block it has affected, and avoid major, companywide impacts. Blockchain technology offers a number of advantages that includes enhanced, real-time tracking of goods from their very origin, immutable recording and sharing of exploration results in mining research, enhanced means of measuring product quality during transportation and more. Blockchain could be used to simplify cross border payments used in mining and reduced regulatory compliances as well as related intermediaries. As mines operate all over the world, the expense of cross-border payments is a problem for the industry. Blockchain could help speed up the process of paying. High-value metals and minerals like rough diamonds could be tracked from the ground to the seller and eventually to the buyer. This would help eliminate illegal activity and blood diamond trade. The miners could also use block chain to drive ‘smart contracts’ and execute these automatically across multiple jurisdictions.

BHP Billiton is looking to block chain technology to improve its supply chain processes. Blockchain would be used to record movements of wellbore rock and fluid samples and better secure the real-time data that is generated during delivery. BHP relies on vendors at nearly every stage in the mining process, contracting with geologists and shipping companies to collect samples and conduct analyses that drive business decisions that occur with parties distributed across continents. According to BHP, the new system will enable benefits for its internal efficiency while allowing it to work more effectively with partners. BHP believes that the use case proves blockchain solutions can achieve decentralized file storage, multi-party data acquisition and immutability, all aspects that will enhance the supply chain.

 

The Digital Core for Mining Companies

While each of these emerging technologies have the potential of becoming game-changers which could drive the next wave of transformation, the appropriateness of a powerful IT platform with industry specific and relevant capabilities that could fully leverage the value potential is key for mining companies. One critical element is a fully integrated digital core (e.g. delivered today by companies like SAP) which is built leveraging latest technologies and brings together all elements of a digital strategy encompassing the entire value chain. The other critical element is an open platform (such as SAP cloud platform) which enables these newer areas quickly and easily, both in terms of adoption and in terms of providing the necessary required technical capabilities. In this twin mode or dual mode of IT today, these two critical boxes are stabilizing business and driving technology innovations on a common platform in full integration with digital core. This helps in running the business sustainably while continuing to differentiate and innovate using these technology innovations

Internet of Things, Big Data Analytics, Robotics and Block Chain – the effectiveness of these initiatives also lies in being able to generate key business insights on a real-time basis, which is supported by the IT capability to analyse huge amount of complex data generated from the various equipment, systems and applications working in a mining scenario. Today, companies like SAP can support bringing together business transactions and intelligent insights in a Digital Core. A new generation of ERP solution, running in real time, integrating predictive, big data, and advanced analytics, is changing how mining companies work, how they run their businesses, and how information is consumed.

With in-memory computing capability, at the heart of such a digital core, which brings together transaction and analytics in the same platform, we can now leverage data coming from equipment, vehicles, people, meters, sensors, drones and other mining applications by bring it together and analyzing in milli-seconds to generate the perfect recommendation, which can be instantly acted upon in transactional systems via human and machine-to-machine interface.

Conclusion

The mining industry, worldwide and also in India, had been going through difficult times. With variability in commodity prices, related risks and stricter environmental regulations as the key challenges, mining companies are scaling back capital expenditures but with a shift to maximizing value by increasing production volumes from existing operations with improved productivity and efficiencies. The newer generation technology innovations are at the heart of such a movement.

In such a scenario, these technology innovations are surely being looked at to help the mining companies in improving efficiency and reducing the cost of operations. The potential of the various technology innovation led redefined business models and work for the mining industry is immense. It is already making its impact felt by making remote operations more automated, efficient and safer.

While large, global mining companies have already begun their journey leveraging these technology innovations towards ‘digital and connected mining’ operations, this is a scenario which most mining company would and should strive for in the future with clear business value. It might take few years, but the technology adoption would gain real momentum in even the Indian mining industry. This digital transformation needs to be a part of the core strategy in Indian industry and such technology innovations as key levers for redefining the sustainability of mining industry in our country and positioning it right up there with the global peers.

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