Automation can lift India’s mining to new heights but here’s what stops it

Updated: Apr 25, 2020 9:32 PM

Automation and Digitalisation are touted to be the most defining mining industry trends, aimed at enhancing productivity and addressing the challenges faced by the mining industry.

mining, automation, digitisation, safety in mining, villagers resist automationThe mining industry’s contribution (excluding petroleum and natural gas) to India’s GDP was nearly 2-3% in FY19, a sharp contrast to India’s true potential, being a geologically rich country. (Bloomberg image)
  • Krishnadas Manjaparra

Technology has transformed many industries across the world and changed the way companies act. Mining is one such industry that is maturing over the last few decades on the back of an ever-increasing demand for mined resources on one side, and a need for sustainable mining on the other. The mining industry currently faces a unique set of challenges – improving production and reducing costs while protecting the health and safety of their workers, safeguarding fixed assets and environmental conservation. Miners often put their lives at risk, travelling deep underground in dangerous conditions to bring these precious elements to the surface.

The mining industry’s contribution (excluding petroleum and natural gas) to India’s GDP is only around 2-3% in 2018-19, a sharp contrast to India’s true potential, being a geologically rich country. A significantly higher contribution to GDP will go a long way in achieving India’s dream of becoming a USD 5 trillion economy, as evinced across economies like South Africa where mining contributed 7.5% to GDP, and Australia where it is 6.99% to GDP.
Automation and Digitalisation are touted to be the most defining mining industry trends of the 21st century across the globe, aimed at enhancing productivity and addressing the challenges faced by the mining industry.

Innovations in artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and the industrial internet of things (IoT) all have the potential to save the sector an estimated $373 billion and hundreds of lives by 2025 by automating machinery operation, planning and scheduling, facilitating predictive maintenance, improving man, material and asset traceability, harnessing the power of real-time data and analytics, and providing visibility across the mine-to-market value chain. People, process, and technology are the drivers of change and the key to the transformation and future success of the mining industry.

One of the main hurdles while building an automated mine is community resistance. It is quite natural for mining laborers and the community around to resist automation in mining. The main fear continues to be that AI and robotics are associated with loss of jobs. The mining industry needs to take the community into confidence and assure them that automation ensures their safety and improves the standard of living of all stakeholders and is not as an attempt towards reducing manpower. This thought must take the front seat at the start of the mining automation process, and is a particularly critical step for resource-dependent economies like India. The Industry would also need to work with the community to generate employment opportunities, for example, along the supply chain related to the mine or in alternate fields.

Additionally the mining industry is also burdened with a perception issue amongst both women and the younger generations as they make career choices. The mining industry can attract and retain the much needed diversified talent by adopting more technologically driven solutions and encourage innovation in everyday operations. Technology can also ensure a safe and comfortable environment to attract the interest of women to the industry, thereby ensuring that the mining industry is able to attract a well-rounded diverse workforce.

The maximum investment in mining goes into finding the right spot. One has to dig, quite often, at many places before hitting the right spot where the ore exists. The use of fully automated machinery and artificial intelligence (AI) can be utilized to overcome this biggest hurdle – where to dig. Predictive analytics, pattern matching that can process geological data and map it will help analyse the humongous quantity of data in negligible time. While hitting the right spot to extract ore is just the beginning, AI sensors can also help identify the size of the rock, separate ore laden rock from the dirt thus reducing extraction downtime.

The future of mining will be characterised by, amongst other things, Integrated remote operation centres wherein everything from drill control to dispatch of trucks in a pit can be monitored and controlled thousands of miles away from where the physical assets are located. Autonomous electric trucks and fully autonomous machines bring a high degree of safety and efficiency to the operations. Configurable Stockyard management systems can be used to digitalise the complete material handling chain, acting as a digital replica to the physical asset. Material flow can be modelled across conveyor belts and transportation equipment, with material properties and quality information, conveyed via automated data interfaces, to drive operational optimisation.

There is a critical need to transform the way mines operate in India, by creating a digitally-enabled environment that is safe, clean and sustainable, with a workforce carrying out exciting, stimulating tasks. The present and future mining workforce will need to embrace new technologies In order to meet the challenges of the mining industry and reap the rewards offered by a new generation of automation solutions. Automation is the answer to future proof mining operations in India by increasing productivity, promoting the more sustainable use of resources, while simultaneously lowering fixed costs.

Krishnadas Manjaparra is Business Head – Industrial Automation Process Industries for South Asia, Middle-East, and Africa, ABB Ltd. Views expressed are the author’s personal. 

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