The Future of Mining is in the Cloud

by Benjamin Weber | on

Humanity has been shaped by the minerals and materials extracted from the Earth. Mining has transformed how we live while supporting an ever-increasing global population, and over centuries, the mining industry has met this increasing demand with fewer resources while becoming safer and more productive.

That’s not to say the industry isn’t without controversy, and it rightly needs to own the environmental and social problems created along the way, but it’s undeniable that the next great transformation – to clean energy – will require vast amounts of the critical minerals and metals used in everything from wind turbines to electric cars.

But the surge in demand for critical minerals is not being met with a corresponding increase in supply, nor will the “way it used to be done” address future needs. While the fundamental goal of the mining process remains the same – the efficient extraction of resources – mining operations have never been more complex.

In this post I’ll cover a little history as I see it and some areas of opportunity where technology can drive future gains. Enabling a clean energy transformation will require miners to pivot from companies with digital operations to digitally operated – transforming themselves along the way.

It’s not uncommon to see the mining industry cast as slow or lagging adopters of technology, but it’s a reputation that’s undeserved. For centuries the industry has adopted new methods, tools, and materials in an effort to improve. Digital computers saw rapid adoption starting in the late 1970s and led to significant gains in efficiency and safety, but this was largely driven in an ad-hoc way at the site level, resulting in a fragmented application landscape with little standardization. Note that from here on, when I refer to technology, I’m talking about computing and digitization.

As cost drivers and the operating environment changed, particularly in the last 5 or so years, this approach of optimizing individual parts of the mining value chain reached its limits, and it became clear that remaining competitive would require more fundamental change. It was no longer enough to simply adopt or implement a specific technology, a change in thinking was required. Miners responded by establishing enterprise-wide digital transformation programs – although early on these were often transformative in name only, instead focusing more on technology standardization and the adoption of tools already widespread in other industries.

Importantly, these programs started driving an understanding that digital transformation is more than a new dashboard or daily report – it’s a change in culture that enables innovation. This is a difficult change for an industry that’s built on managing risk through rigorous process, requiring a whole of business response that touches on every aspect of how an organization is structured and operates.

There’s no doubt that the term digital transformation is widely overused and meaningless without context. I like this post from Mark Schwartz, in which he proposes eight mental models for digital transformation and I’ve no doubt these would resonate with any mine operator. What a digital transformation is will be different for different for every business and may change over time.

This brings us to today, where much of the imperative to change is being driven from outside of the industry in areas such as environmental & social responsibility, lower quality reserves, and increased regulation. Remaining competitive means fundamental change in how mines operate.

Areas of Opportunity

Technology either leads or enables countless initiatives currently underway and it’d be impossible to mention them all; rather, I thought I’d elaborate on a few that are highly visible and present significant opportunity.

  • Enhanced ore body knowledge
  • Interoperability & automation
  • Zero-emissions mining
  • Social value & license to operate

Enhanced Ore Body Knowledge

Traditional exploration techniques are costly, slow, and provide a limited view of the nature of the deposit. New discoveries are often located in remote areas and/or deep underground. The quality of many deposits has fallen, and uncertainty exists right up until material is removed from the ground. As a result, risk accumulates from the earliest stages of a project and suboptimal design decisions may be made to accommodate it.

Combining multiple sources of data such as satellite imagery, gravity survey, hyperspectral imaging, and even the observed behavior of subatomic particles as they travel through the earth will allow for potential deposits to be identified and assessed more quickly. Shrinking exploration budgets can be stretched further before expensive drilling is started. Earlier understanding of deposits will allow for more detailed planning and optimization of downstream process design.

The creation of whole-of-mine digital twins will allow real-time simulation and analysis of various planning scenarios, and activities that were traditionally carried out once or twice a year, such as ore body domain modelling, will be reduced to minutes. More accurate models allow for better planning, ultimately leading to improved recovery and potentially reduced environmental and social impacts.

Interoperability & Automation

Operating a mine is about making decisions – lots of them. From the tactical that may determine which bin of the crusher to use, to long term plans sequencing activities that won’t occur for decades, these decisions can only be made using the best information available at the time. Today, this often involves an incomplete operating picture of the mine and a limited understanding of their impact throughout the rest of the value chain. The data driving these decisions is often compartmentalized in various line-of-business applications that have fragile and poorly defined interface boundaries. Current integration methods can result in issues with data quality and timeliness, eroding its value and contributing to sub-optimal outcomes.

Interoperability will build a foundation for integration that enables real-time data sharing in a robust and reliable manner, underpinning future optimization efforts and enabling automated decision making. Embracing interoperability will promote a diverse ecosystem, allowing for the best tools to be used for the job while seamlessly integrating into and supporting the broader technology environment.

Zero-emissions Mining

To reduce emissions, you first need to understand how and where they’re being generated. Tracking emissions across the mining process requires the capture and processing of vast amounts of data, and as the focus widens from understanding the direct impact to lifecycle impact the data will continue to grow. Greater transparency of emissions contributions to downstream industries and products will pose new challenges to the sharing of this data and guaranteeing its integrity throughout the value chain.

System wide analysis and simulation will allow for the selection of optimal emissions reduction strategies, influencing every aspect of a mine’s design and operation. Electrical infrastructure, generation, and storage will need to be considered as interdependent with mine operations rather than static external inputs. Modern equipment is inherently more data dense, but the data they generate is of little value when viewed in isolation. All of this data needs to become part of the larger optimization problem – one that’ll need to be solved more frequently and in less time.

Social License to Operate

Securing and maintaining social license to operate is more important than ever. In some ways it’s a result of the outcome of other activities – such as preventing a dam failure or awareness of protected lands. In others, it’s direct action and meaningful collaboration with stakeholders and being cognizant of change. There’s no technology solution to earning the trust of the communities in which we operate – it’s another transformation that the industry needs to make, and one in which technology will play a huge part.

So, what about the cloud? The initiatives above all share some common technology themes – the need to capture, store, and process massive amounts of structured & unstructured data, increasing demand for high performance compute capability, and ubiquitous connectivity, just to name a few.

More importantly, they need the industry to take a new approach to innovation – to create a culture that can imagine the art of the possible, that’s willing to experiment and learn from failure, and be ready to build its future together with its partners.

Amazon Web Services brings new capabilities required to enable this transformation. In future posts I’ll talk more about how cloud relates to technology capability, how it powers our Partner’s solutions, and how our customers are using it to mine more efficiently, safely, and sustainably.