Project Management Institute

More than Machines

Mining in aDigital Gold Rush; Can an Old Industry Realize the Benefits of New Tech?


Rio Tinto's autonomous hauling trucks in Australia



Driving the industry's zeal for digital is the desire to deliver an array of improvements: safer and more efficient operations, reduced environmental impact and more accurate assessments about the value and viability of mine sites worldwide.

Four out of 5 mining and metals companies are ramping up spending on digital technologies, according to a 2017 Accenture report (see Digging In, page 40). Tech companies are playing a supporting role. In the past two years, Hitachi has invested AU$875 million to develop digital initiatives for Australia's mining sector. Organizations are launching projects that leverage artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IoT) to automate operations.

For instance, mining companies are deploying autonomous excavators and ore haulers to hasten the pace of production. Last year, Rio Tinto completed a project in Australia that delivered the country's first fully autonomous train journey of about 100 kilometers (62.1 miles) to haul ore. The company expects to fully deploy the train system in Australia later this year—at a total cost of US$940 million.

To seamlessly implement these tech advancements at mining sites, project and program managers must flex their change management skills. The adjustments might range from adapting agile or hybrid delivery approaches to developing new processes for managing a new haul of data to ensuring that all stakeholders embrace new tech. Project teams must help tech specialists, executives and on-site crews alike navigate new ground—all while minimizing disruptions to day-to-day operations.

“It's like everybody in mining came to the realization that we are behind in terms of pursuing innovation and adopting technologies, and that if we want to be relevant in the future, we have to make a change,” says Luis Canepari, vice president of technology, Goldcorp, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. “Now we've had that ‘aha!’ moment, and the industry is pushing to realize the benefits.”


—Luis Canepari, Goldcorp, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada


Despite the C-suite appetite for digital transformation, ground-level buy-in at mine sites is often difficult to build. Lifelong rig operators must adjust to piloting remote-controlled machines, while other mine-site employees such as crew leaders are wary that software systems will replace their day-to-day decision-making responsibilities with algorithms. While the software can provide recommendations for decisions, such as when to create work orders for maintenance issues or when to change drilling-point locations, mine site workers still prefer to have the final say.

“The biggest challenge is building trust,” says Pieter van Schalkwyk, CEO, XMPro, Dallas, Texas, USA. XMPro is an IoT software maker that has collaborated with mining companies on projects to develop tools for remotely controlling and monitoring and managing processes for mining sites. “Some workers don't like the idea that the machine threatens to take away their decision making.”


—Pieter van Schalkwyk, XMPro, Dallas, Texas, USA


Goldcorp launched a nine-month project last year at a mine in Mexico to install retrofit kits on pit drills that would allow operators to control the drills remotely from a dedicated room rather than inside the mine. The team conducted intensive training with drill operators to prepare them for the technical and psychological transition of working with new tools in a new environment, Mr. Canepari says.

“It required some training to show them the new system and make them comfortable with the way things needed to work and the idea that they are in a control room now instead of the pit,” he says.

Goldcorp assigned a full-time change manager to the project team and brought in drill operators from Epiroc, the company that created the automation kit. Those specialists helped train Goldcorp's drill operators and demonstrated the benefits of the new system. Goldcorp conducted a pre-training assessment with each operator to verify that they were ready for a more formal, seven-day training program. The training included classroom work along with visits to the autonomous drilling rig to learn the control interface. Epiroc technicians and the Goldcorp project team stayed with the operators even after the automated drills were deployed to ensure a smooth transition, Mr. Canepari says.


A remote operator at Goldcorp's Red Lake Gold Mines in Ontario, Canada. Below, Rio Tinto's processing excellence center in Brisbane, Australia

“The training got them to trust that this is not about replacing their jobs, this is about making their jobs safer and better,” he says.

XMPro specialists play a similar role to help mining site crews adapt to change. For instance, XMPro engineers help with on-site integration by explaining to mining crews how machine-learning software helps them generate better decisions. But XMPro teams also seek feedback from mining engineers to both improve software and hasten acceptance of the new technology.

“Once they start helping, they understand that machine learning is not such a black-box technology,” Mr. van Schalkwyk says. “The software becomes a decision-support tool, and suddenly the engineers have more information than they've ever had, but they still feel in control. In time they grow more comfortable with the system because they understand how it works and the benefits it can deliver.”


Implementing high-tech hardware such as autonomous haulers or drills forces project teams to assess—and often revamp—the entire mining infrastructure. But by zeroing in on a comprehensive plan for change, project teams are better positioned to right-size technology investments.


“Everything needs to be planned better than it had been before. You can't take shortcuts with setting up autonomous operations. It forces you to be more efficient and mature in your project management, from site preparation to safety and drill plans,” Mr. Canepari says.

Careless acceleration can lead to projects that lack strategic value and won't harness the full power of the technology, Mr. van Schalkwyk says.

“Digital transformation is a journey, and you need to start off with the proper architecture and strong leadership,” he says. “Project managers need to understand the scope of digital transformation, because these projects are different than typical technical projects—the objective is to change the way the business operates. The project managers who are most effective understand this and can steer the project with that in mind.”


—Pieter van Schalkwyk


Javier Cortina Aurrecoechea, digital and business transformation specialist, Glencore, Zurich, Switzerland, agrees. “Across the industry, everybody is rushing to increase the amount of technology they put into their process, many times influenced too much by original equipment manufacturers and other suppliers,” he says. “And one point that is mostly missing is the rethinking of the processes themselves.”


—Javier Cortina Aurrecoechea, Glencore, Zurich, Switzerland

Carving out time upfront for reviews ensures teams take a deliberate approach. During the automated drill retrofit project last year, Mr. Canepari quickly determined that the team had to expand the implementation scope. For instance, the team had to upgrade Wi-Fi networks connecting mining sites to the control room prior to deploying the retrofitted drills to prevent equipment connection failures.

The more equipment is automated, the more stable networks become a critical component of your project, Mr. Canepari says. “Traditionally, you can have Wi-Fi dark spots in an open-pit mine and it's not as critical because you're just using it for human-to-human communication. But when you're working with an autonomous drill, if you lose connectivity, your rig is down and you lose production.”

Even though the project's scope grew more complex, results surpassed initial expectations: Not only was the autonomous drilling project a success, but overall operations benefited as well. Since the project closed and the two drills went online in October 2017, the team measured dividends within the first month: a 15 percent increase in operation hours and a 13 percent increase in productivity, Mr. Canepari says.

“This is one of the projects where at the end, you ask yourself, ‘Why weren't we doing this everywhere, years ago?’” PM



Although mining giants are starting ambitious and expensive initiatives to overhaul their industry, the seeds of high-tech change are planted by R&D projects launched by startups and research centers. Those organizations are scaling concepts to help shape the future of mining.

For instance, Australian mining tech research center Mining3 is developing electric autonomous vehicles that could potentially haul ore more efficiently than current diesel-powered trucks used by large mining companies. A consortium of companies associated with the mining industry, including Vale, Barrick Gold Corp., Sandvik and Caterpillar, are co-sponsoring the Mining3 projects, along with research partner The University of Queensland.

The Mining3 team is creating an electric vehicle prototype project to minimize the need for bulky batteries. The vehicle is charged continuously by a modular and movable electrical and induction system. In the context of mining, the charger could run along a hauler's route within the mine. Vehicles that use the technology would be much more efficient than conventional electric trucks, says Erik Isokangas, program director, Mining3, Brisbane, Australia.

“Batteries add weight. If we can reduce the weight, we can make this truck work faster and drive faster, particularly up hills, thus shortening the cycle time,” he says.


—Erik Isokangas, Mining3, Brisbane, Australia

In June, researchers completed a six-month project to deliver a proof-of-concept vehicle. The team's delivery approach included twice-weekly progress meetings and a Gantt chart to manage the schedule. The second phase will develop a larger-scale system that's capable of hauling 1 ton of cargo. If that's successful, the team will take aim at the ultimate target—developing an autonomous hauler capable of moving 15 tons of ore. Yet these smaller haulers would be able to move just as much ore in one day as today's 300-ton trucks, because they move more quickly and efficiently.

“The potential is significant—I believe there's going to be a radical transformation of hauling-truck technology in the next 10 years,” says Antonio Nieto, CTO, Mining3, Brisbane, Australia. “The haulers are not going to be trucks anymore, just hundreds of autonomous buckets on wheels.”


Mining3 developed a system that wirelessly charges batteries of electric mining vehicles underground.


Mining companies are embracing high-tech tools and systems to transform their operations.




Benefits the mining and metals industry is projected to achieve through digital transformation:



The projected impact that next-gen mining technology will deliver:


Sources: Digital in Mining: Progress and Opportunity, Accenture, 2017; Mining and Metals: Digital transformation and the industry's ‘new normal’, World Economic Forum and Accenture, 2017


Here's a look at the three technologies mining companies worldwide are implementing to realize efficiency, safety and productivity gains:


Artificial intelligence (AI) helps mining organizations explore sites more accurately and more quickly. For instance, Canada's Albert Mining has launched 84 projects in recent years that deploy AI systems to analyze data about the earth at mine sites. The data helps identify the location of minerals so mining companies can pinpoint and prioritize excavation.


Having a connected mine can generate efficiencies and improve worker safety. With sensors and a wireless network on mining sites, organizations can transmit real-time data to monitor equipment and the people who operate it. For instance, Barrick Gold Corp. recently partnered with Cisco to implement a Wi-Fi-enabled predictive maintenance system for mining equipment that can save up to 72 hours of downtime and stave off the need to replace expensive engines. Other companies have introduced connected hats and headbands that monitor fatigue levels for operators of heavy machinery so they can be alerted to take breaks.


From trucks to trains, driverless technology is helping companies haul more ore more efficiently. For instance, Rio Tinto estimates its autonomous vehicle projects—implementing self-driving machines and building operations centers to control them—will deliver AU$500 million in annual cost reductions in the iron ore division alone, beginning in 2021. The company also is deploying a US$940 million automated train hauling system this year.

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