Wednesday, 29 January 2014 13:12

‘Powerful role’ for data analytics in mining sector

By *Garry Mahoney
Garry Mahoney, Pacific Director Honeywell Process Solutions Garry Mahoney, Pacific Director Honeywell Process Solutions

It is well known in the IT industry that effectively harnessing big data in traditional enterprises can lead to significant business gains. In fact, data visualisation and business intelligence is helping a wide range of industries to make smarter, faster and more effective decisions – in sectors as diverse as healthcare and telecommunications, to retail and education.

But perhaps less well understood, even today, is the powerful role that data analytics can play in Australia’s leading resources industries, such as mining.

While sometimes referred to as the dinosaurs of IT adoption, it’s certainly true that mining companies may have previously seen less of an imperative to adopt the latest IT infrastructure. With little change to their methods of extraction and production over the decades, the drive to remain competitive, which has haunted other industries, has been almost completely absent.

However, following the global financial crisis our customers are now seeing unprecedented cost pressures. A higher cost of doing business, falling commodity prices and shortages in skilled labour are all contributing to a demand to return to pre-GFC operating costs. In some cases, that can mean a 25 per cent reduction in spend.

In this kind of environment, the use of data to provide a complete view of the enterprise becomes increasingly important. A report produced by Deloitte at the end of 2012 predicted that better use of technology systems would be one of the top issues facing miners in 2013, in order for them to mitigate the challenges of cost pressures and a lack of skilled resources.

Part of the solution to this problem is the enterprise data management system, which can give companies a much deeper view of their entire operations. Historically reserved for financial side of mining operations, tailored versions for industrial production are now making widespread impact on a number of business operations. For example, Honeywell’s customers have seen a 4-6 per cent increase in productivity and at the same time 2-4 per cent increase in operating margins.

Typically, mining companies often use dozens of applications and hundreds of spreadsheets to manage complex production operations, monitor processes and make operating decisions. These systems can often be isolated, or may be connected but with complex, bespoke interfaces that make it difficult to maintain data integrity.

It is the ability to see, understand and act on data relationships that is key to creating a competitive advantage in this industry. That’s why companies should consider adopting systems that move beyond simple data access and display, to provide context and a unified view of data assets. For the first time it’s possible to harness data from everywhere, and deliver it to everyone so collaboration can occur across business units and the right actions can be taken to achieve operational excellence.

Enterprise data management systems allow data to be pulled from any source, including manufacturing execution systems, control systems or historians. They use tools that help to describe how some data relates to other data, and in what context. Through the system engines and components provided, raw data can then be turned into information. And at mine sites seeing increased automation of processes, information can often come from millions of measurement points. Being able to distil that data and present it in a meaningful way to the relevant people is vital.

Making data meaningful may mean different things to different customers. But as a first step, organisations using such systems can trend data, analyse it and turn it into key performance indicators so they know which parts of the operation need to be of focus or improved upon. Greater visualisation and collaboration can help to break down the functional silos that often exist within organisations. It can link information to the web and other collaboration tools, so information can be shared and discussed with peers, leading to faster resolution and greater accountability.

Operators can also use asset management tools to look at the state of their equipment, better plan for predictive maintenance and reduce costly downtime. For example, each square in a selected workflow sheet might represent one a truck in an operation. By clicking on it, an operator can be presented with information about the oil level and operating temperature for the engine on that truck. This information can then be used to predict maintenance intervals, and by having the necessary parts ready, downtime can be minimised. This kind of approach can be applied to various other aspects of a company’s operations.

Another application could be linking operations in a pit to the process plant. If a piece of equipment drops out of operation, the system can calculate how this will impact the other equipment and production levels at that mine site. Asset management can also link to the overall planning and delivery of a product. This way, at the end of the month a company
won’t have to go back and analyse why they may have missed production target – they know in advance why it is going to happen and can prepare and plan accordingly.

The industry is now at a crossroads, where enterprise data management tools are no longer being applied to just the office environment, but across the entire extraction and production process. Deploying technology in this way can provide operators with a complete picture of the business, leading to notable productivity gains and a significant reduction in operational expenditure. Bringing mines to the forefront of technology adoption, they are empowering businesses to make effective and impactful decisions, creating a real step-change in operations management.

*Garry Mahoney is Pacific Director of Honeywell Process Solutions

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