Monday, 6 April 2020

IMARC 2017: Diane Jurgens - Creating the Future of Mining Integration and Automation

Day two of IMARC kicked off with some exciting presentations and the opening Keynote was delivered by Diane Jurgens, Chief Technology Officer at BHP Billiton on the topic of “Creating the Future of Mining Integration and Automation”.

Diane opened by discussing how technology and innovation is broadly changing the global economy. In the mining industry, timing is everything and Diane emphasised the need for mining to balance the potential speed that technology offers with the long-term nature of our mines, in order to capture the long-term dividends.

Mining provides the foundations of our modern world: we need nickel for our batteries, copper for our mobile telephones. The new wave of technological marvels that are emerging, such as real-time data analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence present both challenges and opportunities for our industry. The growth of these technologies across many industries will heighten the competition for talent and investment.

Diane has an impressive CV, including long term stints at Boeing and General Motors. She gave a nod to this experience, noting how in both the aerospace, automotive and now mining, she has watched the breathtaking pace of change. The automotive sector has welcomed the advent of telematics and electric vehicles, and technology has allowed them to progress from 2D to 3D virtual technologies. Now, the same shift is happening in mining.

Next, Diane went on to observe that the challenges we’re facing are not limited merely to the business world - our personal lives are also changing and adapting to the technological era: social media is now our primary source of news and social connections; consumers’ electronic changes are raising expectations in the workplace. Ray Kurzweil’s law of accelerating returns makes the prediction that in the 21st century, humankind will witness 20,000 years of change. So, Diane asked: what does this mean for mining?

It means we need to push the accepted status quo boundaries, whilst connecting our workforce, data and systems. We must replicate existing technologies from other industries, and we need to accelerate innovation to make our work safer, more productive and energy efficient.

Diane emphasised there are two key elements that will shape the future of the mining industry:

  • Innovation
  • Automation

Working in manufacturing, Diane learned the pivotal role that integration plays and its ability to maximise safety and productivity. It connects everything, building the bridge between the present and the future. Technology also drives further value through improving the reliability of our decision making.

Connectivity is the centre piece of the technology strategy at BHP and they are currently laying the foundations for fully integrated and highly automated operations by 2025. Diane acknowledged in recent times BHP has been seen as a fast follower, rather than a technology leader. Their goal to achieve a leadership position in technology is now well within reach, thanks largely to their commitment to investing in innovation and the scale of their orebodies has also been a contributing factor.

Last year BHP globalised their technology function, combining research and development, program delivery and operational technology. Their new operating model helps them to apply a systems engineering approach to work with their assets, analyse mine lifecycles, identify constraints and prioritise investments. The global technology function supports 12 core assets, 2 sea ports and 1300 KM of rail network and facilitates rapid replication of the best practices across their operations.

BHP has a portfolio of ongoing projects to integrate and automate their operations, with the fundamental goal of making their work safer. They have recently trialled SmartCap Technologies’ SmartCaps in Escondida, an innovative product that measures fatigue through brain waves. The trail was a success, resulting in BHP implementing them through 130 of their trucks and aligning with BHP’s goal of keeping their people out of harm’s way.

The technology function’s project portfolio is also aimed at improving productivity, through strategies such as better tracking of their supply chain output, minimising waste and moving to the next level of drill truck automation. Their Area C Mine in WA has implemented a system that choses which crusher the truck should go to, minimising the wait time. Real time process controls can improve the quality and grade of the ore delivered to processing plants, boosting the energy efficiency of the plant, amongst other benefits.

Other projects include the focus on maximising the copper output and extending the life of Escondida mine in Chile, where BHP is trialling advanced sensors throughout the extraction process to quickly and accurately detect the quality of copper ore. Meanwhile, at Olympic Dam, low cost heap leaching using chemical reactions has shown great promise during their trials. BHP are expecting to double the mine’s output, to meet expanding demand for copper, renewable energy and electric vehicles. They are also trialling an electric vehicle fleet in their underground mine at Olympic Dam, which will minimise emissions and reduce employees’ exposure to diesel particulate matter.

Diane’s goal is for BHP to manage their operations as a single system, making that system more reliable, whilst reducing spare capacity, investment in equipment and unnecessary stockpiles. They are conducting analysis of their supply chain, measuring any improvements as they move to further automation of their drills, trucks and rail.

In WA, BHP is undergoing a roll out of autonomous drills to improve their mines’ safety and productivity iron ore. Last year, they saw an increase in productivity and a reduction in wear and tear and maintenance costs. They’ve implemented autonomous haulage at Jimblebar mine in WA and by the end of the year they will be fully autonomous. The productivity benefits of these have been demonstrated and have helped to reduce Jimblebar’s costs by 20%. Most importantly, Diane noted, the autonomous trucks and drill fleet shield employees from dangerous situations.

BHP’s path to rail automation has begun with new 4G communication systems and automatic track signalling, which will reduce cancelation due to congestion.

Australia currently lags globally with automation companies – we have 50% fewer companies engaged in automation compared to other leading countries. BHP is working hard at instilling a digital mindset across their organisation, which includes building partnerships in Australia. A vital pillar to their technology strategy is building an ecosystem of partners, many in the METS sector, leveraging outside talent and technology to help them find solutions to complex problems.

Diane listed off just a few of the technologies they’re working on: safety systems; sensors; conveyors of the future; virtual mining and data analytics for maintenance. She acknowledged that infusing technology into our industry doesn’t excite everyone, due to the impact it can on jobs, communities and companies. However, shifting the job mix will also bring opportunities, through the retraining and upskilling of employees, whilst competing against other industries to become employer of choice for technology skills.

Diane urged the audience to act now to address our future shortfall of STEM skills. Many roles in the future will require high level programming, coding and software skills, so government, industry and education needs to invest in STEM skills at every age. Last year, BHP hired 700 people into their technology function here in Australia alone.

In closing, Diane spoke about how technology and innovation will make the future one of great promise, filled with imagination and ideas. She encouraged the industry to think boldly, creatively and to bring innovation to everything we do. BHP are seeking to achieve this by forming creative alliances and rewarding innovation thinking that will spark new ideas that position mining at the forefront of technology progress. They are focused on improving their digital infrastructure, global workforce and enriching the communities that they work in. Diane said:

“We need to think big and play to win, so that together, we can create the future for mining.”


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