Nevada mining industry: Technology upgrades setting stage for revolution
ELKO, Nev. — The mining industry is poised for an unprecedented technological revolution.
Technological advances already in play — and those yet to come for the industry in the next 10 years — could be greater than the technological advancements through the last 100 years, officials say.
Technology already has changed historical mining practices, from virtual reality mapping of ore bodies to autonomous fleets to increased employee safety and mine site productivity.
Improving technology will continue to change the way large mining companies do business in Nevada.
Barrick North America this year is working to deploy autonomous surface haul trucks at its Gold Strike and Carlin mining operations.
Newmont Mining Corp. already has autonomous trucks in operations at its underground Leeville operations, and it’s studying the results of a digital assessment conducted last year at its Twin Creeks operations to determine where additional technology might come into play.
Mike Wundenberg, Newmont’s leader of operations technology and innovation, says the digital assessment at Twin Creeks provided Newmont with many different potential avenues where technology could be used and what technologies the company can advance.
Wundenberg is part of a newly created group at Newmont whose goal is to advance Newmont’s operations in the digital space. Team members include employees from the company’s mining, processing, infrastructure and data analytics functions who are working together to advance value-driven technology and innovation.
A peek into the future
Technological possibilities extend across all aspects of mining. A few examples of how technology already has changed the way large hard rock miners do business include:
RFID tags for miners: As one element of a connected workforce, radio frequency ID tags on mining helmets allow constant tracking of miners and equipment from the surface or a central operations location. It’s less “Big Brother” and more geared toward safety — the whereabouts of mine site personnel are continuously monitored. It’s an important safety aspect when hundreds of people are working around massive mining machinery.
Fatigue detection monitors in haul trucks: Driver distraction and drowsiness are primary causes of workplace-related incidents. Newmont conducted a pilot program at its Carlin operations for installation of fatigue monitoring system, which places a camera in front of the haul truck driver to monitor driver eye and head movements to detect drowsiness. The monitors have led to a significant reduction in fatigue events, Wundenberg says.
Sensors in haul truck and loader tires: These sensors monitor tire temperature and pressure, and information is relayed to dispatch systems in real time. The tires on the largest haul trucks easily dwarf a six-foot tall person and are extremely expensive. Constant monitoring of temperature and pressure allows mining companies to maximize fleet performance. The technology has helped Newmont realize more than $17 million in annual productivity improvements since 2014, said Scott Lawson, Newmont’s executive vice president and chief technology officer during the company’s investor day conference last December.
Virtual mapping of ore bodies: Instead of looking at a two-dimensional printed resource model on paper, miners can put on virtual reality headsets and walk through a 3-D model of the ore body. The visualization provides much greater detail about where gold and waste are located.
“It’s fair to say the maturity of technology has improved, and also how it can connect to other systems also is advancing,” Wundenberg adds. “Rather than just having standalone technology, we now can integrate it into our business and have a broader integrated view of how we use technology.”
Understanding opportunities and challenges
Miners are teaming up with strategic partners such as General Electric, Cisco Systems, Caterpillar, IBM and Infosys to advance new technologies in the mining sector.
Take the autonomous loaders at the underground Leeville mine as an example. Newmont partnered with Caterpillar to deploy two automated loaders that are operated by miners 2,000 feet away on the surface. The pilot program has since increased to six fully autonomous loaders.
The benefits include increased safety for mine site personnel and productivity benefits from more consistent operations. These types of partnerships are expected to become more commonplace as companies advance and develop new technologies geared toward improving mining operations and need a place to put these systems into play.
“The key thing is understanding what business opportunities are available and the challenges you are trying to solve or achieve with technology,” Wundenberg says. “We had discussions with Caterpillar about what we were looking for and where they were heading. They had a product they were trying to develop further, and to do that they needed an operating mine.
“It is a pretty good recipe for success when as business we can evaluate new technology and have a partner who wants to develop a product.
“We really look at it from a value perspective,” he adds. “We can’t do it alone, and we can’t do it in-house. We are looking for what is best-in-class and commercially available or heading towards that (commercial availability). (With Caterpillar) we had the right partner and the right operation, and we understood it was an opportunity to advance new technology quickly.”
And don’t forget the workers
It’s a good example of how technology is changing roles and increasing safety within the mining workforce as well.
There might not be operators underground working the loaders, but there are surface operators who at no point are not exposed to risks underground during their shifts. Technology often is more about shuffling employee assets and changing roles than eliminating jobs, Wundenberg notes.
The monitoring of haul trucks and other heavy equipment is another example of changing roles. Haul trucks have more than 200 sensing points that provide crucial operational data, and historically that information was relayed to someone on site.
However, with technological improvements data is now streamed live back to Newmont’s central offices in Elko, where a small team oversees the data for the company’s Northern Nevada fleet.
From safety and employee health to productivity and risk reduction, technology offers many different ways for mining companies to improve their business operations, Wundenberg says.
“Technology covers such a broad range in our business. We really look at technology from a value and operational improvement perspective. We have run a full potential program at Newmont, which is really a platform for continuous improvement. We have been working hard on that for the last five years, and about $1.5 billion in efficiency and productivity improvements already has been delivered through that program.
“In some of these cases our mines aren’t all the same, but they also are similar and bring some common opportunities to benefit from a united front. We are looking at what is available today that we can use and are trying to be aware of what is scalable, how it impacts our workforce, how it defines value, and how we deploy these technologies.”