I recently wrote a blog about how Artificial Intelligence (AI) is now being used by the exploration side of the mining industry. My curiosity was whether the application of AI is going to be real or is it just being used as a buzzword to help promote companies. You can read that blog at this link “AI vs The Geologists”.
With the topic of buzzwords in mind, I was curious about some of other technology advances we hear about. Coincidentally Canadian Mining Magazine (Winter 2019 issue) published two articles on upcoming technologies, the links are provided here; blockchain and robotic process automation. As with AI, I’m still curious about these two, mainly due to the limited number of applications thus far.
Blockchain for supply chain
With regards to blockchain, it seems to me the main benefits are being related to supply chains, whether for purchasing or selling activities. Some of the examples given are that one can verify where the cobalt in your phone was mined or where your engagement diamond is from. Oddly though, I don’t recall ever wanting to know where the metal in my phone is from.
Other example applications of blockchain are for inventory management, shipment number tracking, transport log tracking, and bill of lading management. The advantages are transaction speed, trust, and traceability.
Currently there are many ways shipping and receiving activities are being tracked. Hence I am a bit unclear as to where blockchain will provide a groundbreaking improvement. Can’t well designed cloud database achieve the same thing?
Blockchain reportedly has improved security in that copies of its tracking “ledgers” are simultaneously hosted on multiple servers and hence are hack-proof.
Thus far in my career I have not yet had any direct experience with a real life application of blockchain. Therefore it is a bit difficult to say whether it is a great business innovation or a great business promotion. Perhaps some of you have had experience with actual blockchain applications in the mining industry. Please let me know and I will follow up. So far I am still on the fence.
On the other hand…
Robotic Process Automation
We have seen in manufacturing that robotics will eliminate repetitive type jobs. Will robotic process automation (rPA) be able to do the same by completing repetitive tasks for us?
The types of tasks being targeted for rPA are real time data analysis, daily- weekly-monthly reporting, tracking real time costs and progress schedules, or in other words, monitoring system wide process inputs and outputs.
Having access to real time data is important and it is a growing trend worldwide in all industries. In my view, mine site wide data integration is a key to the future of mining, especially when combined with AI, data mining, and data analysis. It is great to have the ability to instantly know exactly what is going on everywhere at a mine site. It is also great to know what went on in the previous hour, 24 hours, or 30 days.
Modern sensor technology is such that almost anything can be monitored now in real time. Will an action in one part of the operation trigger an impending impact in another part of the operation? For example can a large blast in the pit result in excess vibrations leading to tailings dam creep at the same time and is someone monitoring something this simultaneously? There are many action-reaction type events that occur in a mining operation, each with operational or cost impact. Only technology is able to instantly monitor all of these activities, assess their impacts, and provide quick decisions.
Collecting hoards of data from a site wide sensor network creates a dilemma in what to do with all the data collected. Smart cities are running into this issue. Who can sort through the data, decide what is important and what is noise, then summarize the data and report on it in real time? A human cannot deal with the amount of data being collected in such networks.
I have seen companies use fleet dispatch systems to collect gigabytes of data but then have difficulty in analyzing and making sense of it all. Sometimes the dispatch data is simply used to produce a month end production report. This is one example of where process automation may play a bigger role.
I don’t see repetitive process automation eliminating many jobs. Rather it may even increase the jobs needed to maintain and operate the virtual networks. Employment aside, I see the benefit of rPA is having a better understanding of the functioning organism called a mining operating. An operation is essentially an organism with lots of moving parts constantly making decisions requiring emotional intelligence.
Regarding the two technologies discussed in this blog, I personally feel robotic process automation will have far greater impact on mining industry future and its profitability.
For many years we have already seen some application of this technology (i.e. just in the mine or just in the plant). With improving sensors, increased computing power, AI, and cloud data storage, I feel that site wide integrated robotic process automation will lead the way.
In my view blockchain has not yet made the case for itself. No doubt I need more education on blockchain but that will hopefully come naturally as some real life applications are introduced into our daily activities.