It is becoming cliché to say that technology is changing the face of business sectors all over the world, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening and the mining and manufacturing sectors are no different.
While traditionally labour-intensive and reliant on heavy, static equipment, smart and connected technology is now showing potential to completely change how mining and manufacturing businesses operate.
From remote and mobile environment and equipment monitoring, to real-time data and analytics to machine learning and automation, there is seemingly no end to the benefits new mining and manufacturing technology is bringing to historically industrial sectors.
Despite technology making hazardous environments much safer than they have historically been, there remains a serious risk of danger in some mining and industrial environments.
Large and cumbersome equipment, which needs to be operative and monitored 24/7, not to mention operatives working in confined spaces, possibly being exposed to hazardous chemicals or fumes, means management of these environments remains as challenging as ever.
On the other hand, more mobile equipment which can be easily moved around an environment, or even worn by operatives, is helping make headway in the battle for a safer work environment, but these bring entirely new challenges, with much of the equipment requiring constant wireless connections to work properly, plus needing to operate in some of the harshest environments around.
Like many industries, mining is being transformed by technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning.
The ability to instantly gather and analyse environmental and equipment data, and carry out real time risk and area assessments is a big benefit to large scale operations, particularly those like mining, when operatives are working in a compact, changing and potentially dangerous environment.
From increasing automation and removing human operatives from dangerous environments, to real time atmospheric monitoring and safety alerts, to more efficient operations through equipment monitoring, new connected technology is having a massive impact on the future of the mining sectors.
But are IoT and AI technologies really the beneficial platforms they appear to be? And what exactly can they do for mining operations?
Traditional worker well-being has primarily focused on improving workplace safety.
Whether avoiding injuries due to slips and trips, or falling or faulty equipment, keeping employees safe and free from injury has been – and will continue to be – a major part of industrial workplace health and safety.
In recent years however there has been a shift from focussing on general safety towards promoting employees’ long term health – especially the potential impacts on long-term health associated with working in hazardous environments.
Even in a legacy industry like mining, data is transforming day-to-day operations, providing greater insight into activities and enabling project managers and operatives to refine their approach.
All kinds of industries, all over the world, are changing how they work to incorporate data collection and analytics into their infrastructure to streamline processes, and inform better decision making and forward planning.
Analytics and data are not new to mining, but faced with rising costs, the scarcity of materials and rising pressure and greater demand from clients for supplies, the sector is increasingly turning to data to improve operations.
Modern mining is all about streamlining activities and maximising operator safety through the use of flexible, sophisticated and robust technologies.
Wireless equipment allows operatives to move freely throughout the mine and conduct operations, while even static equipment is much more technologically advanced in being able to report changes of environment in real time, ensuring maximum safety at all times.
However, while the equipment used in mining has become more technical, the environments in which operatives work in have remained just as harsh and hazardous as they have always been, and the question needs to be asked, can new digital equipment handle the dusty, humid and difficult conditions in which they are needed.
Modern work environments are unquestionably safer than they have been in the past, with the rise of connected technology making it possible to detect potential problems before they arise and give early warnings to workers.
However, despite this increase in health and safety monitoring, industrial environments like mining and manufacturing inherently carry certain risks and in 2016/17, 137 people were killed in workplaces.
Safety in mining and industrial operations has improved considerably over the past decade – and indeed, the last century. Mine and industrial legislation and standards have helped to pave the way for more structured workplace safety, ensuring working conditions are optimal and that operatives are well trained to mitigate problems.
Of course, while legislation has helped to improve safety across mining and industrial operations, it is technology that has played a key role in facilitating some of the more comprehensive mining and industrial safety practices. In many respects, legislation and industrial safety technologies have worked hand-in-hand to deliver all-encompassing security for the workforce.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is transforming business operations across the globe. Ten – or even five – years ago, the prospect of business applicable AI was a pipe dream! Now, however, AI is used across a number of industries, including: healthcare, science, manufacturing, retail, finance, customer service and – most recently – mining.
Despite being somewhat late to the AI party, Artificial Intelligence in the mining industry holds tremendous possibilities. With AI at the helm, operations can be automated, environments can be monitored in real time, machine degradation and failure can be predicted before it occurs, and operations can be streamlined – and these are just a few possibilities.
When it comes to hazardous working environments, the need to balance productivity with employee safety is the greatest challenge and, as should always be the case, safety of the workforce takes precedence.
However, it’s also the case that some of the equipment and protective gear needed to ensure maximum safety, can render operational effectiveness almost impossible.