Insights from Vale: How mines can digitize their monitoring through Internet of Things technology

Mining companies currently have low digitization rates but high future automation potential, according to experts at a Worldsensing webinar hosted with the mining giant Vale. The digitization status of the mining industry, which is currently below that of sectors such as financial services or oil and gas, means companies could potentially use data capture and analysis as a significant competitive differentiator.

Within the next five years, mining companies could be challenged to adopt digital technologies or risk losing a competitive edge to rivals that are able to carry out extraction operations more efficiently. Conversely, mining companies that embrace digitization could see improved workforce safety, reduced operational costs, easier automation and greater data security.

Furthermore, digitization could help mining firms to comply with increasing levels of regulation, improving their ability to maintain a social license to operate. The move to adopt digital technologies is being helped by the emergence of new data communications protocols, such as LoRa, along with remote monitoring tools that can deliver clear and rapid benefits to mining operations.

Why mining digitization is still a challenge

Nevertheless, the vendor landscape for digital tools is highly fragmented, so digitization remains challenging for mining IT departments. One area of interest is the deployment of technology tools based on the Internet of Things (IoT), which allows data to be pulled from physical assets for processing by network-based systems.

IoT systems are increasingly being built with open standards in mind, facilitating interoperability and helping mine operators to future-proof their digital investments. These systems offer a range of deployment options, from on-premise installations to hosting in private or public cloud computing infrastructures. One company that has been evaluating their use is Vale, the Brazilian mining operator.

“We realized the importance of a digital transformation journey back in 2016,” says Luiz Paulo Gama Barreto, Senior Operational Technology Architect at Vale. “The positive impacts are amazing.”

The benefits of digital technologies

The application of digital technologies has helped improve predictive maintenance and operational efficiency at the company, freeing technicians from many routine tasks and allowing them to deliver greater added value to the business, Barreto says. Digitization at Vale is partly driven by regulation, particularly related to the need for IoT-based video monitoring and systems that can activate alarms in case of an infrastructure failure. “Extra data has to be made available for federal entities,” says Barreto.

“It’s critical that we choose technologies that support us in this challenge,” he adds. “Whatever is implemented needs to be reliable and sustainable. We also need to extract information from a huge amount of data using artificial intelligence. It’s not easy but there are many technologies today that enable us to do this.”

Vale is evaluating a range of digital technologies, Barreto says, including connectivity infrastructure, industrial IoT devices and artificial intelligence for data analysis. The company also employs a variety of geotechnical devices and systems. The company’s “biggest challenge,” he says, is integrating the many different technologies under review. However, he says, this should not put mining companies off digitization. “Digital transformation is not a project, it’s a journey,” says Barreto. “It needs to be started right away to improve value and get results.”