Mobile equipment such as locomotives are now factory-fitted with a wealth of sensors and on-board technology, allowing operators to benefit from operator-assist and cruise control, up to full driverless operators.
Fleets of autonomous haulage trucks, autonomous drill rigs, autonomous passenger and heavy-haul trains are now operating at scale at sites around the world.
Automating the field equipment itself delivers little if the enabling businesses processes are inadequate. An autonomous operation requires strong operating discipline in processes such as production scheduling, maintenance scheduling and mine planning.
The deployment of autonomous fleet therefore, cannot be separated from an analysis of improvement in enabling processes within operations and maintenance.
In some cases the business process and decisions can be automated, meaning using software to execute rules-based processes with little or no human intervention.
There are a range of techniques to be explored, including the use of robotic process automation (RPA) tools and machine-learning e.g. for automating the response to deviations from the production schedule.
Reduced maintenance costs
Removing people from hazardous areas
Increased production output
Predictable and precise operations
Increased maintenance intervals
The benefits of Autonomous Operations are found in initiatives such as driverless vehicles / equipment, automated signalling and warning systems and automatic event based transaction processes. The implementation of the technologies involved is often complex and requires detailed planning and stringent testing.
The introduction of automation will impact operations in many ways, some obvious some not. Roles will need to be re-designed, new skills will need to be gained, safety protocols updated, new support models created, vendor partnerships developed, and more. Many organisations focus on the technology, not giving adequate focus to the organisational impact and operational readiness issues.
Organisations typically gravitate to the most obvious opportunities for automation e.g. an Iron Ore miner may focus on autonomous haulage trucks. However, this opportunity may deliver less value than other opportunities e.g. automated refueling and drone-based surveys. Organisations need an objective way to assess and prioritise the opportunities.
Automation opportunities are often seen as ‘islands’ i.e. discrete business activities that can be automated in isolation. This is a mistake. A piece-meal approach will not deliver an autonomous operation. Instead, it may leave the operator with incompatible equipment and technology and significant losses between the ‘islands of automation’.
The performance uplift of automation, and therefore value, can only be assessed when there is a well-defined performance baseline i.e. a manned operation baseline. This exercise can become problematic and political, complicated by the fact that the baseline keeps changing and the manned operations improve. This makes it difficult to develop the business case.
OEM manufacturers are focused on the manufacturing of physical equipment. Their skills in automation software engineering may not be as robust as the client would expect. Also, the vendor may not have a strong understanding of how their equipment fits into the broader operating context of the site e.g. mixed equipment fleets and people/equipment interactions. Lack of vendor maturity in these areas can create issues for the automation project team.
Automation requires electronic integration from the devices in the field and needs to be on-board with the office-based systems for control and operations management. Systems integration can be challenging, especially given the safety-critical nature of automation. The site may involve equipment and systems from a range of OEMs and software providers. Without an overarching technical architecture and well-defined interface specifications the integration problem can create significant cost overruns.
Organisations do not place enough focus on the model for ongoing support, maintenance and improvement. This model is critical for the realisation of the benefits. It requires full cooperation across operations, IT and engineering teams. This is a challenge, as these groups may have not worked closely together before and may have different perspectives on support tools, SLA requirements and methodology. Building an effective and seamless support model is a significant organisational challenge.
ATI’s services in the field of Automation Operations are focused on supporting the operator from concept to commissioning and ramp-up.
Opportunities Scan & Prioritisation
Operating Concept Development
Requirements Management, Technical Design & Vendor Selection
Operational Readiness and Support Model
Pilot Project Planning & Execution