How digital innovation can improve mining productivity

We believe that the mining industry is at an inflection point, in which digital technologies have the potential to unlock new ways of managing variability and enhancing productivity. The large-scale adoption of four different clusters of technologies is accelerating:

  • Data, computational power, and connectivity. Embedding vast numbers of sensors in physical objects—churning out large volumes of data for analysis and enabling communications among machines—is increasingly affordable and accessible. Smart grids can report power usage across millions of homes; sensors on remote deep-sea oil wells cause warning signs to flash at the central control center when problems arise. In 2015, more data are generated every day than existed in total through 2003. Miners already produce huge amounts of sensor data, potentially enabling them to obtain a more accurate and consistent picture of reality at the rock face than ever.
  • Analytics and intelligence. Advances in analytics, from machine learning to improved statistical techniques for integrating data, help turn vast data sets into insight about the probability of future events. Telecommunication companies, for example, use smart algorithms to predict customer churn; retailers employ them to aim offers at customers. Complex mining tasks such as geological modeling, on-the-day scheduling, and predictive maintenance are increasingly in the domain of smart statistical and optimization algorithms.
  • Human–machine interaction. Consumer smartphones and other mobile devices have transformed the way that people interact not only with one another but also with machines. Consumers rely on their smartphones for driving directions, booking taxis, and monitoring their health; applications are also spreading rapidly in the industrial field. One example is “smart” glasses or goggles that feed instructions to workers working on an assembly line or to a worker carrying out repairs on equipment, improving operating disciplines. Another is work clothing that incorporates sensors transmitting data to managers about hazardous conditions and the physical condition of the workers themselves, improving safety outcomes.
  • Digital-to-physical conversion. Advances in robotics are making equipment that is fully autonomous more affordable and effective. In manufacturing, the cost of industrial robots has fallen by 50 percent since 1990, while US labor costs have risen 80 percent over the same period. Meanwhile technological advances in areas such as artificial intelligence are increasing the sophistication of robotics and expanding their productive applications.3In mining, the use of teleremote and assisted-control equipment is becoming common, and deployment of fully autonomous equipment is taking hold in haulage, drilling, and other processes.

Taken together, these technologies enable a fundamental shift in the way mining works—a shift marked both by harnessing the flow of information to reduce variability in decision making and by deploying more centralized, mechanized operations to reduce variability in execution.