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Build a digital sustainable mine of the future with Microsoft

As the clean energy transition accelerates, mineral demand for the renewable energy sector is growing at an unprecedented rate. Solar panels, wind farms, electric vehicles (EVs), and batteries are built with graphite, copper, lithium, nickel, and cobalt, which means sustainable sourcing of these critical minerals has become more important than ever. Production of these minerals may increase by nearly 500 percent by 2050 to meet the demand from clean energy technologies.1 EVs and battery storage have already displaced consumer electronics to become the largest consumer of lithium and are expected to surpass stainless steel as the largest end user of nickel by 2040.2

To enable the sustainable growth of renewables, the global mining industry is rapidly evolving with a shift toward more efficient, resilient processes. The sector is at the forefront of the fourth industrial revolution, with mining companies worldwide benefiting from process automation, cloud migration, predictive analytics, AI, and the Internet of Things (IoT). The adoption of these innovations is transforming mining to optimize assets and improve productivity, sustainability, and workplace safety.

Prior to digitization, mining organizations relied mainly on historical data to manage operations. Frontline workers read gauges and recorded values and observations on paper forms. Later, perhaps well after the shift ended, this data was entered into local computers and used to update large status boards. Any insights derived from this data came too late to favorably impact operational, financial, environmental, and safety outcomes. It was like driving down the road while looking into the rearview mirror. Digital transformation is now well established in the mining industry and some companies transformed boldly to advance their digital sustainable mine of the future visions. Others followed an incremental approach, often focusing on specific problems. A few started their digital transformations later and are catching up quickly.

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Field engineer inspects solar panels on a wind farm using remote assist with a Surface tablet.

Digital transformation enables doing more with less

A lot has changed since we published this blog on digital transformation in the mining industry. The past few years have ushered in a series of challenges for mining organizations, from tailings dam failures and license to operate, to COVID-19, and supply chain disruptions. Mining leaders must simultaneously optimize operations across their value chains for multiple goals, constraints, regulations, and stakeholder expectations to make an immediate favorable impact on outcomes. Because of this, mining organizations need new capabilities to respond in real time and even predict future outcomes to prevent problems before they happen.

This urgency is felt across industries, as organizations and their employees worldwide are tasked to do more with less. While most mining organizations have digitized part of their processes and equipment, many mining frontline workers continue to struggle with existing paper-based and manual processes. Both business and IT departments grapple with insufficient network connectivity, capacity, and reliability,

Increasing the pace of innovation

Increasingly, mining operations are adding digital sensors and upgrading networks to deliver real-time data for better business insights and decisions. As miners purchase and deploy new equipment, especially autonomous equipment, it often comes with a host of sensors. In addition, mining operations are selectively retrofitting sensors on movable and fixed legacy equipment. Although these sensors provide accurate, detailed, and reliable data in real time, sensors alone aren’t enough to provide the insights needed to transform operations.

To gain rapid insights across remote locations, Swedish mining company Boliden connected its hardware and systems including 500 cameras and thousands of below and above-ground sensors to Microsoft Azure. Using services such as Azure Stack Edge, Azure IoT Edge, and Computer Vision, Boliden can monitor its connected assets and mining sites around the clock. As a result, the organization has gained rapid visualization and detailed performance, productivity, and hazard insights at scale.

Mining companies are also installing and expanding digital networks across their operations and throughout processing plants including a combination of cellular, coaxial cable, ethernet, and fiber. Since mine sites cover large areas and their configuration and working areas frequently change, wired networks aren’t ideal. Larger mining operations are installing wireless private Multi-access Edge Compute (MEC) networks, enabling computing capability on the network edge at the mine or plant site under the mining operation’s control. Private MEC enables powerful local data processing to meet latency, privacy, and security requirements.

Azure private MEC includes network functions, applications, and edge-optimized Azure services to deliver high-performance, ultra-low latency capabilities that meet the demanding needs of mining operations. Miners can leverage the Azure global cloud platform, connectivity, and ecosystem of partners to develop and deploy enterprise solutions as fully managed services across a broad range of computing platforms.

Improving insights, sustainability, and safety

Using data and insights made available over improved digital networks, mining operations can meet their toughest challenges. Engineering teams can design and build better water management systems and safer tailings dams. Operations teams can improve energy efficiency and lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions while operating safely, reliably, and efficiently. Frontline workers no longer need to read gauges and record values and observations on paper forms or in scattered spreadsheets. And all workers have the information they need to know what is happening and what to do next.

By choosing the right technologies, organizations can improve safety and productivity, even when facing daunting challenges like COVID-19. When safety restrictions limited travel and staff at mining sites, Australian mining firm BHP took advantage of Microsoft mixed reality and IoT technologies to deliver support and training to remote field workers.

Optimizing remote operations

Many remote locations have limited data network infrastructure with low bandwidth and frequent outages which impedes exchanging data with corporate offices and accessing internet resources. Mining operations that would like to benefit from the capabilities of cloud-enabled solutions are unable to do so, and mining executives make decisions affecting corporate performance and compliance based on incomplete data.

Innovative mining companies are employing creative approaches for data networking infrastructure like partnering with national network providers and governments as well as local communities and indigenous peoples to install new modern data networks for the benefit of all. Where existing data network infrastructure is insufficient or unreliable, some mining organizations are also utilizing satellites as their backup data networks.

Azure Space makes cloud connectivity and computing accessible for companies in many industries including mining and provides powerful connectivity, analytics, and emulation capabilities that enable organizations to maintain business continuity across globally disperse operations. To operate their own satellites, Azure Orbital Ground Station provides low-latency connection between an organization’s satellites and Azure. Mining organizations can extend satellite communications coverage through a global partner ecosystem of ground station networks and cloud modems as well as telemetry, tracking, and control functions. 

The digital sustainable mine of the future

Clean energy has become the fastest-growing segment of demand for critical minerals. For the mining industry, it means adopting digital technologies is more important than ever to meet this demand while navigating market volatility, supply chain challenges, sustainability commitments, geopolitical risks, and labor shortages. Mining industry leaders are working with Microsoft to digitize and transition to clean in a secure, sustainable, and resilient way. With technology, innovation, and collaboration, together we can accelerate this transformative journey toward the digital, sustainable mine of the future.

Learn more

1Climate-Smart Mining: Minerals for Climate Action, World Bank Group.

2The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions, International Energy Agency.