November 14, 2018, 3:57 pm

Technology Trends and Challenges for Asset Management

Written by: Sandy Dunn - Managing Director, Assetivity | November 5, 2018

Why we need to move beyond point solutions to a more strategic & holistic approach

Last week I attended the IMARC conference in Melbourne which is Australia’s largest Mining conference.  With four streams over three days, a stellar speaker line-up of senior executives from mining companies and suppliers to the industry and a large trade-show, it was a great opportunity to hear and learn about the latest industry trends.  While the conference was industry-specific, I believe that the messages and trends are mostly universal.

The key messages that I got from the conference (with a focus on Asset Management and Operations Improvement, which is clearly the area of most relevance to Assetivity and our clients) were:

  • The industry needs to reimagine itself if it wishes to gain greater community acceptance and be recognised as an industry that people want to work in. To some extent this is already happening, but more on that later.
  • New technologies are fundamentally changing the way that the industry operates. While automation is grabbing the headlines (driverless haul trucks, autonomous trains), a raft of new technologies is changing back-office functions and enabling greater control, faster feedback on performance and better-quality outcomes.
  • The old, ponderous, slow-moving ways of the mining industry of the past need to (and are) changing. Agility and speed in deployment of new technologies is vital. And these technologies can often be deployed without the need for major capital expenditure.

All of this is rapidly moving the industry forward, and there is some seriously cool tech being deployed which should attract new, younger talent to the industry.  In that sense, the industry is already moving away from its traditional image of being old-fashioned and dirty to one that is rapidly embracing the opportunities that cutting edge technologies offer.  Add to that the proactive efforts being taken by all the major mining companies to increase community consultation and collaboration, bring social benefits to the wider society, minimise environmental footprints and increase workforce diversity and I believe that the industry is certainly on the right path.

In the Operational Excellence stream of the conference however, there was an overwhelming emphasis on technology and innovation as being the key to operational improvement.  While there was a strongly optimistic feeling regarding the potential that new and emerging technologies can provide, there are some challenges associated with it also, and many of these were discussed at the event.

First, it was recognised by a number of presenters that technological innovation will not result in improvement unless it is accepted and utilised by people within the organisation.  While the promise is that technology will reduce the number of lower-skilled, repetitive jobs within the industry and replace these with roles that require higher levels of skill, this transition needs to be managed.  While many individuals will welcome this development, every individual is different, and needs to be considered as such.  The techno-sceptics and non-techno-savvy will find these developments particularly challenging.  Some may not wish to take on the additional responsibilities involved, or may not be capable of adopting the new skills required.

Technology Managment Alignment

Second, the advent of new technologies is increasing the frequency with which short-interval control measurements can be made, and this is also increasing operational tempo and, potentially, workforce stress associated with this.  For example, where stockpile quantities used to be surveyed manually once per month, drone technology combined with LIDAR scanning now allows this to be done automatically once per day (or even more often).  Tonnes of material moved by bulldozers can now be easily reported once per shift, and variations in productivity (or from plan) more easily reported.  While this permits more granular control over operations by senior managers, it also potentially facilitates higher levels of micromanagement, which may, in turn, have an adverse impact on morale and productivity.  Once again, it will be important to understand and carefully manage the impact of these technologies on organisational culture, and ensure that leadership behaviours are consciously congruent with the type of culture that the organisation wishes to embrace.

Third, many speakers discussed the challenges associated with data – both volume and quantity.  Rio Tinto’s autonomous trains, for example, collect Petabytes of data on every trip.  It is clearly neither practical or valuable to store all of this data for subsequent analysis.  The challenge, therefore, is to decide what data IS valuable, and at what level this data should be summarised.  This is difficult if the problems to be solved and associated analysis tools and methods have not been determined in advance.  It was also acknowledged that often 30% or more of the data that is collected is incomplete or inaccurate.  A number of speakers correctly noted that data does not need to be 100% accurate – it only needs to be accurate enough to facilitate an effective, data-driven decision.  This sounds good in theory, but not very helpful in practice when you are collecting the data in advance of the decision being made (and therefore don’t know how accurate it needs to be).  The more effective solutions presented at the conference tended to combine expert judgement from individuals (albeit with the potential human biases that this can bring) with data analytics to arrive at informed decisions.

Finally, it appears that, at least so far, the technologies that have been most successfully implemented so far are those that have limited impact on management processes and where their impact is confined to a single area of the business.  These are often deployed using Agile project management and software development techniques which are rapid and (comparatively) low cost. The use of drone technologies is one example of this.  Previously manual surveys and inspections are now done more efficiently (and as mentioned, often more frequently) using drones, and data collected often interpreted using software rather than by people.  However, the outputs of this technology still feed into largely unchanged management processes which determine the action to be taken to address anomalies, and the urgency with which action must be taken. 

Another area of technology that seems to be rapidly being adopted relates to the use of software and dashboards to be able to more easily visualise asset or operational performance in order to identify improvement opportunities and/or drill down into the data for more detailed (manual) assessment.  While these dashboards often draw on data from previously unintegrated systems (e.g. loss accounting systems and work order data, or work order data and GIS systems), once again the underlying management processes for using these dashboards and initiating corrective actions remain largely unchanged.  To a large extent these technologies are “point solutions”, but the greater (yet largely unrealised) opportunities are those which are strategic, cross-functional and scalable in nature.  The challenges involved in developing and implementing these technological innovations remain (largely) to be addressed, and the solutions will take time to implement.  Consider the deployment of autonomous trucks, for example.  This is a strategic initiative that crosses functional boundaries within mining organisations and has required high degrees of collaboration with vendors and consultation with internal stakeholders to deploy.  It has taken years for most mining organisations to adapt their processes, people and systems (as well as to optimise the technologies) so that they can take full advantage of the opportunities that autonomous operations presents. Similar challenges will exist for other strategic technologically-driven improvements.

Autonomous trucks

Based on the presentations and discussions at the conference, it is clear to me that a holistic approach needs to be taken if the benefits that technological innovation presents are to be realised.  An integrated approach that aligns technology with people, processes and systems and which is directed at the largest value opportunities is essential.  Fortunately, here at Assetivity, this is exactly the approach that we take, and the strength that we bring to every engagement.

Sandy Dunn

Managing Director


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