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Is IT infrastructure holding back mining and metals’ digital transformation efforts?

With metals and mining companies investing more in digital technology, a lack of IT infrastructure threatens their transformation efforts. Axora Mining Innovation Director Joe Carr tells us why robust IT infrastructure is more important than ever.

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Matthew Blenkarn

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Now more than ever, metals and mining companies understand the value of digital technology.

That’s the overarching trend that emerged in the 2021 Axora Innovation Forecast. Featuring insights from more than 150 global metals and mining experts, the report found that most respondents (57 percent) ranked investing in digital solutions as their top priority over the next three years. Eighty-five percent of those polled also said their company had increased their annual innovation spend, another sign that metals and mining companies are taking proactive steps to bring their digital transformation strategies to life.

They still have a long way to go though, and a lack of suitable IT infrastructure is partially to blame. The problem plagues 38 percent of respondents, while other stats suggest that IT departments are still reticent to embrace digital transformation. Compared to their peers in engineering, operations and site management, IT professionals were less likely to prioritise the value of technology over the cost and saw the least benefit on average from digital technologies.

All of which begs the question: how can metals and mining companies alleviate these doubts and secure the IT infrastructure they need to execute their ambitious innovation strategies?

Take a more proactive approach

It’s important to note that IT infrastructure has been a consistent concern in the industry for years. As Axora Mining Innovation Director Joe Carr notes, companies have had to navigate remote and hazardous environments to deploy even rudimentary network technology – be it 5G, satellite, LTE or wifi. These features are now commonplace on the interconnected, digital mines owned by supermajors, but some small and medium organisations still face a lag.

"There are plenty of mining contractors who still do things by pen and paper because they don’t have access to networks on the mine,” says Carr. “You can still find mines where there’s no phone signal, especially if you leave the primary mining area. Even if you can get a signal in the pit, that may not be the case if you’re by the exploration rig or out in the field.”

With basic network functionality in place, mines have benefited from additional communications infrastructure, which has facilitated fundamental Industry 4.0 solutions such as industrial internet of things (IIoT). This technology is now essential to unlocking the most basic advantages of digital technology, but Carr explains that it’s usually deployed only when it’s absolutely necessary for common tasks.

People don't consider network infrastructure until they need it. And by that point, it's awful

“Most mines, at least at some level, run a dispatch system,” he says. “Because they want a dispatch system, they have to install communications. The need drives the outcome.”

This approach leaves metals and mining companies in a bind. Without this infrastructure, their digital technology deployments will fall far short of what’s needed – the data flow will be slow and substandard. But many IT departments won’t act until demand for digital technology is already critical.

“People don’t consider network infrastructure a problem until they need it,” Carr muses. “And by that point, it’s awful. It’s a bit like building a school – you don’t build when classrooms are full, you do it when you need 20 to 30 percent more capacity.”

If companies want to change that approach, they’ll need to bring IT leaders in on projects from the very beginning. Unfortunately, that raises another hurdle metals and mining companies will need to overcome...

Make IT staff a part of the deployment process

When you think about the average technology deployment, third parties handle most of the work. External vendors take on the extensive group projects involving communications infrastructure, while suppliers tend to handle individual technology installations such as sensors or autonomous vehicles. As a result, IT departments are divorced from many digital transformation implementations, which may help explain why they see such little benefit from these projects.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t change once the technology is operational. On-site IT staff generally don’t have a remit to handle these kinds of deployments, while group IT departments need to focus their efforts on data management and cybersecurity. Often, this emphasis on protecting company data overshadows IT’s interest in digital innovation projects, especially when it involves letting deployment partners access their networks.

“It’s telling that very few mining companies will allow another company into their infrastructure,” Carr notes. “It’s a security and a requirements issue.”

In a modern world of mining, we need infrastructure IT, people who are responsible for putting infrastructure first

To overcome these hurdles, Carr recommends the industry rethinks the way it organises its staff. By bringing IT specialists onto sites specifically to implement an infrastructure roadmap, companies can ensure these departments have a stake in these projects from the very beginning.

“On site, IT tends to do traditional help-desk stuff,” he adds. “In a modern world of mining, we need infrastructure IT, people who are responsible for putting infrastructure first.”

While Carr acknowledges that these practices are catching on at larger companies, smaller operations still have yet to catch up. Of course, this isn’t the only mindset shift metals and mining companies will need to make...

Prioritise long-term maintenance over short-term projects

At a time when metals and mining faces an industry-wide digital skills shortage, deploying infrastructure can be especially fraught. Not only may IT staff lack the technical know-how needed to act on a roadmap, but they may also need to change how they view digital technology deployments.

“There’s a skills gap everywhere in mining when it comes to digital,” Carr notes. “It’s seen less as an ongoing job and more as a project.”

It’s about dealing with problems in advance rather than as they pop up

The tendency, he continues, is to treat infrastructure as a short-term project: perform work over a short period, establish basic functionality, and then leave it for a prolonged period. When companies do update their systems, they prefer fast tech refreshes that quickly become obsolete. A more effective approach may be to perform regular long-term maintenance, consistently iterating new improvements rather than taking a stop-start approach. In doing so, IT departments will better prepare themselves for future deployments.

“There’s less hassle when someone comes to IT with a project and all the network infrastructure is in place,” Carr says. “Doing it otherwise will just bog your department down for a year. It’s about dealing with problems in advance rather than as they pop up.”

While IT departments may have to change their basic ways of working, the end results are crucial to most companies’ digital transformation efforts. In order to truly advance technologically, metals and mining needs to take IT along for the ride.

Read more about digital transformation trends among metals and mining companies in the Axora Innovation Forecast, which surveyed 150 senior industry decision makers. Get your copy here

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