It takes a digital village to raise the future of mining

By Andrew McNutt, Mining and Resources Sales Lead, NEXTDC Limited

Australia’s mining industry is undoubtedly emerging as a leader when it comes to driving innovation. We have some shining examples of mining operators who are well advanced in the journey towards the digital mine of the future, thanks to heavy, sustained and focused investment in digital transformation initiatives.

The rate of transformation, however, is not evenly distributed across the industry. For many mining companies, this is not because of any lack of willingness to digitise their operations; rather, it largely comes down to funding considerations and competing priorities. This is especially true when the line between corporate strategy (e.g., ‘We want to harness digital technologies to be safer and more productive’) and practical applications (e.g., ‘This is how we’re actually going to do it’) is murky, at best.

As a digital infrastructure services company, NEXTDC recognises this gap and is working to bridge it. For the past couple of years, we have been advocating for the mining industry to move in lock step towards core-to-edge technology strategy – that is, building industry-wide capability to capture, process and utilise the large volumes of data that will power virtual, fully automated operations.

We see this as being a highly strategic solution for an industry that needs to be ready for anything – from market dynamics and global politics, to technology evolution perspectives. Flexibility, agility and scalability surface are the key watchwords in an increasingly disrupted world.

Australia’s mining industry, however, faces some unique challenges – especially due to the sheer number of remote locations where critical exploration, extraction and export operations are centred. Put simply, real-time processing of data in pit-to-port operations is limited by existing technology and infrastructure purely because of the tyranny of distance. Data needs to be transported back and forth between ‘the core’ (usually metro locations) and ‘the edge’ (remote operational sites), and analysis of data to influence business decision-making couldn’t be done in real-time until very recently.

As it stands today, the majority of mining sites still don’t have access to the Internet of Things, and cloud‑based services are already taken for granted in other parts of the world and other transforming industry verticals – let alone preparing for the next generation of emerging data-driven technologies.

Two requirements to realise edge potential

For core-to-edge strategy to become the norm in the mining industry, rather than the exception, two things are required. First, there needs to be investment – and not just from mining companies themselves, but also from the broader ecosystem of infrastructure providers, tech and telecommunications companies, as well as the diversity of other service providers who exist to support the industry.

At NEXTDC, for example, our core business is data centres, so we’re committed to our investment in two brand-new edge data centres in the Pilbara – one in Port Hedland (PH1) and one in Newman. Both have been designed and built specifically to support the data-intensive needs of Western Australia’s mining and resources industry.

These edge facilities in Australia’s largest resources export region are unique in that they’re positioned in proximity to the remote mission critical production, freight and shipping operations of Australia’s mining network. Both facilities offer the kind of low-latency, interconnected, secure and resilient infrastructure that was previously only available in metro locations – and they exist to help bring core-to-edge strategy to reality.

It’s not a simple task to design, build and operate these remote edge facilities, and it requires substantial experience and investment. This is particularly true when you’re aspiring to deliver the incredibly high levels of power resilience, interconnection and security required for the mining industry’s mission‑critical teams, processes and operations; however, they are a necessary investment to support a regional industry that accounts for more than three per cent of Australia’s gross domestic product.

Creating premium digital infrastructure is a task that would prove incredibly challenging for individual mining organisations without expertise in this arena, and access to the required CAPEX and OPEX funding. Thus, it’s a responsibility we take very seriously.

We were justifiably proud that Data Center Dynamics magazine recently recognised our work in the Pilbara, judging PH1 as winner of its 2023 International Edge Data Centre of the Year Award. The facility has also been accredited with Tier III status for both ‘Design’ and ‘Built Environment’ certifications from the Uptime Institute, meaning it requires no shutdowns for equipment replacement and maintenance. Essentially, with the help of other risk mitigation efforts, we’ve been able to bring NEXTDC’s 100 per cent uptime guarantee to one of the harshest and most demanding environments in Australia, if not the world.

Alongside investment, the second requirement is a willingness to work together to develop real-world, practical use cases for these technologies that will help address the value drivers that are common across the mining industry: safety, reducing costs, improving productivity, maximising plant and equipment use, and sustainability.

Let’s take a look at some of the possibilities now.

Bringing ‘as-a-Service’ to the mining edge

While the rest of society is caught up in discussions about the possible benefits of artificial intelligence, machine learning and so on, we believe that now is the time for Australia’s mining industry to explore the real-world applications of cloud-based ecosystems. In particular, what we can build ‘as-a-Service’ on the edges of the network for consumption on remote sites.

The emphasis here is on ‘real-world applications’. Rather than being speculative or experimental, it’s time for us to collaborate on the development of services that can be developed and deployed quickly, and that will offer benefits to all within the industry.

Take the example of autonomous haulage ‘as‑a‑Service’. Autonomous systems offer enormous benefits in terms of safety and productivity, and have been doing so for the past decade. The natural next step should be to build that capability in an edge data centre, and offer the capability as an integrated, cloud‑based, subscription service to mining operators.

Such an offering would bring autonomous haulage within reach for all mining operators – large and small alike. Imagine having the ability to opt in, opt out to the service as required, potentially on a ‘pay for what you use’ basis – not to mention the headline benefit of shifting such a large capital investment to the operational balance sheet.

A second application that could be brought to reality very quickly relates to the LTE networks that are deployed on many remote mining sites. While these private communication networks are pivotal in facilitating data traffic in areas with no or limited wireless coverage, we believe that there is an opportunity to do things far more efficiently and cost-effectively by offering a centralised LTE model from an edge data centre, rather than multiple miners deploying the same solution across many different sites.

Let’s work together to advance the industry

What we’ve outlined above are just two examples of ‘as-a-Service’ models that we believe could be brought to reality for Australia’s mining industry in the near future. There are undoubtedly many more that are yet to be dreamed of, and there is an unlimited opportunity for innovation.

Such innovation opportunities, however, won’t surface without the right people from across the mining ecosystem having the right conversations with each other, at the right time.

It all starts with premium digital infrastructure (also operating ‘as-a-Service’) that gives the ecosystem confidence that it can operate with the high resilience, security and interconnection required to deliver on the SLAs the industry is looking for.

In other words, it’s time for Australia’s broader mining ecosystem to embrace transparency and collaboration, especially when it comes to certain aspects of technological innovation. Why? Because it’s going to be all but impossible to make genuine progress if we’re all working alone, or in competition with each other. And we’re going to leave significant opportunities on the table – to the detriment of the future wellbeing and global competitiveness of the industry. 

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