It seems ‘digital transformation’ is the new buzzword for the mining industry, encompassing everything from automation to artificial intelligence (AI) to advanced analytics to new software and more. Given mines are seeking results like greater productivity, lower costs and improved safety, digital solutions offer new frontiers to unlock new gains. The challenge though, is that industry pressures are leading many mining organisations to embark on their digital transformation journeys without really understanding their current capability.

Let’s jump back in time to the early days of the internet. As it was gaining prominence, the fad of having your own website emerged – even if you weren’t sure why you needed one. As a result, these shiny new toys often delivered little value. The issue wasn’t the website concept, but rather the driving reason and implementation. We’re here again, surrounded by digital tools that aren’t always rendering the benefits possible.

Let’s say your business strategy has pointed you to the need for new planning and scheduling software, or advanced data analytics tools, or a new simulation capability for pit to port operations analysis, or automated mining equipment (drills, trucks etc). A common approach is to jump into vendor procurement and away you go – a sure way for a project to get away from you.

Classic owner pitfalls

Digital transformation sounds impressive but comes with common pitfalls:

  • The silver bullet – where it’s hoped to deliver results with little owner understanding of what implementation involves, and with expectations of little disruption to operations
  • The no-time-for-this – where it’s not fully resourced and implementation goes to a supervisor who is still expected to continue with their day job
  • The headless chicken – where strong leadership support isn’t provided and implementation is a challenge from the start
  • The top downer – where benefits aren’t widely understood at the coal face despite actual implementation and ongoing use living there
  • The hands off – where limited resources are made available to the service provider to assist in determining owner requirements, complexities and obstacles to success
  • The half scoped – where insufficient funds are set aside to ensure sustainability and ongoing success
  • The not-my-problem – where there’s no care taken in the data shared, such as poorly calibrated measuring points/sensors, resulting in corrupted or outdated data.

We’ll leave you to name the project where they all land at once.

Classic provider pitfalls

Pitfalls can just as easily come from the provider’s side:

  • The theoretically yes – where a solution is known to theoretically work, but implementation remains based largely on that theory
  • The she’ll-be-right – where implementation embeds just a few stakeholder meetings before being rolled out
  • The industry doesn’t matter – where the provider doesn’t have mining industry experience and doesn’t take enough time to understand the mining-specific processes they are working within…only considering technical implementation rather than a holistic approach with its intricacies and opportunities
  • The anyone, anyone? – where the service provider isn’t given full understanding of requirements or the owner-side support required
  • The fast mover – where a tech company implements and moves on, without considering sustainability and with little to no knowledge sharing from the service provider to the owner.

Some mining companies have recently hired in significant teams of data scientists – incredibly talented people with little understanding of the mining industry. Stories are coming through suggesting at times there’s no strategic plan, resulting in the aimless search for value-adding projects. Some owners are failing to draw maximum value from the knowledge and skills of these teams, while other business areas develop cynicism about their value. In other words, using an in-house model doesn’t magically overcome these pitfalls.

Bridging the gap

Here’s how you burn $2 million – based on a real example of implementing high precision GPS on dozers at a site. There was little interaction with the dozer operators during the planning and installation, and then the training began. Screens were in the wrong location, the visual display made no sense to the operators, uploading was too slow and the list went on. Within six months, the screens were removed and the system closed down. The $2 million investment was wasted due to poor interaction with end users and change management.

There are numerous approaches to avoiding these pitfalls and wasted opportunities. Here are some key considerations:

  • Develop an overall technology vision or strategic plan to inform the right selection of technologies and the right project planning from the outset
  • Spend more time understanding specific operations and user requirements at all levels of the organisation – whether by the owner lead or the provider
  • Plan how the new technology will integrate with and into existing business processes, both to support sustainability and to avoid weaknesses due to clashing processes
  • Resource implementation correctly – in budget and personnel and with sustainability in mind and ongoing leadership support to empower success
  • Involve people at a range of levels, as all technology interacts with people at some point and typically new technology requires change management of some form
  • Speaking of which, incorporate change management considerations beyond the technical, such as business processes, organisational structure, team capability, stakeholder communication etc.

Digital transformation isn’t one ‘thing’. It comprises multiple technologies. Get the early implementations wrong, and you’ll build skepticism that only makes future efforts more challenging. Get them right, and you’ll avoid wasted resources developing less than optimal technical solutions that fail to satisfy real requirements or deliver full benefits. The opportunities through digital transformation can be massive, but it takes effective, grounded implementation to get there.