THE EVER-CHANGING FACE OF SOFTWARE TECHNOLOGY IS BRINGING THE INDUSTRY INTO THE FUTURE AT WARP SPEED
By Donna Schmidt, field editor
Looking at the world now, it does not seem possible that there was ever a time when software did not play a vital role in everyday life. Not long ago, engineers surveyed stockpiles with transists and rod men. Mine maps were drawn with ink on Mylar. Mnes would consider multiple mine plans, but they could not change the parameters at will in several areas.
Nothing of what is seen today in the technology-linked mining environment, from planning to execution and keeping tabs on the latest data once those machines are working, would be possible without software.
It is mind-boggling to consider all of the aspects of mining that are tied to a software foundation: even basic elements such as asset allocation, logistics, parts management and safety have “techie” roots keeping them afloat for a mine. And with each passing year that the technology continues to grow and expand, so do the capabilities of those programs used on the job each day.
While the facets of mining software are diverse and vast, Coal Age spoke with four members of the sector to find out just what has changed and where it is headed next.
|A dragline pit rendering from Carlson 2014.|
Carlson Staying on the Cutting Edge
With about 90% of the nation’s coal mines using Carlson software, it is understandable that the research and development wheel would be consistently working and the fountain of new ideas always producing for the company.
According to Carlson Director of Mining Grant Wenker, that is most certainly the case — and their ability to stay on the cutting edge is tied directly to listening to its many users across the industry.
When looking at the most important factors of specific software technology selection, a user-friendly design is a keystone need, as it allows an engineer or geologist at a site to perform their needed tasks in a timely manner.
“They want to be engineers and geologists, not software users of some large, bulky package,” he said.
“The skills must be easily retained and not require weeks and months of training to be up to speed. All of this is possible and still can be technologically superior.”
With the software arena nearly immeasurable in terms of size and capabilities, it is vital for mines to find those applications that do the most good. For Carlson’s clients, comprehensiveness is a central idea.
The Carlson suite, Wenker said, covers the entire process from exploration, survey, site and civil design, geological modeling, mine engineering and scheduling, and finally reclamation and regrade design; from there, Carlson has comprised modules for each of those applications.
Additionally, survey, mining, and reclamation plans that are designed to work together will minimize material handling and provide big savings, he noted.
Debunking the hesitation of some users to make changes has been inherently easy for Carlson, as it has become known over time for its ease of use — even if that user is used to another company’s software.
“If a user is coming from a different software package, it will be much easier for them to learn the new Carlson system. Carlson offers its training in days, not weeks, so the learning curve is short, the price is inexpensive, and the retention is higher,” he said.
Software, as one of the quickest moving areas of technology, is always changing and moving, he noted, and one major factor in that is changes and improvements being made to abilities and the overall design.
“Mines are growing larger and mining the more difficult ore,” Wenker said. “All of the easy mining is gone, so software is constantly being pushed to improve mining the more difficult areas.
“Future trends that we are looking to are linking the field and the office on a larger scale. Instant updating of models linked to GNSS field machines for realtime feedback in the office and the field is progressing.”
Coming full circle with its customers, Carlson said its technology evolution is tied highly to the feedback and comments it receives directly from mines and mine management. The company encourages users to make requests for new features, allowing it to work with that site to build that request and include it in the next release for all customers to make use of.
“Advancements in geological modeling or mine scheduling in an easier and quicker format are topics that are always discussed and requested,” he said.
Carlson 2015 is set for a June release, and Wenker said it will work in conjunction with AutoCAD 2015 and include about 200 new features and commands — many in the geology and mining modules.
Topics such as E-Log auto interpretation, automatic thrust faults, and advanced scheduling with multiple units per bench and block have also been added to Carlson 2015.
In Carlson 2014, the most recent release now available, the company’s improvements included the ability to run surface mine reserves more than three times faster, and a geologic column option was added to put all attributes on a single line, avoiding overlaps.
Additionally, Carlson provided customizable drillhole reports and borehole logs by scale, interval, depth and level, and also enhanced the options for labeling diverse types of strata.
Carlson Mining, used globally, has targeted modules available including Geology, Surface, Underground and Basic Mining. It also offers Carlson Natural Regrade, recommended by the
U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining for mine reclamation for its ability to meet environmental standards with maintenance-free stability.
|An example of GEOVIA’s Minex Dump Scheduling Module.|
Geovia Provides Help from Exploration Through Rehabilitation
While many knew the company as Gemcom Software prior to their 2012 acquisition by Dassault Systèmes, the company now known as Dassault Systèmes GEOVIA has had much success across coal and other stratified deposit mining with its Minex software.
From the exploration phase of a planned mine to the rehabilitation of an operation that has served out its life, Minex ensures accurate resource evaluation as well as efficient mining while a mine is in operation. Designed to be a single integrated solution, data and skills can be readily moved between teams at significant time and cost savings.
Minex’s most recent innovation focuses on aiding coal operations to improve cost control while also running more efficiently in a traditionally high cost-driven area: waste dumping and hauling. In fact, the Dump Scheduling and Haulage Planning module of the program enables engineers to optimize haulage routes by creating more efficient dump and haulage plans while also reducing unplanned rehandling of waste material.
The company said that Minex, which has the capabilities and power to provide quicker and more accurate answers for decisions related to waste removal and haulage, also can identify other areas of potential cost reductions. To decrease the unplanned rehandling of waste, it allows engineers, through integration with the geological model, to locate waste dumps in areas not underlain by valuable resources.
“Minex’s dump scheduling and haulage planning tools allow us to easily integrate into the mine scheduling process different scenarios for hauling waste from pits to dumps via haul roads,” David Delbridge, manager — mine planning and development, PT Bayan Resources, Tbk, said of its work with Dassault Systèmes GEOVIA and their Minex software.
“In addition, they enable us to analyze our major cost drivers and help us make better decisions about minimizing our operating costs.”
Other features of the Minex Dump Scheduling and Haulage Planning module include advanced haulage planning, which gives mine planners the ability to analyze and manage truck cycle time efficiency, as well as optimize truck fleet and haul road selection for improved cost control.
Users can also use a single interface to create various dump scenarios and take control over priorities, sequences and directions for filling of dumps, making the experience for the end user a customizable one. Advanced reporting also allows mine planners flexibility to summarize waste movement and then communicate those results effectively to key individuals, complete with quick comparisons between haulage options that can help teams to identify and select the lowest cost and best alternatives.
Minex offers direct secure remote collaboration and data management capabilities with its integration of GEOVIA Hub. The Hub software organizes data and enables the reliable sharing of exploration, planning, and production data, allowing users, workgroups and teams to work together no matter the location, anywhere in the world.
According to the company, Hub delivers immediate benefits, including data security, version control, and the ability to synchronize large files rapidly over even low-quality networks with minimal required IT support and scalability for all workgroup sizes, along with a single version of the truth for effective collaboration between users.
That plays a major role with mining companies that assist with operations from central locations; Hub, which has the ability to rapidly transfer large data sets by sending only tiny bits that have changed when worked on, can provide the newest information even for mine sites that have poor network connections.
“A powerful aspect of Hub, and the integration, is the ability to lock files so that you can safely and confidently work on your data, safe in the knowledge that others will not be able to alter your data,” Albert Quaye, chief geologist for ENRC (DRC), said of Minex.
“The integration provides clarity about what information is currently in use, what information is the ‘right’ information to work with, without unnecessary communications to verify the data. The file icons clearly indicate the current status of files, what actions you need to take, and give immediate feedback once you’ve made changes to your data.”
|Incorporating Maptek’s stratigraphic output.|
Maptek Talks Effectiveness, Efficiency
There is one big question that will always require an answer for mines, and as time goes on, that response will just keep changing: just what are the most important factors in choosing a specific software technology for a coal operation? Is it more important that one product do more, or that the software, comprehensive or not, is easy to use?
According to Stewart Maurer, Maptek director of global marketing, that answer can vary from person to person.
“There’s an old saying, ‘the best tool is the one you use.’ As a software provider, the challenge is to deliver necessary functionality that’s also intuitive and user-friendly,” he said.
“We have a very sophisticated user base, so first and foremost, they need to be certain our software can accomplish whatever task is required. The reality is that our customers are doing unique and complex operations and the software has to be up to the task. If it isn’t, it doesn’t really matter how easy it is to use.”
Stewart also noted something everyone has witnessed over the past several years — that there is an entire generation of users emerging now that expect software to “just work,” and sometimes are being added to projects requiring immediate delivery, but with little training. Luckily, many have also been raised in the computer age.
“It’s more important than ever that the software not only does what is required, but also enables a new user to quickly get up to speed,” he noted, adding that Maptek’s approach is to permit users to be what they already are, expert mining engineers and geologists, and not necessarily expert software users.
Maptek considers the most important application and capabilities of software for coal mines in today’s industry is an ability to create mining models from which run-of-mine (ROM) tonnages and qualities can be calculated and used to forecast the tonnage and quality over time that can be presented to the shipping facility of a coal preparation plant.
“An application must be able to allow the user to set mining parameters, which are consistent with the mining method and equipment in use,” Robert Slade, senior vice president, Vulcan Sales, said.
“The application needs to be able to consider the minimum mineable thickness of coal; the minimum separable parting within the seam stratigraphy, and, where applicable, in situations where bulk mining is being considered, the overall ratio between coal and burden in the final ROM product.”
Not only that, but many operations take into consideration the mining effectiveness parameters of dilution additions, which burden material inadvertently included in tonnage from the roof and floor, as well as factoring in depletion through lost product through the inherent nature of the mining process.
A successful application, Robert said, will allow the user to set these using general or modeled values.
“For an active mine, the mining models that are created and used to predict ROM tonnages and qualities can be tested and compared with the actual measurements at the delivery point,” he said.
“The differences, when considered in light of the modeling parameters used in generation, can be calibrated and adjusted, allowing models to be tuned to best represent a particular mining operation’s performance from in-situ to ROM coal production.”
Maptek also said there is a trend tide coming in as it relates to software technology from the developer being just a vendor to being a true partner in the success of the mine and the processes for which the package was selected to optimize. The age of fear regarding change and hesitation to new technology is quickly being replaced by the expectation that a quality software package be another extension of that mine manager, engineer or geologist as they work to make a mine more efficient or safe — and also that the operation make the right decision on the chosen software the first time.
“At the end of the day, software is just a tool to enable experts to accomplish their tasks,” Stewart said.
“That said, adopting or switching software packages is a real concern for coal mines. Not only is it expensive, but sites are often understaffed, and choosing the wrong software package can set a site back months in terms of lost productivity.”
He said a trend Maptek is seeing is one of sites moving away from the “best-of-breed” mentality; in other words, it is focusing intently on products that can be its only comprehensive solution. This change is primarily the result of many factors, but mainly mines’ need to increase productivity and reduce costs.
“Sites are realizing that it makes no sense to do resource estimation in one package, export to another for design, and export to yet another for scheduling. The benefit to users is simple; you only have one package to learn,” he said, adding that this is where the partner relationship is key.
“Increasingly, sites are also looking for a true partner, not just a vendor. To this end, Maptek offers dedicated implementation services, in-depth training and best-in-class support across all of the applications it serves.
“The ability to be able to pick up the phone and instantly speak with a mining professional who can solve your problem in real-time alleviates the risk of investing in a new technology,” he said.
So what’s ahead, according to Maptek? Stewart said it is the era of “cloud-based” applications and BYOD — bring your own device — needs as well as a plethora of data from which to select needed figures and details. As one would expect, that is a big step forward for the mining industry as a whole.
“Traditionally, the mining industry hasn’t been at the bleeding edge of new technology, there are many reasons for this, but in recent years that’s begun to change,” Stewart said.
“Sites are enhancing internet connectivity, pursuing autonomous solutions for machinery, grappling with Big Data, and generally looking for ways to improve efficiency and cut costs.”
It is that paradigm shift that has put concepts such as cloud-based applications and BYOD on the front lines for mines. The challenge Maptek has encountered now is understanding how those emerging technologies can help users perform their tasks better — for example, whether tablets and smartphones are adequate form factors for doing a mine design.
It seems the industry is moving toward the future, technology, at faster than light-speed. Maptek said that feeling is why it is focusing on today’s needs but also has a sharp eye on what operations will need tomorrow as well.
“That idea of ‘future-proofing’ our products has led us to invest heavily in research and development,” Stewart said, which extends from its current products like Vulcan and I-Site, but also includes the role it has played in the development of its newer additions BlastLogic and PerfectDig.
“Right now, the entire mining industry is undergoing a radical shift in terms of technology need. Volatility surrounding commodity prices, the changing demographics of users, and the need to optimize all aspects of an operation are all competing factors that have to be considered. In an era of uncertainty some things are obvious: change is happening, the pace is increasing, and the winners will be the ones who not only embrace it but deliver it. For Maptek, that is a challenge we’re willing to accept,” Stewart said.
|Illustrated examples of Overland Conveyor’s Discrete Element Method (DEM).|
Overland Conveyor: Keeping an Eye on the Future of Transport Design
Before an operation or facility can mine or process one single ton of coal, the industry has demanded that the equipment used to perform that work be ahead of the curve in its design and capability.
What’s more, these considerations are strikingly similar to those sites must use for any type or application of software.
In addition to being comprehensive in its design and use, according to Overland Conveyor’s Mark Alspaugh, it must also be as accurate as possible and versatile.
The downside of comprehensive and versatile is this generally makes use more complex and difficult, he conceded, but noted that this doesn’t mean that the ease of use factor is not important at all.
“[I]t is secondary to comprehensive, and is usually the biggest challenge for software designers,” he said. But why?
The reason comprehensive is most important, he explained, is that engineers become very reliant on their software analysis and simulation tools, and as a result, they can easily fall into the trap of only evaluating design options that their software is capable of evaluating — even if a more unique design option might be better for a specific application.
“If their software tools are not constantly changing to reflect new technology and advancements, they may not even know those options exist,” he noted.
He echoed Maptek’s sentiment, too, that the most important factor of selecting specific software is as much a function of the company developing and supporting the software as the software itself.
“A product may be the best today, but if the company does not have a development plan for improvements, it will not be the best for long,” he said. “The software industry can change pretty fast due to developments in hardware and computing trends as well as in specific research in its discipline.”
For those examining their choices in software, whether it is for design engineering or some other factor of the mining process, the points to consider are quite similar. For example, does the software company listen to clients’ requirements and try to adapt its products to the future needs of the market? How does the company stay tuned to clients’ needs, and does the company really understand how its clients use the product as well as potential future problems?
“If you agree that comprehensive is the primary goal of your software, then training and support become critical also,” Alspaugh said.
“If your engineers are not able to use the software to its fullest capability, all of the above probably mean[s] nothing; therefore, ongoing training must be considered.
“We have found initial training, although important, is not the end. If the products are continuing to evolve as they should, training must continue as well. How new features and new technology [are] communicated is highly important and continues to be a challenge to progressive developers.”
In the area of component engineering software specifically, Overland Conveyor said that software has progressed well over the last two decades or so with the advancement of ideas like finite element analysis, or FEA, for steel structures, or fatigue analysis of rotating shafts and even power predictions for belt conveyors.
Looking ahead, the company’s focus across the board is making its tools even easier to use, and more accessible to a greater number of locations through cost efficiency. Easier to use means more use of graphics and intuitive interfaces, and, most importantly, sharing of data, Alspaugh noted, as well as the capability to share information between users and teams.
Different engineering tools have become an important consideration as well. The issue of multiple software stress really does come full circle in this regard.
“Users today find they need to input the same data into multiple software programs to evaluate various design requirements,” he said.
“Each time data is handled, there is another opportunity for a mistake to be made. Also, as engineering becomes more complex, more and more specific discipline experts are required; therefore, teams are getting bigger and more important. Ensuring everyone is working from the most recent data set is increasingly difficult.”
For Overland Conveyor’s scope of work specifically, Alspaugh said it feels complete system simulation tools are not being effectively utilized to evaluate existing mine design or in new mine design.
For example, there are many design decisions that need to be made — and each individual decision is greatly dependent on many other independent decisions.
“Keeping all of these independent decisions in context is extremely difficult for us, therefore, we tend to make design decisions with little regard for their ultimate impact on the complete system,” he noted.
“In other words, how does a decision about a continuous miner and CM section affect the performance of the longwall? If the statistically small possibility of simultaneous loading of all CM sections causes the outby conveyance system to overload, the longwall will go down as well, and the ultimate goal of the mine is affected. Therefore, why don’t we fully understand and control the loading of every machine rather than leave it to chance?”
He stressed that this point extends also to the conveyance infrastructure, a facet of nearly ever mine and facility in operation today.
All mining operations require many bulk material transfers or handling points, and the specific design or flow prediction of the bulk materials is still very primitive, Alspaugh said.
In fact, he said, new technology is just now getting to the point of being very useful for design and optimization for bulk material flow — versus the old method, the “rule of thumb” method, and pooling past experiences.
The Discrete Element Method (DEM) is the newest evolution of FEA and CFD (Computation Fluid Dynamics), and should give engineers the ability to significantly improve bulk material handling problems in the future, he said.
Overland Conveyor also called the hesitation that some have and may continue to have to implement a software program in fear it will be complicated to update, or that some will encounter individuals hesitant to learn the new technology to be a very real factor.
“It is very easy to get dazzled with new technology and pretty pictures and think software will solve all our problems, when software is just a tool for engineers to use to do their jobs better,” Alspaugh said.
“For software to be effective, engineers and management must be committed to learning and understanding how it works and how it can be used to improve the decision making process. We believe a manager or engineer needs as much information as possible to make the best decisions and the basic purpose of most software packages is to provide better, more complete information.
“But as the old saying goes, ‘garbage in, garbage out.’ Therefore, if engineers are not willing to learn how and why this information is developed by the software, it probably will not be useful in making design decisions, and may even complicate the process.”
At the end of the day, software is likely one of the quickest moving and changing areas of technology, and especially for the mining industry.
Where to go from here is a difficult answer to give, Alspaugh said. The decision to choose one road over another becomes difficult when one considers that it is very difficult to change directions later. Additionally, the bigger the company, the more complex that issue can be.
Compatibility has been a significant trend over the last few years, he said, as efforts are made to get systems to communicate well with one another.
Another factor is the operation’s biggest asset and biggest expense, its people.
“Obviously, giving them access to the best tools and training is important, and software must be on the top of that list. A company making sure everyone has the tools they need while avoiding excessive fees for software must be a big concern for every company,” he said.
Cloud computing is one main wave of the future for software and how its users access and use it in the best ways.
Alspaugh said working “in the cloud” will be a significant turn for mining.
“When using the cloud, the technology [in use can] be updated all the time, so you are assured of using the latest without having to make any effort,” he said.
Additionally, a user can subscribe to a “pay as you go” model, resulting in a cost only when the program is used, as well as an ability to more easily attribute costs to a specific project or task.
“This also means no large investments costs that have to be justified based on future use or activity,” he said. “It also means no capital for high cost computers that need to be updated every two to three years as hardware advances.
“It will be much easier to keep track of, or manage, who is using the technology and making sure everyone in a huge organization is ‘on the same page.’”
Parker Unveils PTS Pro
Parker Hannifin has introduced the newest addition to its developed Parker Tracking System (PTS) suite of products, PTS Pro.
The motion and control technologies provider said that PTS Pro, with asset tracking and maintenance tools that extend the capabilities of the original PTS application, gives subscribers a proactive tool against unplanned downtime, while maximizing uptime and profitability.
The PTS system can generate barcode, metal or RFID tags for any number of products, including those from other manufacturers. The custom tags can be used to identify part numbers, size, length, components, application data and other specific information, enabling fast, easy and exact replacement of parts.
Some new enhanced functions of PTS Pro include material and budgeting for scheduled services, customizable inspection templates, asset criticality settings, service scheduling and notification, and asset transfer and batch maintenance.
Technology Manager Bill Sayavich said that, using PTS Pro’s advanced scheduling tools, users can plan for and perform critical service as part of an effective and efficient preventative maintenance strategy.
Armed with an easy-to-use Asset Management Dashboard, users can schedule inspections and replacements as needed, easily locate assets when maintenance is required, and record historical inspection details and results. Users can also transfer visibility of select assets and schedule work by site, type or asset level.
“PTS Pro enables customers to establish a maintenance schedule based on their individual or corporate requirements, regulatory standards or actual lifespan data of a particular hose assembly,” Sayavich said. “Our goal was to create tools to help address product wear before a failure can occur, enabling customers to allocate manpower, stock critical spare parts, and coordinate other resources days, months, or years in advance. This method has been proven to reduce downtime and MRO costs.”
He also said that taking a proactive approach to maintenance is crucial to maintaining and even increasing profitability as well as overall employee safety. Any product that hasn’t been properly inspected or maintained presents an unnecessary risk to people and the environment, and PTS Pro helps alleviate those risks by enabling users to establish a standard cadence of custom inspection and replacement activities, and confirming completion of those activities.
The PTS suite of products includes PTS Essential, PTS Pro, PTS Pro Reader and PTS Mobile.