Many of the changes in today’s prep control room have been more gradual, such as efficiency improvements on the processing side of a plant. Conversely, control systems technology has been quickly changing and continues to evolve rapidly. While many facilities have come into the 21st century from that perspective, others either have not made any of these crucial upgrades at all or are still making changes with each budget year as part of a phased approach. Tomorrow’s trends in control systems technology for today’s control room is very reflective of the overall technical evolution — and revolution — that has taken over the world, both inside and outside of the industry. The control room no longer has to be in the control room.

A popular control board model from the 1970s and 1980s.

Coal Age recently spoke with Harry Evans, general manager of electrical services for DRA Taggart, who noted the changes plants should be making if such upgrades have not been made, as well as some trends for the future.

For example, a search through the company’s history will unearth countless prep complexes seeking the latest in closed-circuit television for that respective time period. With the emergence of the Digital Age, the wall filled with clunky tube-type television sets were replaced with flat panel screens powered with digital modes and Power over Ethernet capabilities. “It has changed the way CCTV is installed and operated,” Evans said. “Advanced camera functions and digital alarming and recording has given operators and managers a new tool.”

Taking these changes a step further, operators began asking for — and suppliers responded by designing — technology with the ability to literally take the control room out of the control room. The individual that was once tethered in many ways to the room to keep peak uptime, make adjustments to the plant’s levels and ensure key movements were being made, no longer needs to be within those walls to oversee these tasks.

Control systems technology in mining have quickly evolved over the last several decades.
Control systems technology in mining have quickly evolved over the last several decades.

This has become increasingly important with changes in the industry that have left companies doing more with less, including asking a smaller crew of plant workers to manage functions that a group double its size did just a few years ago. With remote monitoring now fairly commonplace, according to Evans, control systems designers are offering some kind of web access capability within its software. If there is an internet connection, there is a way to see, adjust and troubleshoot.

When troubleshooting uncovers a bigger issue, remote technology obviously has another important advantage: the ability for the system’s maker to assist with diagnosis, programming and maintenance. Gone are the days of plants needing to keep on-site technical staff or waiting days for technical assistance, losing money every minute and potentially bottlenecking the mine that feeds it, compounding that financial loss.

“Today’s plant electrician needs to be part IT guy, part programmer, and that is why remote access is critical when technical issues arise. We try to encourage new clients to include remote access to their control software,” Evans said. “Again, internet access is the key.”

That idea of “total access anywhere” has really been a motivating factor for suppliers, including DRA Taggart, moving forward, and many of the trends the company is seeing as the industry powers on. Technology stops for nothing —­ not even changes in the market — and prep plants remain committed to staying running in the safest and most productive ways possible and protecting every element of the facility’s everyday operation. Both existing and potential customers are still looking at upgrades, planning budgets and ordering those things that will keep them running at peak levels — and that push, at least on the control systems end of things, is largely being led by remote capabilities.