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Data analytics enhancing performance at Cortez open pit in Nevada

The Cortez open pit mine is cavernous: more than a mile long, a half a mile wide and 500 yards deep. On a typical day, it’s abuzz with activity. Engineers and technicians move purposefully across the pit floor preparing for the daily blast. Huge electric shovels scoop ore fragments into haul trucks. Dozens of trucks, some with a carrying capacity of 400 tons, move ore from the pit to processing facilities. Last year, 22 million tons of ore were excavated from the open pit.

Keeping track of the people, processes and equipment involved in this effort is a massive undertaking, and Cortez operators do an outstanding job.

Digitization will make them even better.

“We’re looking really hard at what information we’re collecting, what we could be collecting and how we use that information so we can become more efficient,” says Katie Marten, Open Pit Technical Services Superintendent.

Marten is managing a project that will provide rapid access to large volumes of data, allowing open pit operators to more closely track their performance against daily mine plans. For example, instead of measuring tons excavated just once a day, progress will be measured hourly or even more frequently.

Implementing what, in industry parlance, is known as short interval controls will not only give operators a better sense of how they’re performing, it will give them greater insights as to why. That’s because technology being installed in mining equipment will provide access to important data that wasn’t previously available. A new fleet monitoring system, for instance, will use software and sensors to provide real-time data about the condition of each vehicle in the open pit fleet. This will facilitate preventive maintenance, which has the dual benefit of lowering vehicle repair costs and increasing production. Preventive action that avoids just one catastrophic vehicle failure could save hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Sensors will also be used to measure whether electric shovels are loading ore optimally into haul trucks. If payloads are too light, daily excavation targets could be missed. If payloads exceed a haul truck’s capacity or are loaded improperly, trucks and shovels could be damaged. This type of immediate feedback will allow supervisors to quickly alert equipment operators so adjustments can be made.

Preventive action that avoids just one catastrophic vehicle failure could save hundreds of thousands of dollars.

As part of the project, smart boards have been installed in the open pit’s administrative offices that display how the operation is tracking against key performance indicators. The data, which will be updated in near real time, will let equipment operators know where they stand and help supervisors make quicker, more informed and, ultimately, better decisions. The digitization project team has formed partnerships with five different vendors, such as Mineware for shovel monitoring data and Hexagon for the new fleet management system.

“Right now, a lot of our opinions about how we’re doing are anecdotal,” Marten says. “Now we can put some analytics against it, identify high performers, figure out how they got that way and use them to train others.”

Tablet computers are also being provided to supervisors for use in the field. The tablets, coupled with more integrated database management systems, will facilitate even faster access to information and automate workflows and routine tasks. Currently, many basic tasks are paper based. For example, if a supervisor is trying to confirm that a mine operator is certified to operate a certain piece of equipment, they need to sift through paper records. However, such records are often misplaced or aren’t easily accessible, turning straightforward processes into bottlenecks.

“Stuff like that can really slow down a day,” Marten says.

The open pit operation recently hired a database manager to help integrate and manage its database systems so information can be uploaded, integrated, accessed and shared more efficiently. Training certifications, for example, can now be obtained electronically within seconds.

As the digitization of the open pit advances, the operation will become even more agile, says Rob Neitzel, a Project Manager at Barrick who is working closely with Marten on the open pit digitization initiative. Because operators have rapid access to more information, they will be able to adjust to changing realities on the ground far faster than is currently possible. If a haul truck requires unscheduled maintenance, technology will allow operations, maintenance and supply chain to work in a more coordinated way to minimize lost production time. The shift supervisor will know immediately, for example, if a spare truck and driver are available because his tablet will have that information. Dispatch will send an automated work order to maintenance to repair the truck. Maintenance will work with supply chain, which now has a new parts database and procurement system, to ensure parts availability.

Ultimately, open pit operators will be able to use knowledge gleaned from data analytics to be more proactive, Neitzel says.

“Because I have that real-time understanding of how I’m executing against the plan, I will be in a better position to either increase production or maintain current production levels, but at reduced costs, because that feedback loop allows me to allocate resources more effectively.”