Big data, big opportunities

WHILE productivity hikes are now the mainstream focus for miners and the media, a quiet revolution in the way companies are designing these initiatives has escaped mainstream attention.
Big data, big opportunities Big data, big opportunities Big data, big opportunities Big data, big opportunities Big data, big opportunities


Andrew Duffy

It’s long been a buzzword in technology circles and over the past few years, big data has also been expanding its footprint in the mining industry.

Put simply, big data involves the collection of complex and massive data sets for analysis. Its proponents say the information presents a powerful level of insight not previously seen.

This detail aims to give companies the chance to develop their strategies with more insight, and hopefully leads to better results onsite and on the bottom line.

Like most emerging trends, big data does not represent a paradigm shift, but rather an extension of recording and analytical tools that have been in place for years.

PricewaterhouseCoopers partner Stephen Loadsman told MiningNews.Net that much of the information now forming big data initiatives had been collected by mining companies for years.

“Where the prominence and focus has really come into its own is in the desire and necessity to drive productivity improvements,” he said.

“A lot of it is about how to better use data to plan and manage your activities, and get the best out the existing investment as opposed to chasing more capital.”

Machinery and maintenance monitors are some of the more traditional forms of data collection, but Loadsman said the focus for each company was always different.

“It’s about understanding the entire value chain of the business. From the exploration phase right up to marketing and selling the product, there are always productivity dividends to be realised,” he said.

“The main question is, what are the key drivers of value in the business? What are the key constraints? From there you can look at the data you have, or don’t have, and start to optimise those key areas.”

Outside traditional areas, researchers from The University of Sydney last year applied analytical methods used to predict stock market movements on massive sets of geological data, modelling the evolution of Australia’s industry and pinpointing new deposits.

Usyd also used big data techniques to help create the first digital opal map for Australia, showing where gem-quality opal was most likely to be found.

Other high-end developments include automation and remote control initiatives, with some rail optimisation projects involving around 80,000 variables and 50-60,000 constraints.

Developments on this leading edge have upped the potential for maths, statistics and computer science experts to help drive improvements in mining, and Loadsman said new skills would be key to unlocking some opportunities.

Even stepping back from the more complex developments, Loadsman said people with good analytic skills were needed to make the most of any new data initiative.

Finding and implementing these skills will form part of a cultural change underway in the industry, with most companies still transitioning their decision-making processes.

In terms of the companies driving these programs, Loadsman said there had been contributions from both big and small resource companies.

“Some of the bigger companies have made big investments in their systems and are able to capture large amounts of data on those operations,” he said.

“But it’s not always a matter of scale. Some of the more nimbler companies have also been able to capture the same data.”

While the finger is often pointed at the mining industry as a sector lacking innovation, Loadsman said the last few years had seen big changes to data collection and analytics, and most companies had not been flat footed.

“Over the last 3-5 years the mining industry has, to its credit, looked to other industries that are capital intensive and also trying to make productivity gains,” he said.

“They’ve employed lean and six sigma methods to help eliminate bottlenecks within the business, and that’s come from the motor industry.

“They’ve also adopted reliability centred maintenance as a concept, and that’s something that’s come from the airline industry.”

These techniques, and a host of others, have all contributed to a move toward increasing the precision of mine planning, exploration, operation, and development.

Loadsman said the focus on these trends was set to rise in the future, and would continue to play a key role in mining strategy.

“The companies that do this best will be the ones that achieve the competitive advantage,” he said.