Accelerating ideas

WHAT does it take to create a product that could save the mining industry more than $100 million? A Tonka truck, an iPhone, a fitball and some gaffer tape. Supply Side by Australia’s Mining Monthly editor Noel Dyson
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The moment of truth as the Newton Labs' prototype was put to the test.

Staff Reporter

No, this is not a plot from a MacGyver episode. Clearly not. There was no mention of a Swiss Army knife at all.

It is, however, what it took for Newton Labs to create a tool that can detect when oversized material has been loaded into a haul truck.

As many in the mining industry will know, oversized material can cause major downtime issues. Not the least of these is what it can do to the crushing circuit.

Newton Labs director Simon Vincent said oversized material was leading to costs of $A40-$50 million a year on just three sites in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

Imagine, he said, how much of an issue it could be across all of Australia’s hard rock surface mines, which could all have similar problems.

Some estimates put the problem at more than $100 million for the Australian hard rock industry.

Newton Labs came to be as a result of the first Unearthed “hackathon” event, which was held in May.

In crude terms a group of developers, software engineers and other tech types are given – in this case – some mining industry problems and locked away for a weekend to come up with ways to solve them.

As Unearthed organiser Resource Innovation through Information Technology director Justin Strharsky puts it they are “crowdsourcing solutions”

People with little or no background in mining are given a look at mining problems.

In the first hackathon the participants were given six problem sets with more than 60 gigabytes of data on those problems.

Strharsky said by the end of weekend the teams had produced 18 software prototypes.

The four people that ended up forming Newton Labs, while they knew of each other, had never really worked together before.

One of the problems thrown out to that first Unearthed event was to find ways of identifying when oversized material was heading to the crusher.

The four Newton Labs team members all had a background in vibration analysis and applied their expertise to the problem.

What came out of that weekend was a prototype that consisted of a Tonka truck with an iPhone attached to the side of it gaffer taped to a fitball. That prototype was able to demonstrate their concept of identifying the vibrations when a piece of oversized material landed in the truck tray.

Over the past seven months the idea has grown to be magnetic sensors that are mounted on the back of haul trucks.

These sensors are made of heavy duty mine-spec material.

They identify when oversized material has been loaded and mine management can be alerted to the fact.

On most sites that would mean the truck with the oversized material would be sent to a dumping area on the run-of-mine pad near the crusher to offload. At some point a mobile rock breaker can be deployed to resize the oversized material and a wheel loader will then move it into the crusher.

This way the mine can continue to operate, pretty much without a hitch. The truck’s haul cycle is virtually uninterrupted and the crusher does not have to stop due to an oversized rock going through it.

One of the first questions is why not rely on the shovel operator or the truck driver?

In most cases they do identify when oversized material has been loaded but mistakes happen.

There is also that four o’clock rock, where miners may let an oversized rock slip through to earn an extra smoko. Many in the industry say it is just a myth but then struggle to explain why the statistics show a spike in such events occurring on a Friday afternoon.

The Newton Labs system should catch the times when operators miss a large rock being loaded.

It also offers a host of metrics that can be very useful in fine tuning a mining operation.

For example, it can identify where there is a spate of oversized material incidents. This could point to a problem with the blasting techniques. Perhaps the rock is not as friable as it is in other pits and may need to be drilled and blasted differently. Perhaps the blasting teams are not doing their job correctly.

At the moment Newton Labs is in discussions with some major miners.

Not a bad result for a group that got together over a weekend at a “hackathon”

Strharsky said there were plans for four of these “hackathons” to be held next year.

There will be one in Perth on March 20-22, one in Brisbane on May 15-17, one in Sydney in September and one in Melbourne in November to coincide with next year’s IMARC conference.

Unearthed is also expanding to become a technology accelerator with Newton Labs as its first company.

Companies accepted into the technology accelerator will get $70,000 in seed funding and access to mentors.

Fellow RIIT director Zane Prickett said the plan was to have 10 companies a year going through the technology accelerator.

“We want to be at that level by 2016,” he said.

“Next year we’ll have two to three.”

Besides the funds and the mentoring, Newton Labs has also been given space at “entrepreneurial hub” SpaceCubed in the heart of the Perth CBD.

SpaceCubed hosted the first Unearthed hackathon.