Australia's mining industry faces a myriad of external factors which will change the way companies operate and will place existing communications infrastructure under pressure. The industry is increasingly looking to technology as a pathway to greater efficiencies, but is burdened by the inability for the systems they have today to support their short-term needs, let alone the long-term. Miners are driven to be more innovative as they seek improved production sustainability and as a result, are working their existing communications assets harder than ever to achieve growth. But can these existing networks keep up the pace?
Miners are now at a crossroads. They need to invest in infrastructure to stay competitive, drive production efficiency and enable the rapid adoption of future innovation, but to achieve this, they need to know what to invest in and where, when and how to make that investment. Although this modernisation is necessary, it will require careful and considered investment to achieve its holy grail: data-driven mining and a modern, optimised supply chain.
Current state of play
Many miners have multiple legacy systems built to cater to the demands of today - and not the innovation led opportunities of tomorrow. Burdened by the deployment of disparate IT and operational systems over many decades and driven by numerous production applications demanding their own networks, miners embarking on the journey of modernisation are finding the process daunting.
The key challenge faced by current communications infrastructure is the complexity and cost of operating multiple networks, each with their own constituent components and systems within the mine. The constant need to move and maintain communications infrastructure introduces risks to both safety and operations. These disparate systems are the result of independent and often counterproductive technological silos driving supply chains - think SCADA, microwave, 2-way, 3G/4G and Wi-Fi. Additionally, the departments that run these networks often operate independently, creating inefficiencies from duplication.
Jeannette McGill, Head of Mining Services at Telstra says that miners face fundamental challenges past the mine gate, including having to deal with a lack of standardisation and data interchange among different systems.
"Supply chains and procurement have leaned towards best-effort infrastructure, overlooking the importance of scalability, sparing or supplier-maintenance and lifecycle. As the production dependency on these systems grows, weaknesses or slow recovery from failure can have a significant and sustained negative impact on production." McGill says.
In short, networks of today are fit for current purpose - but are rapidly losing relevance both technically and operationally.
The pressure to change
Mine-site communications networks are increasingly considered critical infrastructure for good reason. Driven by IT/OT convergence and industrial IoT, they're becoming critical enablers for safety, production-sustainability, automation and mechanisation. As a result, they face a barrage of ongoing pressures from new systems, which are increasing performance demands.
These demands relate to coverage, capacity, security and dependability. Telstra's McGill says failing coverage and capacity can reduce production as well as increase the burden of manual administration and handling. Security and dependability require strong day-zero implementation accompanied by continuous maintenance, updates and strong vendor support.
"Integrating into other systems, such as radio networks to support safety and rescue teams is essential," she says. "With changing purpose, the functionality, utilisation and security of communications networks must continuously be revisited to ensure suitability and to manage production risk."
As producers consider the future of their networks, simplification and a lower cost of operations are key to doing more with less, without compromising safety. Miners face a difficult decision: evolution or revolution.
Evolution maintains the same style of solution, while changing network assets and sweating the network strategy. It involves modernising to latest standards and upgrading for greater capacity and resiliency alongside investment decisions to enhance production sustainability.
This includes putting supply chain agreements in place that preserve operational integrity.
Revolution pursues new technologies to meet increased production and system requirements, and can be a step function in capital investment, skills, expertise and organisational change.
This approach implements a long-term platform sooner, but also requires careful management of the risk of converging and consolidating multiple disparate systems into one IT/ OT platform.
Network modernisation is a whole of business challenge. Regardless of the path taken, the key design consideration is the growing need for cybersecurity across the backdrop of an increasing number of connected devices managing telemetry, control and safety. Additionally, knowledge of the technology, applications and business use is a critical factor in determining success. The difficulty lies in confidently predicting the needs of the future, and operators must carefully balance the risk of over-investing in capability that may never be needed with underinvesting in infrastructure that can't deliver when required.
"It isn't an IT issue and it's not a communications issue. It's IT, communications and OT all together, with awareness of the needs of businesses and their overarching systems. And this is why Telstra made a strategic investment in establishing Telstra Mining Services - to bring this vertical-specific perspective, focus and understanding to the industry." McGill says.
Production networks of the future
Simplification will be the hallmark and LTE will be a dominant technology. This will be owing to its ability to provide high throughput, low latency coverage across mine areas. LTE also has the capacity as a single infrastructure to support the needs of multiple applications and users, each with varying degrees of criticality. Both private (dedicated) and public (shared) options will be in-play based on each mine's circumstance.
However, the production network of the future will not involve competing technologies. We believe in the Heterogeneous Network (HetNet) - a fundamentally LTE network leveraging a mix of radio technologies into a single solution, aligning the needs of the network to the capabilities of various technologies to promote commercial and capacity efficiency.
LTE will be used for long-range umbrella coverage, and production-critical applications needs such as critical control and automation. Wi-Fi will remain for high-capacity localised coverage - but upgraded to work with LTE services and cells. Traffic will be intelligently moved across both, based on coverage and capacity. Microwave will remain as the transport technology linking sites and infrastructure together.
Narrowband IoT will become significant for low-capacity, low-rate, non-critical telemetry that doesn't require the functionality of LTE transport. And satellite will continue its role for highly remote backhaul. Together, they are deployed and operated as one, with common policy, security and operations.
These networks will boast intelligence and automation - self-healing, self-optimising and self-configuring - to reduce the expertise and effort required to deploy and operate them. Their design will be outcome-focused, with tools and capabilities to monitor, report and visualise the end-user experiences of vehicles and devices that rely on the network, rather than the network itself.
The challenge for miners looking to the future is to avoid typical technology versus technology vendor agendas. Their prerogative is instead to invest pragmatically and intelligently into the business, system and operational needs to enhance production sustainability.
Telstra's specialist mining division, Telstra Mining Services, has the knowledge and industry experience to help you navigate this journey.
To express your interest in a complimentary mine-site communications assessment to understand how your network will stand up to the pressure of modernisation, visit our website below.