While there is some debate about where we are in a new ‘industrial revolution’, it’s clear that the era of the digital enterprise – also known as Industry 4.0 – is upon us. Policy makers and technology providers have embraced the philosophy as the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ or the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) for its promise to converge information and communication technologies to transform the way producers run operations. With our national leaders’ energetic support of Industry 4.0, and investments made by the likes of GE, Cisco and others, the digital enterprise will be a driving force for years to come. In fact, US digital and technology provider Accenture estimates that the IIoT could add $USD14.2 trillion ($AUD18.5 trillion) to the world economy in the next 15 years.
In an Industry 4.0 ecosystem, all devices in a factory or manufacturing process have sensors that are connected to the internet. These sensors stream massive amounts of data back to the manufacturer, which can use software and analytics to interpret data to support real-time decision-making.
Connecting digital technologies with industrial products and logistics is not an entirely new concept, of course. The mining industry, for example, has applied this approach for years. Today, pressure on aggregate product margins due to competition and the rising costs of production are just some of the factors pushing aggregates producers to rethink the way they work as well.
Rise of industry 4.0
Improvements in cloud technology and cloud-based applications are also helping to advance the concept of IIoT and universal data exchange in the aggregates industry. Before the era of enterprise cloud computing, collecting and storing a vast amount of data was nearly an impossible task for most small and mid-size manufacturers, including quarries. Managers could once be overwhelmed at the prospect of managing data centres and IT systems, in addition to running day to day aggregate operations. But now, technology is getting simpler, faster, easier to use and less costly than ever before. This makes technology adoption and deployment possible for small and mid-size aggregate operators.
Industry 4.0 concepts and the seamless transfer of data between quarry productivity applications − such as machine control, wheel loader scales, measurement tools, planning and load-out applications and fleet management systems − is changing the aggregates business now and for the future. By connecting data between production equipment and systems, managers get a more holistic view of site operations, with the ability to create valuable production and performance reports for extraction, processing and load-out operations.
The Industry 4.0 ecosystem enables a streamlined quarry workflow in five main areas:
- Extraction. Excavator scales, wheel loader scales and haul truck management systems let managers track pit loading and haulage targets and estimates automatically. Data can then be analysed and reports created that allow for continuous improvement; this eliminates the guesswork or ‘gut feel’ that used to govern much of the extraction operations.
- Processing. In a quarry environment that ties weighing systems such as belt scales with mobile production management applications, the need to manually track throughput and final tonnage is eliminated. For instance, measurement tools on the belt accurately capture data and show how machines are running, including tonnes per hour, total tonnage, downtime reasons, empty run times and more. In turn, this level of detail about throughput gives quarry operators the ability to monitor and improve the crushing and screening process. Better analysis enables more proactive decision-making when it comes to plant performance. This includes the ability to look deeper into any bottlenecks and to track every product. By measuring weight, downtime and performance of multiple belts automatically, quarry operators can decide the optimal mode mix when planning production to meet sales forecasts.
- Load-out. Delivering the right product to the right customer at the right time is a critical component of any operation. In a quarry operation that has embraced Industry 4.0 principles, accurate loader scales seamlessly exchange data with load-out management applications. This optimises the load-out process and helps ensure each truck is loaded safely and quickly and to the optimal capacity. These connected scales also generate billable information and tickets straight from the loader scale. By exchanging information freely, these solutions can feed data into load-out management tools that provide real time customer job lists. Load accuracy and better analysis capabilities help with machine utilisation and customer satisfaction.
- Inventory. Using conventional methods to conduct a ground survey of an active pit or quarry can be time-consuming, not to mention potentially dangerous. Measuring inventory with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) keeps quarry personnel out of harm’s way and help operators improve data collection accuracy and efficiency. This helps with forecasting and avoids costly write-offs at the end of the year if stockpile estimates are inaccurate.
- Transportation and distribution. Data automatically collected about vehicle location condition and driver behaviour minimises the need for manual load sheets and reduces driver frustration. Asset and fleet management tools that exchange data let operators know when and where machines are working compared to targets, so operators can make the right decision at the right time.
Although quarry productivity technology is becoming easier to use, operators should never underestimate the importance of selecting the right supplier and choosing a good local partner. Whether the quarry is a major producer with many sites or a single site operation, having the right partners in place that can troubleshoot problems and have a grasp for the complete aggregate workflow is critical. Other best practice adoption strategies include:
- Keep it simple. To start with, focus on a specific area of the quarry that needs optimisation and work from there out. For instance, if extraction estimates are always in question, consider a solution such as a haul truck management system. Sophisticated monitors provide in-cab displays and sensor systems that collect production figures and payload data, without the need for manual tally sheets. A next step would be connecting these sensors to the internet and using a production management application with cloud reporting tools to highlight material movement issues. From there, reports show haul truck activity, loading time and waiting time. Better data in one area allows operators to make key adjustments to variables such as cycle time and product ratios, which have a big impact on meeting plant demands.
- Focus on return on investment (ROI). Similarly, start on the area with the biggest opportunity for ROI. For instance, running the pit loading operation at capacity can eliminate the cost of additional machines and trucks to support the excavator. Even small tweaks in the pit-loading operation can eliminate load adjustment, dumping excess or turnarounds during haulage, which can save significant money and time. When ROI is high, quarries can make additional investments incrementally, building the technology infrastructure methodically while mitigating risks.
- Establish manageable benchmarks. Set benchmarks during the adoption period to monitor progress. When technology used across the quarry is linked, operators have a historical perspective and analysis of data from multiple sources. This insight allows teams to better benchmark operational performance and then compare time periods, operator performance, product inventories and sites to identify cost drivers and opportunities.
- Have a long-term plan. While it’s important to start small, having a long-term plan will ensure each technology component (ie machine control, scales and load-out applications) as well as the supporting infrastructure, is interoperable. The seamless, universal exchange of data is the foundation that will support the operation’s long-term goals for connectivity and optimised production.
While it may take several years to fully realise the benefits of Industry 4.0, many quarry operators are acting now to improve their operations. The vision for a more connected aggregates production process and real time data sharing is no doubt driving quarry operators forward. By syncing data captured across the entire aggregates workflow, from pit to processing and then load-out, quarry managers will continue to benefit.
Those aggregate operators that apply best practices and next generation technology today will experience increased visibility across the production site, improvements to production efficiency, machine productivity and personal safety.
Sören Schramm is the regional product application manager for aggregates at Trimble and leads the Trimble Aggregate Innovation Partner Program.