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How on-site innovations could attract the future workforce

The Australian extractive sector has long relied on expatriate workers to bolster the industry’s workforce, thanks, in part, to the negative reputation for environmental conditions and worker safety. In its recent report, The Mining Matrix, Deloitte Australia identified that “negative perceptions” of mining and quarrying operations were a distinct threat to the industry’s ability to keep up with demand. One solution raised was the ability to leverage new technological innovations that could attract a younger workforce with future skills and ultimately redefine the safety and productivity of operations.

Digital transformation is a concept that is proving to have a far-reaching impact on many heavy industrial sectors. The idea of the “connected mine” has now become a reality thanks to new methods of data collection, demonstrating not only an improvement to efficiencies but also safety records in a notoriously dangerous sector. The hazards of a quarry can directly mimic those of an open-cast mine, and where mining companies have been quicker to adopt life-saving innovations, many quarry operators are still to leverage the true wealth of technology available to them.

Map anywhere

GeoSLAM and sister company 3D Laser Mapping have been developing safety solutions for the extractive sector for more than 20 years. Utilising ground-breaking surveying technology, systems such as the ZEB-REVO have changed the way that topographical data can be collected in confined and hazardous conditions, thanks to the combination of a laser and a unique software algorithm known as SLAM (simultaneous localisation and mapping).

Laser scanning has become a tool of choice for topographical and geotechnical surveys over the last two decades. LiDAR (light detection and ranging) uses the light from a laser to measure distance by calculating how long it takes for a pulsed light to be reflected back to the scanning system. Favoured by surveyors studying large or complex environments, LiDAR systems offer distinct advantages over traditional surveying methods, thanks to their ability to capture large amounts of detailed data remotely.

With some systems capable of capturing around one million measurements per second, the resulting map, or “point cloud” can be processed to reveal characteristics and features that can be difficult to identify with the naked eye. In an extractive setting, laser scanning can be used for the effective mapping and measuring of stockpiles, blast analysis and entire site maps which help planning teams to improve the productivity of operations.

One historical downside to laser scanning has been the reliance on global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) to pinpoint the exact location of the scanner, helping to provide accurate geospatial data and resulting imagery. This has meant that the effectiveness of systems is limited in underground or remote areas without a GPS signal – a common restriction on a mine or quarry site. SLAM has greatly enhanced the way that laser-scanning systems can work by using information collected by the sensor to autonomously make assumptions on the positioning between each data point, removing the need for GPS. It is this seemingly complex technology that may hold the key to accessible and affordable digital change in quarrying.


Smart systems

The collection of data is key when devising an impactful smart strategy in any business, yet often the complexity of the technology can lead to long integration and training ramifications which can be counter-productive to those looking to use technology to streamline processes. Systems such as the ZEB-REVO have been designed to be intuitive and as easy to use as a tablet or a smartphone, meaning that even users with little experience find the technology simple to operate. The hand-held nature of the scanner also means that it is quick to deploy, an ideal feature if an impending hazard is identified and requires further, closer inspection.

Due to the amount of data collected, laser-scanning systems also have a reputation for being labour-intensive when it comes to processing. Datasets can run into multiple terabytes, often requiring hours of manipulation until a meaningful representation of a target is achieved. Modern systems such as the ZEB-REVO and PROCESSMONITOR LIVE are now capable of automatically processing data and providing a highly accurate three-dimensional model of an environment in minutes. The data is also easily shared to allow for collaboration between on- and off-site teams, as well as contractors and regulatory authorities.

Using sensors, such as LiDAR, not only improves on-site intelligence, but also has numerous benefits when achieving zero-harm targets – a factor that could work towards attracting a younger, more risk-averse workforce. Quarry site surveys often leave teams exposed to a range of potentially life-threatening hazards, from heavy machinery and load-bearing vehicles to rockfall and slope failure. By collecting data automatically and remotely, the risks to personnel can be mitigated. The same data can then also be used to highlight areas that pose a future threat, such as the deformation of slopes or degraded safety beams.

Disruptive innovation

As suggested in Deloitte’s report, digital change is a process, not an “all or nothing” upheaval that has to disrupt an entire facility. In the case of SLAM and LiDAR, “disruption” is a positive idiom, helping heavy industry, and its workers, adopt new innovations in a scalable and effective way, without compromising the productivity and profitability of operations.

In an industry where skills shortages are a given, data-driven technology can also help extractive operations to widen the net when it comes to searching for new skill sets. Future workers will have high levels of expectation when it comes to cutting edge tools that they may have been trained to take for granted. Promoting innovation in the extractive sector can only help but improve its outdated reputation as a dangerous career choice, yet also help to streamline outdated processes which are holding the industry back.

References & recommended reading

1. Ivory N, Sanders I. The Mining Matrix: From here to where? Deloitte Australia, 2018.

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