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March 08, 2017
Bringing conveyor systems into the digital age
By: Segran Pillay

Conveyor systems can be found throughout the mining industry, where they are used for moving ore from mine to plant and loading ships in ports. They are used because they are very effective—but they can also be difficult to maintain, leading to outages.

When a conveyor goes down, it can be costly in terms of both time and money. For example, when a large open pit mine had to replace a drive train component on a conveyor, the result was an eight-hour outage and $2.5 million in lost production1. Often, the impact does not stop at just production delays, but instead has a far-reaching ripple effect. Conveyor breakdowns can lead to material piling up at various points in the mine, bringing machinery to a halt. Loading and dispatch activities at ports and railways may be disrupted, leading to stockpiles awaiting shipment, and delays incurring high demurrage costs.

Clearly, effective conveyor maintenance is key to avoiding such problems. But the industry’s traditional approach has largely depended on visual and manual inspection of the conveyor. This does not detect all problems, and it can be a daunting task when a miner has tens of thousands of kilometers of conveyors in operation. As a result, companies have simply had to respond to problems after the fact, fixing things as they break.

Preventive conveyor maintenance through digital

Now, however, evolving digital technologies are making a more comprehensive and effective approach possible—one that focuses on preventing, rather than reacting to, problems. These technologies let miners monitor conveyor parts and operations on a real-time basis, using sensors for activities such as:

  • Temperature monitoring, to detect changes that could indicate potential failure

  • Vibration analysis, with sensors that monitor pulleys, bearings and electric motors to detect problems

  • Position detection, to accurately measure small movements due to brake wear, for example

  • Dust suppression equipment monitoring, to support the reliable and safe operation of conveyor equipment

Analytics technologies are needed to make the most of this sensor-enabled environment. For example, video/image analytics can be used for real-time video monitoring of conveyors, as well as for techniques such as foreign-object determination, fragmentation analysis and volumetric analysis. These types of activities can support the safe operation of conveyors and help prevent their failure. More broadly, analytics can be used to understand holistically the growing amount of data coming from conveyor sensors, video systems and machine-vision systems.

Additionally, the use of 3D scanners and GPS positioning systems aids in better maintenance through the creation of a complete surface stockyard profile. The profile enables operators to see exactly where all the materials are—along with the size of materials to a resolution of 10 cm—for the entire stockyard.2 Knowing the material quality and size distribution across the stockpile helps with better control of the mix of ore and drives faster processing times. During the stockpile reclamation, the 3D map is used to determine optimal ore benches and the reclaiming plan, which lengthens the life of the conveyor system and reduces unplanned maintenance.

Improve outcomes through integrated digital approach

There are some digital solutions on the market that address specific aspects of belt operations—they might monitor, for example, just the condition of belts. But these provide only limited coverage. The key is to integrate a range of sensor data in a central monitoring system, and apply analytics more broadly to understand that data. By doing so, miners can understand and manage the specific material on the conveyor and how the conveyor is being operated. Ultimately, this knowledge makes it possible to manage the health and maintenance of the conveyor system as a whole more effectively.

Analytics can also be applied to this integrated data in order to model the specific conveyor environment and predict the failure of parts—enabling more effective preventative maintenance. For example, by using triangulation sensors3 over the entire belt length, miners can record the position of the belt surface on the pulley and carrying side, and then calculate the conveyor belt's actual thickness by means of a large number of measuring points. Thus, the conveyor belt's service life can be estimated, and a belt change recommended if necessary.

This integrated approach can provide benefits beyond conveyor-system maintenance. Data about conveyors and the material they carry can be integrated with upstream processes, such as drilling and blasting, to help improve rock fragmentation. Or, it can be used in downstream processes to help improve yields in processing plants or reduce energy consumption in crushing, grinding and processing. An improved understanding of material grade further up the process chain could even be used to help engineers as they create new processing plants.

Companies that are using an integrated approach are likely to see a variety of benefits, such as less downtime, increased throughput, reduced costs, and improved safety. They are also likely to have a more consistent, reliable and predictable flow of material, which drives increased efficiency and better planning.

All of this can be viewed as part of a larger trend toward “intelligent automation,” one of several key trends described in the Accenture Technology Vision 20164. In the mining industry, intelligent automation will draw on sensors, analytics and artificial intelligence to enable miners to assemble data from disparate systems, and use it to automate more processes and help create largely self-managing operations. What’s more, this automation will not simply replace workers. Instead, it will often allow humans and machines to work collaboratively.

Today, digital technology is making it possible to use conveyor systems more effectively in pursuit of increased mine performance and lower total cost of ownership of assets. The technology is enabling miners to get even more out of their tried-and-true conveyor systems—and it is likely to do the same for a growing range of equipment in the ongoing effort to improve operational performance.



Footnotes:

  1. Schools, Todd. "Condition Monitoring of Critical Mining Conveyors," Engineering & Mining Journal, 1 March 2015. Factiva, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
  2. Mining Magazine, Automatic Benefits, April 2015.
  3. "Germany: Surface Scanner from ContiTech Makes Conveyor Belt Damage Visible," Cyprus Mail, 12 April 2016. Factiva, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
  4. Accenture Technology Vision 2016: People First - The Primacy of People in a Digital Age.

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