"Digitalisation has become an absolute imperative if mines are to thrive in the future"

"Digitalisation has become an absolute imperative if mines are to thrive in the future"

Robert Hull, Worley’s vice-president: mining, minerals and metals, Africa

With such a capital-intensive supply chain, the mining landscape has always been faced with intractable and complex challenges – until 3D, that is, which solved some (but not all) of these problems. 3D and beyond introduced building information modelling (BIM), which is the process of collecting huge sources of information on a relational database on a project, and graphically presenting virtual business models and/or solutions based on this data.

BIM, although not specific to the mining landscape, is transformational in that an entire project’s design and cost stages, as well as construction, operational and maintenance management, can be updated with the most current information in real-time. Many mines are already familiar with 3D, having incorporated it into aspects of their operations. But 3D has matured, dramatically so, with BIM now enabling all the dimension derivatives through 4D, 5D, 6D and 7D.

The full suite from 3D to 7D is what Worley, global provider of professional project and asset services in the energy, chemicals and resources sectors, is presenting to the mining, minerals and metals industry. Robert Hull, vice-president: mining, minerals and metals, Africa, explains that progressing through the dimensional stages – from 3D up – reveals enormous value during a project timeline, as well as into and after operations.

‘Each dimension supercharges the understanding of a project – from generating accurate programme data to producing accurate estimate costs – ultimately to provide a digital bank that can be used to drive efficient operational management and better business outcomes,’ he says. ‘Within seconds, the most current data can transform a project’s lifespan and its phases, allowing for more timely decisions and improvements.

‘Adaptive technology such as this translates into shorter project cycles and less exposure to risk, and the cost savings thereof are obviously significant.’

Some of this value has already been realised by the mining operations that have embraced 3D, which is widely available from a plethora of third-party providers. What isn’t, however, are the dimensions up to 7D. Worley is one of only a handful of global companies with the in-house capabilities to offer this level of digitalisation to the sector, and it’s considered the leader in driving BIM capabilities for mining in South Africa and the rest of the globe. In fact, it was Worley’s South African arm that can take the credit for much of the organisation’s immersion into leading-edge technology in mining and minerals processing, when it adopted BIM philosophies some 10 years ago.

This leadership position enables Worley to offer sound advice, given it has already navigated the pitfalls of digital transformation. As Hull puts it, ‘Worley is the closest a mining operation is going to find to assist with its digital journey; more so because of our collaborative sharing of digital knowledge between global Worley locations’.

To advance beyond 3D requires applying the progressive stages of all the dimensions. With 4D comes the benefit of a project schedule and greater insight throughout the design process; and with 5D, the addition of control of cost and budget components. With 6D, Worley incorporated its SEAL (sustainable engineering for asset life cycle) system, described as a unique approach to engineering delivery that integrates technical integrity and safe, sustainable design processes under a common umbrella.

‘The incorporation of SEAL results in designs that are technically compliant with statutory and customer requirements, meaning assets are safer to build, operate and decommission,’ says Hull. ‘One of the most important aspects of SEAL is that it also provides us with a framework that considers the full asset cycle and enables our customers to make more sustainable decisions.’

With SEAL’s immersion into 6D and, in combination with 7D sustainability, Worley is able to present such a thoroughly comprehensive digital twin in a virtual or augmented reality environment that customers are able to physically witness, albeit digitally, how the entire actioning of a commissioned project will evolve, right through to decommissioning. It also enables customers to have all the information required for all the items pertaining to a project accessible with a click.

‘The revolution behind all this comes from Worley’s design data mapping collated by the BIM process up to 7D, which provides customers with a highly valuable electronic asset that can easily geographically integrate details that were previously overlooked in traditional paper files,’ says Hull.

‘For example, it reduces the information-loss risk by integrating drawings, operations manuals, maintenance drawings and procedures, spare-parts requirements and such like, in a structured and logical manner.

‘Further, the 7D digital bank continues to evolve during an in-use phase to include updates on repairs, replacements, operational data and diagnostics, all of which assist with informed and effective current and future decision making.’

So important is Worley’s view on digitalisation, and in maintaining its status of being at the forefront of digital development, that it has created a special division within the company’s strategic advisory arm to centralise its digital explorations, strategies and visions, plans and targets, and results.

‘Technologies that we’ve been testing over some time are now starting to return data, which has given us valuable insight into how those can take the mining industry deeper into the Fourth Industrial Revolution,’ says Hull.

Worley also invests in independent software companies that are pioneering digital tools that can be applied to further enhance data. Internally, the organisation is also focused on producing its own software enhancements. It has, for example, developed SaltGrid, a cloud-based platform that applies AI to a customer’s health, safety and environmental data to predict the number and types of incidents likely to occur.

Analysis of data is also a relentless pursuit. ‘By analysing data from previous projects, we see statistical patterns emerging, such as those around safety, which allows our customers to introduce proactive preventive measures,’ says Hull. ‘Statistical projections of this nature enable us to indicate to our customers where the highest risk phases lie within the life cycle of the project.’

It is because Worley’s BIM platform considers and includes these, and other due diligence controls in the commissioning process, that makes it such a valuable tool. ‘It provides a transparent and accountable digital record,’ says Hull. ‘It’s the underlying data that is of value, not the virtual image, because all of this powerful integrated data makes it possible to provide design accuracy, look pre-emptively forward, and create an intelligent project scope that runs from the design phase, through operation, to end of mine life.’

And mine life is a priority in Africa given that it services much of the world’s mineral needs and still has unknown reserves. Worley’s presence on the continent is thus substantial yet it still plans to grow its footprint as more opportunities open. Of particular interest to the organisation is also the mining of lithium, nickel and graphite. ‘These are increasingly in demand as the global transition to “greener” sources of energy gains momentum,’ says Hull.

The ‘green’ that mining feeds is itself part of the digital age. ‘Organisations across the globe have a strategic objective to go digital or be at risk of becoming obsolete,’ says Hull. ‘Productivity gains are being driven primarily by technology today, and it’s a very different way of working to that of traditional monolithic, high-risk and high-cost operational patterns that have kept the mining sector from adapting.

‘Going digital requires a change in mindset, from the project team, to customers and mine personnel. To realise the immense benefits of it also requires expertise, which Worley has already acquired so that we can offer our customers a roadmap to help them navigate this unfamiliar territory.’