Bulk Material Handling. It’s Just Moving Dirt

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After a year looking intensively at the metals processing side of mining, I recently spent some time back in bulk material handling.  And after a plant tour not long ago, a colleague new to the business somewhat naively (but accurately) observed, “It’s just moving dirt.”

Well, yes, it is, but it’s moving A LOT of dirt, with huge equipment, and exacting quality requirements, in a process that consumes a lot of energy!  And don’t forget that there are big financial penalties for delays and errors, making that simple sounding act of “just moving dirt” a high stakes game that is not so simple after all.

So I thought I would take some time to reflect (that’s what we do at the end of each year, right?) on the many areas of mining in which digitization is helping to make bulk material handling just a little easier.

Material Movement

Once extracted from the earth, millions of tonnes of ore are moved via conveyors, stackers, reclaimers and shiploaders. It is a formidable effort to track the information flow (quantity and quality) as well as the actual ore itself. Errors result in ore shipments possibly being delayed, or shipping ore of either higher quality than required (= lost revenue) or lower quality (= contract penalties). Some of the digital solutions that should be looked at to avoid these issues include:

Process Efficiency

Continuous operations is the key to solving many production issues. Stopping and starting not only injects unnecessary delays into production, it also causes extra machine wear and stress in the lives of the production control team which can lead to diminished performance results. It is critical to understand the level and causes of delays. Many sites might have a good handle on equipment failures, but don’t truly understand process and people-related delays. Check my blog on Downtime Systems which explains how digitization can help.

Environmental Monitoring

Bulk Materials Handling normally has various environmental or licence to operate conditions around water and air quality. Monitoring of some sort is fairly standard, yet improvements can still be made by tying the environmental data back to production conditions. There are a range of instrumentation, telemetry and data analysis services that can help with this.  Low Power WAN solutions like SigFox and LoraWAN have a role to play in collecting information, or you may like to consider the new Telemecanique Sensors Cloud Connected Switch.

Information Mobility

In addition, Bulk Materials Handling operations are spread across vast areas of a mine, and the ability to access information while in the field is incredibly important. Visualisation tools like AVEVA InSight or Augmented Operator Advisor are simple yet useful tools that leverage standard mobile devices, require minimal training, and deliver valuable insight to make field employees more effective.

Condition-Based & Predictive Maintenance

Proactive maintenance to prevent production issues before they can occur is not new, but the concept has significantly advanced in the digital age.  With Condition-Based Maintenance for general mining equipment we have the ability to make decisions based on a digital profile of key machine parameters that can trigger JIT remediation that maximizes OEE.  Then there is Predictive Maintenance, a specialized monitoring solution for electrical assets that provides trending data to help anticipate and plan maintenance activities to avoid potential issues and correct them before they result in costly, unplanned downtime.


The digital age has certainly changed our lives and made things much easier, both personally and professionally.  But from a competitive standpoint it has also elevated the stakes to a point where we need to be ready, willing and able to play the “game” the best we possibly can.  Even if that game is just moving dirt.

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  • Bas Mutsaers

    5 years ago

    Nice one, Greg.

    Maintenance Tactics, Works Management, Shutdown Management and aligning routes through the plant for efficiency have become much easier through leveraging Digital strategies even though the main principles have not changed and deep SME knowledge about the equipment still matters.

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