Esteban Peña Guerra
Instrumentation and Control Specialist
October 14, 2021
During the last 10 years, copper mining companies have seen the need to go out to explore new technologies and introduce innovations in their production processes, with the aim of improving their productivity and management of the mining business.
This is how it has become increasingly common to hear from industry 4.0 and 5.0, along with the associated digitization processes. A few years ago, in my time as a student at the University of Bío-Bío, I remember some of the lecturers talking about the growing interest in having all the data, information and variables of a plant available to everyone, something like the revolution that Netflix was generating, where one could choose what you wanted to see, where and when to see it. Back then, any data that one required for a certain mining work, had to be obtained personally, after some efforts and physically visiting to the control room of the same plant.
It is in this context, where the Integrated Operations Centers (IROC) or also known as Remote Operations Centers (ROC) burst into our country. These centers could be defined as those places where all the information of a plant converges, such as data from video cameras, instrument variables, equipment status and efficiency indexes, among others, information that is received and processed in real time by a series of servers and computer tools that, finally, allow to improve productivity (increasing the efficiency of production processes), save on costs and increase the competitiveness of a company.
But beware, this began a few years ago with “the first wave of digitalization”, which was characterized by using the automation and remotization of specific unit process activities, incorporating control rooms of unit operations, teleoperation of equipment, reportability in mobile devices and sensorization of assets, among others.
Today, we are in the presence of the “second wave of digitalization” with the IROC’s that, in addition to integrating the operation to improve productivity, facilitate decision-making at the global level of the company, taking a step beyond the optimization that was being carried out partially in each of the processes.
Another benefit that has been achieved is to reduce the exposure of employees to the risk of accident by moving them away from mining operations, thus improving the safety of people and, consequently, their quality of life.
As an example, Anglo American’s Integrated Remote Operation Centre (IROC) has more than 100 people who perform their functions in a shift system. Of these, more than 80% correspond to operators who previously had to go up to the Los Bronces high altitude site and who currently work just as connected, but from the 48th floor of the Titanium Tower building in Santiago, thus reducing transfer times and exposure to the natural and extreme conditions of Los Bronces.
The workspace, which is the digital brain of the operation of the copper deposit, has 32 workstations that receive the information from the site, where more than 700 cameras are installed that capture the different processes that the mine has to extract and process the minerals. These images and the information obtained are transmitted by fiber optic connections to maintain the security of communication, to the remote office where they are distributed in 150 state-of-the-art screens, a videowall with 50 servers, and different computer systems that work to analyze data and processes.
As an important data point, until March 31, 2021, in Chile, 7 of the 18 main mining sites already had a remote mining center operational or in project. Most of these centers are located in the city of Santiago, but there are already projects that consider the installation of one of these centers in regional Chile. An example is the IROC of Centinela (Antofagasta Minerals) that is intended to be installed in the city of Antofagasta, with the purpose of also being a contribution to regional development in employability, innovation and talent attraction, which should be fully operational in the last quarter of 2022.
The challenge in the short and medium term is to study the options available to transfer the experience of companies such as CODELCO, Anglo American and Teck among others, to the rest of the mining activity at its different levels (medium and small mining) and promote mechanisms of work and public-private investment.