Refining data for sustainability

Digitalization keeps advancing, faster in some industries and with more caution in others. The primary drivers for adopting digital technology and solutions tend to be economic ones, mainly to do with increasing productivity through process efficiency. However, digitalization is also a major contributor to sustainability.

Perhaps the most important corporate responsibility impact digitalization has in the mining and metallurgical industry has to do with work safety. There is still a large amount of manual labor involved in ore processing, and some tasks can be hazardous. Working in close proximity to molten metal has its risks. Digital systems and smart sensors can render, for example, manual sampling unnecessary.

”Our customers’ strategic targets often include keeping accident rates at the lowest possible level. Removing people from dangerous places is one way of avoiding accidents. Computers can do the measuring and monitoring, and the human element comes in when it is time to draw conclusions from the data provided by machines,” says Jari Moilanen, Outotec’s Automation Director.

Learning by simulation

Another way to increase work safety and avoid accidents is simulation training. The operators can safely practice and learn their job in a virtual environment where the simulator generates the response to the operator’s actions, instead of the live process.

“Virtual training is well suited for practicing scenarios that happen rarely in real life. For instance, exceptional situations in which the process is disrupted can pose unforeseen risks, for which simulated training scenarios can help prepare. A stable process that is under the operator’s control is naturally less risky,” Kari Saloheimo, Director, Digitalization says.

The virtual world is also applied to the optimization of plant operations. A virtual plant that simulates the operations of an actual plant can be used to detect problems or malfunctions as well as to increase productivity and availability, reduce energy consumption and ensure product quality.

Machines work where people can’t

Well-being at work is not only about safety. Day-to-day working conditions have a major impact as well. The location of a mine is determined by the location of the deposit. This is not always an optimal environment for people. One new mine and concentration plant for which Outotec supplies equipment and systems is located at an altitude of more than 4 kilometers, in a place that is very difficult to reach.

“People who are not accustomed to such heights cannot work there for long periods of time, and it is the customer’s wish that the mine and its concentration plant are operated with minimum personnel. This means we need to strongly support the operation from a less hostile and more accessible work environment. A host of digital solutions are needed to track what the measuring equipment on the mountain show and to simulate scenarios for both running the process and managing equipment maintenance,” says Jari Moilanen.

Digitalization gives new meaning to human factor

Expert and advisory systems also play a part in well-being at work, which depends on more than just the physical environment. Having facts and knowledge-based advice to support decision-making reduces the psychological load of process control personnel. Well-applied digitalization can also help the working community to promote a culture of sharing and cooperation.

Efficiency goes up, emissions go down

Improving efficiency is, of course, on everyone’s agenda. Better resource efficiency means – in Outotec’s world – more metal from the same amount of ore, using the same amount of energy, water and chemicals. Consequently, a smaller amount of valuable metal ends up in the tailings area or slag pile. So, resource efficiency is good for business, but it’s also good for the environment.

“When humans drive processes, they tend to be more cautious than machines. Digital technology allows plants to operate closer to their optimal parameters, which minimizes the use of energy and chemicals per production ton. This translates to reduced emissions,” says Jari Moilanen. “The sustainability of mining operations is currently a hot topic, especially in China, where the government gives significant financial support to so-called ‘Green mines’ that are able to improve their material, energy and water efficiency.”

The efficiency of maintenance operations can also be improved with digital technology. Instead of replacing parts and components according to calendar-based, pre-determined schedules, equipment can monitor their wear and tear to determine when they need to be replaced. Comparing the condition of the part to historical data gives an indication of its remaining lifetime. This means that maintenance intervals can be extended and breakdowns still avoided. And if a machine can indicate that trouble is on the way, the necessary maintenance personnel can be alerted and parts delivered before the situation is critical.

Digitalization gives a competitive edge

One of the key goals in Outotec’s strategy is to grow its service business. This is yet another opportunity to put digital technology to good use.

“Digitalization enables us to engage in constant dialogue with our customers. It allows us to apply the expertise of the entire company by giving our maintenance personnel easy access to digital data. It speeds up our ability to deliver spare parts. All in all, digitalization gives us a considerable competitive edge compared to smaller, local service companies,” Olli Nastamo, Senior Vice President, Operational Excellence says.

What about the jobs?

Digitalization often evokes a concern about disappearing jobs. When machines replace us, what is left for us to do? According to Olli Nastamo, there is no need to worry.

”It is Outotec’s view, as well as that of leading consultancies in the industry, that work will change but not disappear. People will be needed also in the future, but their tasks will involve fewer hazards and less repetitive, manual work. The changing roles call for new skills, and this is something the mining industry has now realized. The industry cooperates with educational institutes and research facilities as well as with mining companies’ stakeholders to find ways to update the know-how of workers,” Olli Nastamo says.

Outotec also participates in a mining industry cluster to tackle this issue. The company is currently determining the best ways it can contribute – for instance by offering its digital solutions or its own networks for educational and research use.

In the end, the best way to safeguard jobs is to ensure the continuity of the business. Competitiveness in today’s world requires that the benefits and opportunities offered by digitalization are seized. Sustainable operations are increasingly required by governments and investors. By operating profitably, competitively and sustainably, Outotec can continue to employ personnel, pay taxes and thereby contribute to society.