Prospects - Technology Supply

Where technology links a 1500km supply chain

Technology is expected to transform the resources industry. At BHP, due to the size of our mines and reserves, we are one of the few companies that can truly embrace the opportunities that this transformation provides. Across our sites we are already employing new equipment, processes and software that are helping us improve the safety and efficiency of our operations.

One area that is evolving quickly with technology is our supply chain.

Imagine an assembly line in a modern automotive plant. They begin with pieces of sheet metal, and every 45-50 seconds as the vehicle moves down the line, more parts such as engines, wheels, seats, are added. This synchronised process, supported by specialised human operators and robotics enables manufacturers to build a car far quicker and more safely than previously.

We are adopting this ‘assembly line’ approach in our operations, but where automotive production lines take place inside a factory, our assembly line can stretch for hundreds or thousands of kilometres across some of the most remote parts of the planet. It’s a challenge, and if we can synchronise our processes along this line, in much the same way as a car manufacturer, that’s truly a game changer for our industry.

The business value presented by connecting our workforce, data, and systems is self-evident. Knowing how to apply it, as well as where and when in a long and complex supply chain, is more difficult however.  We’ve evolved our approach, our technology experts now work at our sites, side to side with our mining and oil experts to make the most of opportunities to improve our productivity and our safety performance from exploration to shipping our products.

Let me give you some examples.

Our technology experts now work at our sites, side to side with our mining and oil experts to make the most of opportunities to improve our productivity and our safety performance.

A clearer view of the future

Starting at the early stages, in our exploration and planning, we have embraced drone technology. Our surveying and geomatics teams use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and remote operated vehicles (ROV) to collect and analyse the information we need faster - be it from air, land, underground or underwater.

We’re investing in strategic partnerships to develop an open-architecture platform that creates live, four-dimensional, visualisations of ore bodies to help us understand how best to utilise them. These real-time details with scalable models can be combined with other operational and financial data sources. We’re looking at the earth in new ways to give us a better picture of the future than ever before.

Increasing predictability in the pit

In our Western Australian iron ore mines we are operating one of the largest autonomous blast hole drill fleets in the world. The drills are operated over a thousand kilometres away, in Perth. A reduction in repair and maintenance, as well as being able to operate the drills no matter what the weather conditions are, has significantly lowered costs at some sites.

Mining with more precision

Our extraction operations deploy advanced sensors that gives us greater information about the ores we are mining. We receive ‘live’ data at dimensions we can measure in pixels, rather than metres.  At Escondida in Chile, an ore value ranking solution now increases the net value of saleable product by assigning highest value material to the most profitable destinations. This means more precise extraction of copper and reduced processing and waste.

Optimising our use of the right technology has very clear safety benefits as well. For instance, at Jimblebar in Western Australia, we began investing in a fully autonomous truck fleet in 2013 and we’ve seen a reduction of over 80% of incidents involving haul tracks.

We are upskilling our workforce for a fundamental change in the jobs mix because that is one of the ways the mining sector can show leadership in a rapidly changing world.

Optimised transport logistics

We employ precision loading techniques in our rail operations, using laser technology to ensure the accurate and safe weighing of our rail cars transporting ore. To give a sense of the scale, our Western Australia Iron Ore rail network hosts thousands of ore trains annually, to transport more than 270 million tonnes of iron ore. Every day, huge rail cars are loaded with iron ore to transport to port. Several key parts of the process are now automated and the lasers allows for accurate scanning of each ore car’s fill-state and ore density. It means cars can be loaded to maximum capacity, while maintaining safe operations.

Our use of machine learning also applies to using an automated system that schedules maintenance of tracks, and the dispatch of trains carrying ore between our Western Australian assets and Port Hedland.

At the end of our assembly line we are piloting autonomous ship loaders, transferring our ores onto vessels under the primary supervision of a controller in a remote operations centre.

While these are some of the initiatives we are employing they are only worthwhile if the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. For us this means standardisation, simplification and the seamless sharing of information across our sites and people, so an innovation in one area doesn’t create a bottleneck in another part of the system.

People are our most important asset and will remain at the centre of everything we do. Advances in technology have the potential to improve safety, productivity and efficiency, and technology is the enabler that will allow our people to deliver continuous improvements to the way we do business and is a key part of remaining competitive. This has always been the case and will continue to be so.

That means we must invest in people to make it happen. BHP has made significant investment to promote interest in STEM subjects. We are upskilling our workforce for a fundamental change in the jobs mix because that is one of the ways the mining sector can show leadership in a rapidly changing world, including creating a more diverse workforce.

As a business with a relatively small number of large and long-life assets, we are well placed to consider how a standardised approach to these technologies could apply across our whole business, benefiting ourselves and our customers. Combining our deep experience in the resource industry with existing and emerging technology has even greater impact given the scale of our assets. In the past, we were happy to be a fast follower, now we are looking at how best to put technology leadership at the forefront of our strategy.