Barry Henderson explores the differences between industry– and product–based data platforms for the mining sector and explains why choosing the correct platform is vital to companies‘ future business capabilities.
The integration of systems, workflows, and practices across the mine value chain has become a key focus for mining companies over the past five years as they move from less efficient, siloed ways of working to more streamlined, continuous, and automated processes.
To achieve successful and sustainable integration requires a data platform that not only transfers data in a read-write fashion to and from any software program, anywhere in the value chain but one that preserves the qualities of that data, enabling it to provide useful and timely insights.
There are now two types of data platforms designed specifically for the mining industry: product platforms and industry platforms. The former has been widely available for some time, while the latter is relatively new in mining and, in this paper, we will explore the advantages, disadvantages, and potential implications of both.
What is a product platform?
Product platforms are typically sold by a single technology vendor with the purpose of tying their software suite, products, or offerings together.
“Most mining software vendors who sell multiple products sell them separately,“ explained Barry Henderson, Head of Strategic Alliances at Eclipse Mining Technologies. “Any integration between those products is usually a custom request from a particular client that can later be provided to another.
“The challenge is that there‘s often little interoperability within a vendor‘s product group. This diversity results from a vendor purchasing other vendors for their technology and, in most cases, the products are written in different programming languages and are very costly to standardize and/or integrate internally.“
Programs that were written 20 years ago, for example, might have an older programming language like Fortran, whereas newer technologies might be written in .NET or other web-enabled languages.
As a result, some vendors might have three or four products that are written on different codebases, and this limits their functionality. Integrations of this nature typically do not support read–write capabilities. They can be time–consuming, expensive, and difficult to maintain, not to mention fragile; changes in one product can affect integration with another.
Product platforms do provide benefits in that they allow a specific vendor‘s product line to work together. However, customers can get tied into one particular vendor, and, currently, no one vendor in the mining space offers a product suite that spans the entire value chain.
Given the longevity and scale of mining operations, changing platforms five, 10, or even 20 years down the line might not be an option. Even if it were possible, the move would be extremely costly and logistically difficult.
How do industry platforms differ?
In contrast, an industry platform is purposely designed to store, share, and integrate data from any software program, from any vendor. They are built with the holistic view of serving an industry, not a product line.
“In most large, mature industries, there are examples of industry platforms,“ said Henderson. “Until recently, there wasn‘t one in the mining sector. That‘s partly because of the boom–bust nature of the industry. To build out products of this nature requires a steady economic environment. It‘s expensive, and it requires a lot of cooperation between technology providers.“
Industry platforms are designed to work across the entire value chain in a read–write fashion and are vendor-neutral. This allows data generated, for example, by mine planning or modeling systems, human resources, or even financial systems (there are no limits) to be imported onto a common platform and accessed or utilized in another program.
“This is important because, with today‘s siloed ways of working, there is usually a lot of repetitive work,“ explained Henderson. “For example, in mine planning, three-dimensional surveying is done using laser scanners to provide data for reconciliation.
“In fleet management, many OEMs now provide mobile equipment that features laser scanners. These acquire massive amounts of data, some of which will overlap with that obtained from surveying. In the long term, rather than using survey crews, mines could collect that data using scanners tied to mobile equipment that will be scanning continuously.“
One of the biggest advantages of autonomous mining is that operations can be run continuously. All the while, the fleet is traveling around the mine, continuously scanning the environment. If it were possible to aggregate this data along with that from mine modeling, planning, and design, then technically, it would be possible to update the mine model in real–time. Today, this takes hours or days to do and often only reflects changes on small portions of a mine site.
Why not develop a platform in-house?
Internally, it‘s very common for mining companies to use software packages from different vendors within one specific area of the value chain (like mine planning) across multiple operations. This is driven by the strengths of specific programs in addressing unique operational challenges.
In the past, tying these packages together at specific points has been done using data transfer. However, going forward, mining companies require the ability to scale successes between operations, and that cannot be achieved with siloed data management practices.
In a bid to support the use of advanced analytics, some mining companies have attempted to create their own data platforms using data warehousing or data lakes. However, platforms of this nature only connect a few disparate systems in specific areas of the value chain with read-only capabilities. Without the ability to track data changes, these systems cannot preserve history, which is absolutely fundamental for usability; without history and context, data is essentially meaningless.
Henderson explained: “These are really product platforms developed not for one particular vendor‘s products, but a series of products. To take that data into another system requires a development exercise. And if one of the vendors changes the format used in their product – which happens all the time – then it breaks the integration.“
Why do platform capabilities matter?
The end goal for mining companies when choosing a data platform is to create longevity, flexibility, and sustainability in their processes and systems. Miners need to be able to select best–of–breed solutions from different vendors and, if necessary, change them over time to achieve optimal operational and economic performance.
“Mining companies need and want to have complete flexibility and choice over the usage of their data,“ Henderson said. “An industry platform essentially takes on the role of an ecosystem orchestrator across the entire value chain, and that allows the mining company to focus on its core competency, which is mining.“
If a mining company were to select a product platform or develop its own, then it will have to fulfill the role of ecosystem orchestrator indefinitely, which is both manually intensive and time-consuming. It will also increase the company‘s costs substantially.
By opting for an industry platform, those costs can be mitigated or eliminated entirely. The platform vendor delivers the required levels of governance and security, allowing miners to track all of their data with context and provide authorized access to nominated parties. In short, it gives the customer complete control over their data.
“There really isn’t a platform in mining that can do all of these things outside of SourceOne®,“ said Henderson.
Delivering one source of the truth
Launched in 2020, the SourceOne platform from Eclipse Mining Technologies is the first true industry platform designed specifically for mining.
SourceOne has the ability to store, share, and integrate any data from an unlimited number of disparate sources in context. Users can make changes to data in SourceOne or in a software program that has been connected, and information will be saved about who, how, why, and when those changes were made.
“SourceOne will actually store the workflow that was used and offer the chance to automate it,“ explained Henderson. “That’s important because mining companies have systematic ways of doing things, like building block models. With SourceOne, they no longer have to rely on a specific geologist or a mining engineer to do that. They can create a workflow that can be accessed and run by anyone, anywhere in the world, and there’s no possibility of introducing human errors.“
Thanks to these capabilities, SourceOne provides a foundation for hugely successful remote collaboration – something that is vital in a post-pandemic world.
It does this in four ways: first, it prepares data for advanced technologies by ensuring that the customer has access to clean, reliable, uncorrupted data with all of the necessary context.
Second, it can integrate any legacy technology source and manage data from them in one centralized location with limited disruptions.
Third, it uses an encrypted, built-in connection to prevent unauthorized access to customer’s data from both internal and external sources. And finally, SourceOne’s single access point allows multiple users located on or off-site to aggregate data in different formats from different software technologies, and work on it at the same time without generating conflicts.
“It gives a mining company complete auditability of their data and provides total confidence in security and governance,“ Henderson concluded. “It truly is unique.“