With its antiquated methods, spotty safety record, and undesirable environmental impact, the field of mining is primed for change.
And change couldn’t come too soon. The world has an insatiable appetite for natural resources, and as countries grow and urbanise, commodity needs are rising dramatically, says Severine Chapus, Territories & 3DEXPERIENCity Vice President at Dassault Systèmes.
Technology has been shaping the face of mining for quite a few years now, with automated trucks and smart mines coming into play. Now, so is 3D simulation, she explains.
Often, mine workers have to operate in hazardous environments, and many die from mine collapses and explosions each year. And the further down mining companies dig and excavate, the greater the safety risks, Chapus points out.
“There is not a CEO in the world of a major mining or oil and gas company who wishes to wake up to news of an accident at one of his or her operations,” she says.
She suggests introducing a “3D digital mockup” – a virtual mine that can simulate all the activities of a real one. In a virtual world, companies could try out any number of hazardous scenarios and train mine workers on how to deal with gas leaks and fires, for instance.
Companies will also be able to simulate real-world conditions to aid in designing better ventilation systems and planning evacuation routes in mines. And within the mines themselves, supervisors will be empowered to “identify problems as they occur; allowing for schedules to be re-optimised on the fly; and update work orders to be communicated during shifts”, she continues.
This capability enables virtual safety training, she adds: “new workers can experience an operation, including its dangers and safety procedures, before they ever travel to it”.
Reducing environmental impact
There are also the environmental factors to consider: unsustainable extraction of natural resources can cause soil erosion, air and water pollution, and destruction of natural habitats.
3D simulations can help here, by allowing companies to review a project “throughout this lifecycle from its construction through closure, so its impact on the environment can be understood, and ways found to mitigate this”, Chapus explains.
Companies could integrate technology to improve mining processes and productivity, which in turn reduces energy consumption for this energy-intensive activity. They may also plan and build mines that minimise both the amount of waste produced, and disruptions to the land the mines sit on, she says.
And by simulating a mine, engineers and geologists will have the right tools to design and build more energy-efficient processing plants and infrastructure.
Achieving greater buy-in
Through 3D simulation, governments and communities can better understand what will happen in the course of a natural resources project. “This virtual world allows for a level of understanding that cannot be achieved by verbal or paper-based communications alone,” Chapus remarks. Decision-makers will be able to make informed decisions on project proposals, she adds.
“This virtual world allows for a level of understanding that cannot be achieved by verbal or paper-based communications alone.”
Compliance is an important factor too, as governments are increasingly putting in place stricter environmental regulatory requirements for mining licences. “If mining companies are able to function even more sustainably than what the regulations require through careful mine planning with a virtual mine, this will help improve acceptance by their stakeholders,” she continues.
Technology is fast changing the face of mining, and companies now have the potential to completely transform their processes to be safer, smarter, and more efficient and compliant. This could lead to a more balanced approach to extracting and using only resources that are needed. “What’s key is to develop, implement and enforce policies for sustainable exploration, development and utilisation of natural resources whilst protecting the safety and livelihoods of local communities and preserving the environment,” concludes Chapus.