With mining machinery, automation has evolved to be a crucial component of safe, productive workflow and operational viability. As helpful as automation is in terms of streamlining operations, there are potential problems when the transfer of data and reports, which are generated in large batches by these machines, run into barriers during delivery through the work chain. So, while automation has made inroads in one direction, the lack of interoperability between machines, made more divisive by numerous proprietary interfaces ultimately has been a hindrance to productivity and to cost efficiency.

IREDES (International Rock Excavation Data Exchange Standard), formed in 2000, is among the oldest organizations that looks at data and the mining industry. The not-for-profit organization was the result of several major players in the mining and construction industries joining forces with a shared goal to develop a standard that connects rock excavating machines and IT infrastructures through a common language, while reducing the need for individual software development projects. Based on XML, the IREDES standard is open sourced, and provides a communication bridge through which rock excavation equipment is connected to office systems.

Chairman of IREDES, Christoph Mueller, says “We regard IREDES as a method for achieving process optimization in mining, basing on related information exchange, minimizing the interfaces needed.”

Much of mining equipment is remote controlled via a network, and each machine represents a single stop along the mining process chain; each is required to produce operational information to be passed along to the next automated stage. Prior to IREDES, even though equipment was automated and data controlled, in theory having the ability to process and disperse information, incompatible data formats meant that workflow stalled.  Data and reports were being gleaned from several, single proprietary interfaces that were ineffective both from a cost and from a quality assurance point of view, making each stop along the mining process chain operationally isolated.

The Evolution of Data Connectivity

At the 1999 ISMMA and Telemin 1 conference in Sudbury, Ontario an initiative was launched to support standardization of data exchange and essentially was the base from where IREDES began its official evolution.  It was from this point that Mueller and his group got to work developing data standards.

Mueller recalls that the need and the solution to fix the problem were easily identified: “The contractors wanted to have identical quality reports from the machines.  They wanted to upload electronic plans on to the machines with a common interface. Often, when they drill a tunnel in the mountain, they have a machine on one side of the tunnel and then they have a machine on the other side of the tunnel. They wanted homogenous reporting and operation with the machines. This is what they got with IREDES.”

IREDES is a collaborative ground both for the industry, stakeholders and for group members, Mueller says, “In practice, it (IREDES) is driven by our organization. One engineer is dedicated to this job and performs the practical coordination of it. Then we have working groups to participate…When we plan new profiles, we have an initialization meeting, kind of a brainstorming meeting. We prepare a profile draft and then have a review meeting. On the final draft if there are no further comments from the members, we work towards a prototype and implementation. If we don’t find any problems with implementing it, then we simply release it.”

Responding to Industry Need to Have Standards that Work

Mueller outlines the clear cause and effect connection between the industry demand, development and the implementation of these data standards. Furthermore, the adoption of these standards continues to hinge largely on their pragmatic appeal.  Regulation for the same practices by a governing body would not necessarily promote adoption in the same way.

He says that, in a private economy, industry-buy in is crucial to adoption of the standards, and that has to be the driving force behind the identification and development of the standards, “IREDES is completely an industry-driven thing. You can’t enforce (adoption) by regulation or something like that.”

“IREDES adoption was more or less a silent adoption by the machine manufacturers. Up to now, the standard was adopted by the main machinery manufacturers.” He says that a number of contractors, including a number in Europe particularly, are driving the standard through procurement.

Peter Cunningham, Superintendent of Process Automation, Specialty Engineering Vale – Ontario/UK, says that from an operator’s standpoint, IREDES assists in integration, providing a necessary missing link in a cost-prohibitive, complicated proprietary environment. He says, “One vendor cannot necessarily supply what we need in certain cases. We are always going to be stuck with a multi-vendor fleet. It makes it very difficult to integrate multiple systems.”

Lessons Learned

The execution of developing IREDES was not without its hiccups, and the IREDES group experienced their own trial and error in the development process. For instance, Mueller says that at the outset, the group had hoped to conduct all of their business via the internet, but soon realized that there were some practical challenges associated with that.

In current day, some of their work was carried out via the Internet, but they have a physical presence as well. The key, as Mueller suggests that even in an environment driven by technology, it pays dividends to step back and re-evaluate based on human criteria, even though at the outset the plan was to work collaboratively completely via an online channel.

“As it turns out, this does not work… No organization has one person just dedicated to this job. Everyone has their day-to-day work, and so when we develop something, in order to push it ahead, we need to work in the office with an engineer, which is not what we thought in the beginning.  We thought that everything could be done cooperatively by the membership via the internet.  But this does not work (practically). “

Similarly, Cunningham says that they ran into some challenges of their own in the deployment of IREDES, during a pilot program.  In hindsight, deployment could have been done differently, says Cunningham, and it underscores the necessity of deployment planning for successful standard adoption.

“I would make a better plan for deploying. I wouldn’t pick the bottleneck equipment as a first choice. I would start with something that isn’t as critical to the operation.”

Cunningham also describes some of the social issues and operator interference that posed implementation problems.

“There was a bit of a social issue with some of the operators not wanting to be seen and have the visibility of production from their machines as they were operating them… In the long term, it (IREDES) has come out as a good thing, but in the shorter term, social impact is something to be aware of and the resistance of the workforce to being monitored.”

Cunningham explained that although this particular problem was driven by implementation of technology, the solution for adoption was eventually provided by a human element, with honest operators who saw the benefits, encouraging others to do the same.

Cost Benefits Drive Interest and Action

Part of the appeal of IREDES is the cost benefits realized by more efficient production and by savings on process integration.

“Cost benefit is main driver, because of all of the systems that we’d have to integrate as well as ease of that integration,” Cunningham explains. “It (proprietary software) can be very expensive for us to try to maintain. For us, the open standard approach is a better solution where we can leverage our existing infrastructure and existing reporting systems, which our data historian uses and has links in to our upper business systems.”

Although they haven’t done a full business case on the cost benefit of IREDES, Cunningham says that it is a well-understood fact within the industry that open standards that support interoperability represent significant cost savings, boost production and make for more efficient operations.

“Inherently people just know that you save a huge amount of time and get more production out of the equipment.  It seems like it is a known fact that you have huge benefits. We’d end up with multiple data collection systems, multiple vendors. To support that is very costly and difficult.”

For Vale, implementation continues to be a slow process, simply because of the lengthy turnover of their fleet, which can take between 5-10 years to fully regenerate. But, as Cunningham says, their view to the future is clear, and it includes an open source.

“Our vision is to have all of our mobile equipment come under a mining standard. We want all of our equipment to come in with that data standard on it.”