Black Rock’s technology roadmap ushers in new capabilities


Article published in Modern Mining, December 2020
Author: Munesu Shoko

Black Rock’s technology roadmap ushers in new capabilities

As part of its technology roadmap, Northern Cape-based Assmang Manganese – through Epiroc South Africa – is rolling out the Mobilaris Mining Intelligence system at its Black Rock Mine Operations. Although the system has only been partially implemented on a section of one of the three underground shafts to prove concept, the mine has already discovered several low hanging fruits that the technology brings, writes Munesu Shoko.

When Black Rock Mine Operations (BRMO) developed its technology roadmap, which is to be rolled out over a 10-year period, one of the biggest drivers was the need for more granular information in the mine’s underground working areas. “The integrity and frequency of receiving this information was also limiting our decision making to become more proactive and reduce variability. Through a thorough and robust process, we identified Mobilaris Mining Intelligence (MMI),” explains technology and innovation project manager, Cobus Lerm.







Located on the Northern Cape’s Kalahari Manganese field, which holds approximately 80% of the world’s known manganese ore resource, BRMO comprises three underground mining operations – Gloria, Nchwaning 2 and Nchwaning 3 shafts.Mining operations commenced in 1940 at the Black Rock hill and subsequently expanded to the Nchwaning and Gloria mines. Gloria was commissioned in 1975 and produces medium grade semi-carbonate ore. Nchwaning 2 and Nchwaning 3 were commissioned in 1981 and 2004, respectively, and produce various grades of high grade oxide ore.

The three operations employ a bord and pillar mining method. Once ore is drilled and blasted underground, it gets transported by loaders and dump trucks into tips. From there it is either hoisted or taken out via conveyor belts through washing and screening plants. From the plants ore gets transported to stacks, where it will be either blended to the final product in the stockyard or loaded onto trucks for road transport. Stackers and a reclaimer move the final product to the train load out station. BRMO is currently producing just over 4-million tonnes per annum, the majority of which is exported. Ore is predominantly railed to Port Elizabeth and Saldanha Bay for export.

The plan, says Lerm, is to expand output to about 5-million tonnes per annum within the next five years. One of the key enablers will be the implementation of the company’s technology roadmap, which is currently anchored by the rollout of the Mobilaris Mining Intelligence system from Epiroc South Africa.






Why Mobilaris?

One of the key levers that the mine can control is its cost per tonne. BRMO is therefore constantly seeking for various ways to reduce cost, improve efficiencies and safety. “To achieve this, we realised that we needed to make use of technology, but at the same time we had to manage the risk of identifying and implementing the different technologies available successfully,” explains Lerm.

This was one of the triggers that led to the establishment of Black Rock’s Technology Office, which focuses specifically on identifying and implementing various technologies across the company’s operations. In developing its Technology Roadmap, one of our biggest requirements was the need for more granular information in its underground working areas.

After a thorough market research, the company identified Mobilaris Mining Intelligence as the ideal solution for its specific requirements. “One of the main reasons why we chose Epiroc and the Mobilaris Mining Intelligence is that their system is agnostic and very well advanced to integrate various OEMs’ equipment and systems. Given the pace at which technology is advancing and changing, this was key for us to ensure that we can keep up and adopt accordingly as the need arises,” explains Lerm.

Another reason for going the Mobilaris route was that Epiroc was also extremely accommodative to allow BRMO to give its input with respect to the development of the system to ensure that the mine’s needs were taken into account from a system functionality perspective.

“Although a lot of unknowns were and are still being discovered as we go, Epiroc and Mobilaris are always willing to improve their product as well as supporting it. Both the international team in Sweden and the local guys really take our operational needs into account to give us the best practical solution in support of our business strategy,” says Lerm.








The Mobilaris system has thus far been rolled out on a selected portion of Nchwaning 3, which is BRMO’s biggest shaft. Initially scheduled for February this year, the implementation was only done in November this year as a result of COVID-19 influenced delays. “We basically started full testing during the first week of November. Before that we had done some functionality testing with the project team,” he says.

Lerm says the rollout of the Mobilaris system has several streams. “We first need to rollout an underground Wi-Fi network, which will enable us to collect and transmit data. We are therefore currently rolling out our Wi-Fi underground network as the first pillar of the Mobilaris rollout. In parallel to that is the smart enablement of the equipment, which is already underway.

We will then finally have the Mobilaris system implemented,” he says. A major reason why Nchwaning 3 was chosen to prove concept is that the mine is already running the majority of BRMO’s smart-enabled machines, mainly provided by Epiroc, including drill rigs, loaders and trucks. “Our current focus is on the primary production TMMs, which include both Epiroc and other brands. A big advantage is that the Mobilaris Mining Intelligence system is totally technology and vendor agnostic, thus allowing us to use it on non-Epiroc machines,” he says.

The agnostic approach allows real-time location, tracking and monitoring of vehicles, personnel and any equipment using a mixture of technologies from various vendors. Mobilaris is therefore a fit-for-purpose, homogeneous and cost-efficient solution to track assets in the mine. To integrate planning data, machine production and maintenance data or sensor data into one decision support system will help BRMO increase the production efficiency and safety of its mine.

Key changes and benefits

Following the partial installation of the Mobilaris system, the biggest change thus far, says Lerm, is how data is captured and available in near real-time for short interval control purposes. The mine has moved away from capturing data reported via radio or manual log sheets, to utilising various digital streams of feeding data into the system.

For example, TMM operators and supervisors now capture and update data via tablets, while smart enabled TMMs report data (both production and machine health) via the telemetry system. Meanwhile, TMM and personnel positioning data is fed via Wi-Fi tracking tags, and all this data is integrated into one platform, allowing for it to be turned into information on which decisions can be made.

“This shifts the focus from capturing to a monitoring and coordinating function by our control room personnel. Previously we were only able to focus on TMMs but now we are also able to focus on face (workplace) statuses, which include manual activities as well. This gives us the ability to optimise all activities in our mining cycle. With the predictability of the MMI State Engen, we are also able to always account for time on both TMMs and mining cycle activities. This brings me to the next point, which is shift planning and execution,” explains Lerm.

As a bord and pillar mine, he explains, scheduling activities or delays on both mining cycle activities and TMMs is extremely complex due to the fact that there are so many different activities that need to happen throughout a shift. The functionality of the scheduler with customisable planning templates and drag and drop functionality makes planning of activities so easy.






“All the information is collected, processed and displayed in near real-time to improve planning and execution. Managers, supervisors and control room personnel have access to accurate information displayed in such a way to improve decision making for both the current shift as it happens as well as for future planning. It’s what we call one single version of the truth,” says Lerm.

BRMO has progressed well since its continuous improvement journey started in 2015. However, with the Mobilaris system, says Lerm, the mine has discovered many low hanging fruits, for example, the ability to use time optimally during a shift. “Although we have not fully rolled out the system to all our shafts, we have already seen benefits by improving time of first and last tip for dump trucks and time of first and last hole for drill rigs in the areas we have implemented the system,” he says.

BRMO already has cases where TMMs were easily located due to positioning/locations tracking capabilities of the system. “We still need to test the emergency evacuation functionality fully, but we can already see how this will improve our safety significantly,” adds Lerm. “Managers and supervisors are able to improve planning by knowing all the statuses of their equipment and faces upfront. It all boils down to planning optimally and improving compliance to the plan. This will, in essence, reduce variability and enable us to be more predictable.”







Other projects

Meanwhile, BRMO is implementing its Integrated Remote Operating Centre (iROC), in which the Mobilaris system will play a central role. iROC will give the mine a full view of its whole value chain for all its three shafts, in near real-time, from the face underground all the way through to the load-out station – ‘one version of the truth’.

“The short interval control platform will give us the capability to monitor and control the performance of the core value chain functions from a central facility. The video wall will enable us to easily identify and act on any functions of the value chain deviating from the shift plan that can prevent us from achieving our shift goal,” explains Lerm.

Lerm believes that iROC will allow BRMO to set the benchmark in the African mining industry. “With any underground mine there is a lot of room to hide inefficiencies due to the fact that information is not always readily available, because unlike opencast mines, underground operations don’t always have a full view of activities throughout a shift. This project will give us the capability to become more proactive with regards to planning and executing. This will empower us to become more predictive, which will, in essence, reduce variability throughout all functions in our value chain. The value chain will be optimised to get us as close as possible to just in time supply,” he says.

The future

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the ‘arrival of the future of work’, with technologies such as automation and digitalisation now the talk of the industry. According to Lerm, unlike in other mines, autonomous mining is not easy to implement in a bord and pillar mine like BRMO. He believes that the Mobilaris system will, however, lay a foundation to enable the mine to get closer to automation.

“Mining in the future will be more predictive and consistent. The biggest shift or challenge in the future will be to maintain and enhance all the systems and enablers that will be more advanced. All expertise and intelligence will be incorporated in IOT (Internet of Things) and the focus will shift from expertise to mine effectively, to expertise to maintain and use these technologies effectively. Little will be unknown and the focus and energy can be placed on those deviations or exceptions when they do occur,” concludes Lerm.

Key takeaways

  • When Black Rock Mine Operations developed its technology roadmap, one of the biggest drivers was the need for more granular information in the mine’s underground working areas.
  • Through a thorough and robust process, Black Rock Mine Operations identified the Mobilaris Mining Intelligence as the ideal solution for its needs.
  • One of the main reasons the mine chose the Mobilaris system is that it is agnostic and well advanced to integrate various OEMs’ equipment and systems.
  • Following the partial installation of the Mobilaris system, the biggest change thus far is how data is captured and available in near real-time for short interval control purposes.

Author: Munesu Shoko
Modern Mining, December 2020 issue