| Written by Mark Buzinkay
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As mines continue to increase their levels of mechanisation and automation, the importance of control rooms is growing proportionally.
Operational control rooms play a critical role in mining operations' efficient and productive running. Control rooms provide situational awareness and act as the hub of operations management by collecting, analysing and relaying information. In its most basic form, a control room can be a desk in the corner of a planning room equipped with a two-way radio and desktop computer. However, the more advanced control rooms feature state-of-the-art communications infrastructure, people and material tracking tools, and visualisation capabilities that rival those used in the most advanced manufacturing and processing facilities.
Mining operations must utilise best practices regarding control room design, layout and functionality to maximise efficiency and productivity. Some of the key considerations include the following:
Ensuring that the control room is centrally located and has good visibility of the overall operation (underground visibility: optical and digital)
Providing clear and concise visual displays that show all relevant information in an easily digestible format
Creating an ergonomic layout that allows operators to work comfortably and efficiently
Incorporating state-of-the-art communications, tracking and visualisation tools
By following best practices for control room design, layout and functionality, mining operations can maximise efficiency and productivity while ensuring the safety of their employees.
As a centralised institution, the state-of-the-art control centre is where all aspects of the mining operation can be monitored and controlled. These expectations can be achieved by visualisation of all operations, including production, plant and logistics, and creates a highly efficient, automated, low-cost, and, most importantly, safe operation.
The control centre relies on communication technology to receive data from various sources and send instructions to the different parts of the mine. Typically, a fibreoptic backbone is used in a greenfield project down the shaft, and the wireless mesh network provides fast communication between the control centre and the different parts of the mine. Additionally, the leaky feeder system supports two-way radio communication in all mine areas, ensuring that everyone can stay in contact with each other.
The capabilities built into the control centre include mine planning, production scheduling, fixed plant management, safety management, monitoring miners and production, control, backfill management, breakdown and planned maintenance management, processing and remote operations and analytics.
The control room operator is the backbone of a mining operation. They monitor all aspects of the mining process and ensure everything runs smoothly. Without a control room operator, a mine would quickly become chaotic and unproductive.
"The Control Room Operator ensures the safety of miners by managing and controlling the shift underground communication and monitoring strategies. By doing so, they enable safe and efficient mining operations," says Geir Nerbø, VP of Sales of Identec Solutions, "The Control Room Operator's role is essential to miners' safety". Their ability to think and act quickly, communicate effectively, and troubleshoot problems can mean the difference between life and death for miners underground. Therefore, monitoring miners and tracking their locations is a critical safety-related task.
The Control Room Operator manages the underground communication and monitoring strategies. This includes tracking the location of miners, coordinating communication between miners and the surface, and providing information to miners about changing conditions underground.
As efficient communication is essential, control room operators must be able to quickly and accurately communicate with other members of the mining team, including the miners themselves. This communication is necessary to coordinate the mining operation's various aspects and ensure everyone is on the same page. Therefore, the control room operator is a vital member of the mining team.
Tagging and tracking systems enable effective safety management from a central control room through real-time location tracking of personnel and equipment, often used to augment legacy clock-in, clock-out systems.
The improved situational awareness from systems such as Crew Companion reduces operational delays during normal operations, allows shafts to be cleared faster before blasting and reduces the duration of rescue missions when accidents occur by providing vital decision support to control room operators. "Crew Companion provides the necessary visibility to Control Room Operators to perform their daily task in the safest way," says Nerbø. "LKAB, one of the biggest iron ore producers in the world, uses Crew Companion in their mines in Sweden to optimise the blasting schedule and guarantees safe operations under the highest industry standards."
The control room is the central nervous system of most process-oriented organisations, not only in mining. It is where all critical information about the organisation's operations is displayed and monitored, and decisions are made regarding executing these operations. Because of its importance, the control room has become increasingly scrutinised in recent years as organisations strive to improve their overall performance.
One area that has received considerable attention is the integration of people and technology in the control room. Studies have shown that there are significant barriers to effective communication and collaboration between operators and other members of the control room team due to the lack of efficient information representation in the control room (e.g., poor visualisation of data and inadequate alarms). In addition, human-machine interfaces (HMI) are often not optimised for human cognition, and this can lead to errors and inefficiencies in operator performance. "What we need are intuitive, real-time interfaces", says Nerbø, "allowing a quick situational overview, especially when tracking miners."
Improving operator training is another key area of focus for control room improvement initiatives. Operators need to be properly trained on the use of new technologies and systems, as well as on the organisational procedures and protocols that govern the execution of their work. In addition, it is important to ensure that operators have the necessary skills and knowledge to effectively collaborate with other control room team members.
Finally, optimising organisational factors such as staffing levels, shift patterns, and workflows can also improve control room performance. For example, by ensuring adequate staffing during peak periods, organisations can reduce the likelihood of errors and delays in decision-making. Similarly, by redesigning workflows to reduce the number of handoffs between operators, organisations can improve the efficiency of control room operations.
By taking a comprehensive approach to control-room improvement, organisations can achieve significant gains in performance and safety. However, it is essential to note that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Each organisation will need to tailor its improvement initiatives to specific needs and requirements like monitoring miners. Nonetheless, by focusing on the key areas discussed above, organisations can make significant progress towards optimising their control rooms for improved performance.
Further reading: Miner Tracking - Tag solution in real-world scenarios
Based on the information above, there are several key areas that the mining industry needs to focus on in order to improve control room performance. These include integrating people and technology, optimising workflows, and providing adequate operator training. By taking a comprehensive approach to control room improvement, organisations can make significant progress towards optimising their control rooms for improved performance and safety, especially monitoring miners.