The cloud and the technologies it supports are fundamentally changing the world’s mining operations, capable of enhancing safety, sustainability and productivity on-site. A cloud-integrated mining company can boast stronger data resources, digital technologies, personnel pools, internal operational procedures and cooperation with other parties. Andrew Tunnicliffe speaks with the founder and CEO of GroundHog, Satish Penmesta, to find out what impact they’re having, what benefits they can offer the mining industry and also to learn about their potential drawbacks.

However, massively outpacing that is the sector’s investment in cloud services, with a compound annual growth rate of 18.7% between 2021 and 2026 according to a Research and Markets report published in June. It says that although cloud adoption is already mature in mining, the possibilities these technologies offer continue to grow, leading companies’ spend to “grow fast” too.

Hard problems, software solutions

Whatever the figures, though, industry decision-makers aren’t buying a product, according to Satish Penmesta, founder and CEO of GroundHog – they’re buying solutions. “I don’t think anybody buys technology. What people buy is problem-solving,” he tells me. “‘Can your software solve my problem?’ they ask. ‘If yes, then let’s talk’.” The “bells and whistles” don’t really interest them, he adds – a notable view, given the seemingly insatiable appetite the industry appears to be demonstrating when it comes to the cloud and what it offers.

It’s clear that mining is navigating a transitionary period, with software, artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain technology and automation shaping it, increasingly facilitated by cloud-based technologies. The first and perhaps most obvious advantage – for mines’ IT operations, at least – is the shift in skills and growing attraction the sector has for IT talent, largely thanks to the tangible advances the not-so-tangible cloud presents.

“In the past,” says Penmesta, “if you had a fleet management system, you had to install them on servers at the mine site. They would run through the mine’s WiFi.” That required significant infrastructure, with an equal measure of technical management – a real challenge as the skills needed to manage these systems weren’t always available, to put it lightly. “To be brutally honest, no IT person worth their salt wanted to work with the mining industry; they had more lucrative jobs elsewhere.”

Today, through cloud technologies, that has changed. Where there’s connectivity, software can run and be managed remotely – in the cloud – via the likes of the Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft’s Azure. Both offer hosting services to some of the world’s leading enterprises and newest start-ups – servicing hundreds of millions of customers via their global and growing networks of data centres.

Penmesta says this evolution – even revolution – has meant mining is becoming an eye-catching proposition for the world’s younger, talented IT professionals. “Now, since all of these things can run in the cloud, you can consolidate your IT team to competent people, either in a corporate office or outsource it, all at a fraction of the cost,” he says. With that increased profile, however, comes some drawbacks – something mining executives are increasingly aware of.

Warning that the industry is facing a talent squeeze, in early 2023 management consultants McKinsey said that 86% of mining executives it had spoken with believe it’s harder to recruit and retain specialist talent – such as digital – now than it was just two years ago; something exacerbated by the growing influx of new mining technology organisations in recent years.

Aside from the slow but increasing conversion around essential skills, the cloud is delivering other profound transformations for mining operations large and small, helping them become more efficient and cost-effective, as well as improving their employee safety and environmental protections.

Mining in the cloud

In essence, a virtual data centre managed by the likes of AWS, the cloud and its associated technologies is quickly replacing on-site infrastructure and thus the need for significant spending on hardware and maintenance. Providing easy access to scalable services such as computing power, storage and databases, it consolidates an enterprise’s operations through web-based solutions. It’s a structure that mining is, arguably, best suited to harness thanks to its often remote and frequently hard-to-access operations.

Likening an underground mine, for example, to a black box – where site managers have to wait until the end of a shift for reports to be filed before they know what has happened – Penmesta says cloud-enabled applications provide an almost real-time view, helping managers make decisions on the spot. This doesn’t only benefit operational effectiveness in the “then and now”, where resources can be redirected as required, but issues can also be mitigated in advance.

“In the past,” says Penmesta, “shift changeover times could take as long as an hour and a half because you had to wait for data.” Working with its customers, he says GroundHog has managed to get that down to as little as 20 minutes thanks to cloud-enabled digitalisation. Using algorithms can even help pre-create a set of objectives to be carried out by the new shift before it has even clocks on, meaning when it does come online it already knows its responsibilities. “You just line people out faster. So, productivity has obviously improved by leaps and bounds,” he continues.

Efficiencies don’t end at the mine site either; they stretch right through the supply chain. A bedrock of digitalisation has been sensors – advanced sensor-based technologies are helping enhance operational safety and efficiency while optimising a facility’s productivity. Connected to infrastructure, the environment and equipment, they provide the type of real-time data only dreamed of in the not-too-distant past. With data now able to be uploaded to the cloud and accessed anywhere in the world, almost instantaneously, Penmesta believes it’s not unrealistic to say original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) might know that a piece of machinery needs a new part even before the operator or maintenance team does.

“For example, an OEM might receive a fault code – even before the maintenance guy knows that he needs to replace the brake pads, say, cloud technologies have already shipped that brake pad. That’s something that cloud technologies have been enabling,” he says. That – maintenance – is one element of how the cloud can enhance supply chains.

Another is what Penmesta calls the ‘operations supply chain’. This, he says, is witnessing a change to the entire paradigm. Historically, procurement – for the likes of bolts and other parts, for example – was the responsibility of the mine site itself; but thanks to advances in technology this function is being increasingly managed by suppliers.

The process – which includes OEMs storing supplies at the site, making them accessible on demand rather than having to order and await delivery – has dramatically increased operational efficiency. Mines have essentially been able to outsource their ordering and supply management responsibility, Penmesta says, thanks to the arrival of order-enabling technologies. “So, when somebody is using a part, the supplier gets notified that a part was just used, [saying] ‘now you can invoice for it’,” saving huge amounts in both time and money for the mine.

These are just a selection of the areas digitalisation and cloud-based systems are helping the world’s mining companies optimise their operations. Through it, data generation, collection and analysis are presenting opportunities for change in productivity, efficiency, cost-effectiveness, health and safety, automation and much more.

Cloud and culture

However, that change isn’t solely reserved for operations and processes. Since its launch around 12 years ago – first as rapidBizApps and not particularly focused on the mining industry – Penmesta says he and GroundHog have seen a huge cultural shift in the sector too, through its adoption of digitalisation. Miners have embraced new technologies, but their support has to be matched by support from their managers if they are to continue to provide benefits.

The drive to be more efficient is ever-present, particularly now as the world faces cost pressures of a magnitude rarely seen. Penmesta says when mining executives approach him, cost reduction and profit optimisation are usually their goals. “At an executive level, they’re looking for transparency and data normalisation across all their sites,” he explains. All perfectly sound objectives; but new projects don’t end with their rollout. “There’s amazing support in those first three months, but it has to be sustained. That’s something that, over the years, has been the Achilles heel,” he warns.

Thankfully, cloud-based technologies can help address that too, if used correctly. Penmesta notes that there are companies that have a good foundational culture and are able to sustain initial improvements by looking at the data, reading the signals and acting on them. But he warns, “Then there are other companies where it really depends on who’s at the desk”.

The cloud and its enabled technologies will drive change in the industry. But just being around when that change happens doesn’t guarantee you or your business will change with it. “There has not been an industry that cloud hasn’t significantly changed,” Penmesta concludes. But a change in management doesn’t just depend on technical advances, it hinges far more on organisational culture – and that, only people can affect.

This article first appeared in World Mining Frontiers magazine.