Marianne Kobak McKown/Elko Daily Free Press
Rob Neitzel, project manager for digitization, talks about the changes to technology at Barrick Gold Corp.’s Cortez Hills Mine.

Barrick Gold Corp. is moving Cortez Hills Mine into the future of the industry with a “digital reinvention” of mining.

The company announced in September that it partnered with Cisco to bring “cutting-edge technology” into the industry.

“We are proud to partner with Cisco to drive our digital reinvention,” said Barrick’s Executive Chairman John L. Thornton. “Harnessing the potential of digital technology will unlock value across our business, helping us grow our free cash flow per share. In so doing, we will make ourselves into a leading twenty-first century company—enhancing productivity and efficiency at our mines, and improving decision-making and performance across every area of our business. We mean to create value and push the boundaries of our industry in entirely new ways. Just as importantly, digital technology will allow us to reduce our environmental impact and be even more transparent with our local partners—especially indigenous communities, local governments, and NGOs.”

Cisco Executive Chairman John Chambers said, “We are going through the greatest technology and business transition ever—the Digital Era—which will dwarf the Information Era and the value of the Internet to date. Any company that fails to reinvent itself by harnessing digital technology will soon be left behind. Barrick has long been known for its focus on innovation, and with Cisco’s advanced technologies and strategic network of partners, we can extend the frontiers of the natural resources industry.”

What that means for miners on the ground, or under it, is more tools to complete their jobs more efficiently. For the last few months, Barrick has used the teams in Cortez and various contractors in a pilot program.

Rob Neitzel, project manager for digitization, said the company will change from an analog business to a digital one.

“Barrick is in a very analog state with regards to their mining, either open pit or underground,” Neitzel said. “Right now our focus is at the underground because we can get a bigger value for that.”

Neitzel said an analog type business has a plan, and a team to execute the plan, but once work is put in motion unexpected things can happen and that can slow down a project.

“Seconds are going to add up to minutes” and minutes can add up to hours, he said. Any time wasted means it costs more to produce the gold from the mine.

During the process, a machine can break and this will change the priority of the project, Neitzel said. Right now, a shift supervisor has to go through the crew and check with each operator to see how the project is moving along, including if equipment needs to be fixed. Digitizing the underground will speed up this process.

“Now imagine this, if I have full visibility of where everything is, where everybody is performing, and not only that but it’s linked to maintenance and supply chain, so when a bolter breaks I can make the immediate decision, how long is it going to be down, because I know if that part is on hand,” he said. “So instead of this happening sequentially, it happens simultaneously. Maintenance is alerted and supply chain management is already shipping the part over. So now — that seconds to minutes – I’m reducing what is now hours back down to minutes and I can put it back into operation.”

However, technology is a tool that is only as good as the people who use it, Neitzel said. Normally when a company brings in new technology, the employees are given the new tools and told to use them – even if they don’t know how to use it. Instead Barrick is doing an “agile planning process,” he said.

“We’re taking key steps, to the short interval control process and we’re asking our potential vendors – partners is really what we’re calling them – to give us a minimal viable product,” Neitzel said.

The minimal viable product can be given to an operator and the employee can tell Barrick and the vendor what aspects work and what aspects don’t to get the job done. Then modifications can be made to the technology to make it more efficient and get it back to the operator.

“So instead of handing them an end-state product that may not get used, and then the vendor’s frustrated and we’re frustrated, we are now getting the direct input of the true operator at the face of the mine, and, is this a solution that is going to make a difference in those seconds that add up to minutes,” Neitzel said. “This is relatively new for all of us, both our vendor partners and ourselves. It’s been a very healthy process. Our vendors have come in with a very benevolent attitude and a willingness to work with us.”

The first stage was a discovery of what was needed to make an immediate impact for short interval control. Neitzel said vendors, including competitors, were willing to work together to put test products in the hands of operators. The upgraded equipment was tested for two weeks and then feedback was given to the companies for modifications.

“Our vendors are getting true feedback from us,” Neitzel said. “… This is going to be a Barrick solution that has got the ability to tailor to the uniqueness of each mine, but we’re starting at Cortez as our test pilot.”

Emrah Yalcin, Cortez process superintendent in tech services, said his area is a support group for operations and maintenance divisions. He looks at how jobs can be done more efficiently. The digitization will help automate the plants at the mine site.

“The core of the project in process is to improve the productivity, to eliminate the variance,” Yalcin said.

He said digitizing the process division will help eliminate the variance from one employee to the next in how they operate the plant. In the current system the operator has to watch what is happening in the plant and then make changes manually. In the new system, the operator will still observe and input parameters, but a computer will help the plant run at “optimal” levels.

Dave Yazzie, representing process division, said he is working on digitizing all of the work management streams.

“It’s taking work identification, planning and scheduling and execution and the feedback loop of all that and automating it and making it quicker, and more efficient and making it able to respond in real time,” he said. “It’s also getting more information to our technicians’ hands in the field.”

The “grand vision” is for employees being able to understand the health of the machine and maintaining equipment more efficiently.

For example, when a crew is working on a vehicle for preventative maintenance, they have to verbally tell the next crew what has been done on the vehicle because notes have been lost or left in the field. Yazzie said a digital system will help keep track of all the work done, so mechanic B isn’t duplicating things mechanic A has already fixed. The new systems and technology will also help the machines tell the employees when things need to be fixed.

One of the money saving aspects of the program is that the life of parts will be tracked. Yazzie said when a mechanic is fixing equipment he or she may replace a part that still has life in it.

“Right now our mechanics don’t have enough information,” he said. “They’re like, ‘this thing has got to run for another 12 weeks, can I risk three-quarters of an inch of life left?’ Their gut feeling is always going to lead them towards replacing it. Well that part could be a $50,000 part that we just threw away at three-quarters of its life.”

Ben Gunn, senior mine engineer, and Theo Kandawasvika, technical services in Cortez underground, said the upgrades in the underground mean automation and remote control of equipment. The underground will be measured and certain pieces of equipment will have radar to help guide it through the mine safely and more efficiently.

Gunn said the ultimate goal is to take the operator out of the underground and put the driver in an air conditioned room on the surface or even in an operating facility in Elko. He said a remote system would allow more time for mining and the miner wouldn’t have to spend as much time getting to the mine and then driving down to the area to be mined.

Kandawasvika said the radars on the equipment, such as loaders, will also ensure the machines don’t hit the ribs or sides of the tunnels underground while operating. He said human drivers sometimes hit the sides, but a computer aided program allows larger equipment to move more efficient through the mine.

“Going back to that loader, with an automatic system that has an ability to scan its environment and understand its positioning, where it is relative to everything else around it, it operates faster,” Kandawasvika said. “It travels much, much faster than a human being can operate it. We’ve seen some very good demonstrations of a loader that would travel upwards of 25 miles an hour in a very narrow heading because its computer controlled.”

A human can safely operate a loader at about 14 mph.

“You can fit larger machines in the same size headings because it has that guidance now,” Gunn said.

The machine can also be programmed to head to a certain position with the touch of a button, rather than forcing the operator to drive it to particular areas.

The new system will also help with traffic patterns underground. Since underground areas are not set up for more than one vehicle to go through at a time, sometimes traffic jams occur and can delay operations.

As 2017 begins, Neitzel said he hopes operators will be doing “extended solutions” on the technology and the second quarter will be used to refine the processes and equipment. Then the digitization will be globalized, but locations will be prioritized.

When asked why digitization doesn’t mean a loss of jobs, Neitzel said “It isn’t a loss of jobs, it’s reshaping your capability.”