The Internet of Things (IoT), and its subset Industrial IoT (IIoT), are massively transforming businesses. IIoT technologies that always collect and analyze critical data from equipment, workers and environments, provide companies with invaluable insights to existing operations. 

This unprecedented degree of visibility facilitates smart decision-making to help enhance production efficiency and enhance worker safety while reducing costs and waste.

Among this industrial paradigm shift, aggregates companies today are realizing that embracing IIoT is crucial to secure and fortify their competitive advantage. Aggregates production is asset- and energy-intensive while involving large gear costs, hazardous environments, and complex, precarious extractive processes.

As such, operations are costly with great potential for waste and negative impacts on the environment and employees. Facing these operational challenges, digital transformation is crucial for this particular sector.

From remote monitoring and predictive maintenance to vehicle management, employee safety and environmental observation, aggregate producers can help harness IIoT data to maximize their operations in multiple ways.

Increase Asset Uptime with Condition Monitoring and Predictive Maintenance

Dewatering pumps, conveyors, crushers, screens and cyclones are just a few examples of critical assets utilized across aggregates production. Maximizing uptime of these assets is a central mission for companies to avoid inflated prices resulting from production downtime. 

On top of maintenance and servicing expenditures, unplanned downtime can incur drastic earnings losses that amount between $30,000 to $50,000 per hour in a typical industrial setting.

Leveraging IIoT sensor, communication and computing technology, companies can remotely track live tendencies in the operations and health status of their equipment to detect anomalies and anticipate machine breakdowns.

For example, abnormal temperature and vibration patterns of rotating gear indicate developing difficulties like unbalance, shaft misalignment, bearing failures and resonance issues. Inspection, reparation and replenishment of spare parts can be scheduled on-demand to prevent failure occurrence and decrease unwanted generation delays.

Remote observation additionally curtails inefficient and dangerous manual inspection on functioning equipment.

Help Improve Fleet Utilization and Management

Quarry activities critically rely on the use of capital-intensive mobile gear such as haulers, excavators and trucks to transport extracted rocks from the face to crushers.

Near real-time information about emission, fuel consumption and health status of elements (tires, hydraulics, brakes, etc.) enables predictive maintenance to avoid expensive failures, while revealing useful insights to emission rates and existing bottlenecks. For example, low tire pressure can increase fuel consumption and decrease gas mileage.

Simultaneously, idle times and engine load data helps identify underutilized equipment, enabling companies to make informed decisions about adjusting the dimensions and composition of their fleet, or simply taking one or more off shift. 

Optimizing fleet utilization saves on fuel, reduces equipment wear and tear and cuts down unnecessary fixed equipment expenses.

Safeguard Workers’ Health, Safety and Productivity

Aggregates sites pose a myriad of notable dangers to employees — from extreme dust, silica and noise vulnerability to heat-stress pit wall failures and equipment mishaps.

In this circumstance, IoT wearables can pick up real-time data about workers’ vital metrics like pulse and location, while onsite environmental sensors simultaneously capture information in their work environment. Based on this, managers can watch out for signs of worker fatigue, dehydration, and prolonged exposure to harsh conditions.

By encouraging employees to take a recovery break when needed, overexertion can be avoided which in turn, improves productivity and reduces the risk of injuries, accidents and chronic diseases. Likewise, bringing down on-site checks and circumventing equipment failures with remote monitoring and predictive maintenance lessens the chance of equipment mishaps.

Capturing data from lean sensors, landslide gauges and crack meters, IIoT networks additionally monitor the stability and integrity of pit walls. Alerts are then issued when potential collapses are detected to prevent fatal incidents and also to guarantee worker safety.

Easily Control Blasting Impacts

With ground vibration, air overpressure, poisonous fumes and dust, the potential impact of blasting on the environment, neighboring residences and animals is significant. Having IIoT sensor systems in place, companies can track air quality, along with ground and air vibrations throughout the blast lifecycle to effectively control and mitigate negative consequences.

Specifically, alarms are instantly triggered if the amount of atmospheric particulate matters at neighboring residences surpasses the permissible threshold. What’s more, ongoing analysis of this data allows for progress in future blast designs to minimize environmental and health impact. Such data will also come in handy for public education and public relations with local governments and citizens.

Streamline Energy Usage

Energy consumption accounts for a significant percentage of operational costs in the aggregate industry. IIoT power usage data on plant, process and unit levels render powerful visibility in energy flows and consumption patterns in manufacturing. Inefficiencies and waste sources can be diagnosed for proactive responses to streamline electricity usage.

As an example, with pumping among the very energy-intensive activities, measuring run time and electrical energy uptake of pumps allows for early identification of unusual consumption behaviors. Coupled with other operational parameters, such behaviors hint at structural issues that require inspection and maintenance to ensure efficient pumping.

Enhance Production Planning with Silo Level Tracking

In the aggregates sector, silos are used for multiple storage and production functions. Real-time monitoring of the fill level of these silos is vital for effective production planning and inventory management. For example, the amount and usage rate of bulk volatile silos can be remotely monitored at a central back office.

When the silo capacity falls under the limits, ordering and replenishment can be instantly executed. As such, associated silos help avoid any production delays caused by insufficient inputs while eliminating manual tasks.

The Last-Mile Data Communications Challenge

Data is the lifeblood of any IIoT solutions and architecture. However, acquiring and harnessing operational data at brownfield aggregates sites do not come without challenges. Responsible for automating and managing a majority of manufacturing tasks, Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) are concentrated with ample equipment and process sensor data.

The issue is, many legacy PLCs, especially those with proprietary protocols, are designed for communications in local, closed-loop process only. As a consequence, they lack the ability to exchange data with external systems and analytics platforms such as a cloud for IIoT applications.

Adding up to the communications challenge, many quarries and aggregate sites are located in remote areas with difficult topography and great physical obstructions.

Often, PLCs are placed km away from the administration building, making wired connectivity a unfeasible option. Connectivity remains a critical issue even for next-generation PLCs that are equipped with Ethernet capabilities.

Another way you can extract data from legacy PLCs is retrofitting brownfield systems with IoT wireless sensor networks. But, conventional wireless solutions often fall short when operating from the hostile conditions at geographically dispersed aggregate sites.

Mesh networks are constrained by their limited coverage, weak penetration capability, and elaborate network installation and management. Similarly, Wi-Fi, cellular and satellite solutions are too expensive and power-hungry for battery-operated sensors.

A handful of quarries are located at distant areas where cellular connectivity is quite unstable or not available at all. To fully harness the energy of IIoT, aggregates companies desire another versatile field connectivity solution.

About the Author

Santiago Picco

Partner @ 4i Platform - Data Driven Innovation Electronic Engineering specified in control automation. Master in Stategic Management of Techology. Data scientist. Industry 4.0. IIoT and Digital transformation.

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