Pandemic liberates new digital paradigm

16 September 2020

Antofagasta Minerals is strengthening and speeding up the company’s digital transformation as measures taken to address the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrate the viability of certain technologies and remote working.

“The health emergency meant that we had to quickly change how we work, and then we realised we can operate well under these conditions,” says Andrés Hevia, the Vice President of Strategy and Innovation. This new department was established in April and reflects the growing emphasis the company places on innovation, one of its five strategic pillars, in improving its economic, social and environmental performance.

When Chile registered its first case of COVID-19 on 3 March, Antofagasta Minerals quickly restricted access to its corporate offices and mine sites to slow the spread of infection.
As part of its new flexitime system the company had introduced in early 2020 was the option for employees in its corporate offices to work occasionally from home, but the advent of the virus obliged the company to roll out the system fully and expand the initiative to its four mining operations.

Over 1,200 administrative workers across the company are now teleworking, using virtual platforms to share documents and hold meetings. Computers and radio communications have also been set up in homes to allow operators to remotely control and monitor crushing processes, mine dispatch and mine slope stability, among other tasks.

“There is no doubt we have learnt from this experience and broken a paradigm,” says Gino Ivani, manager of Antofagasta Minerals’ IT, Communication and Automation (TICA) department, which is responsible for the systems and platforms that underpin the company’s operational continuity. “The reduction in travel, to and from the mine sites, and in food and accommodation logistics, generates many benefits in terms of safety, costs and life-work balance,” he says.

The success of teleworking has encouraged Antofagasta Minerals to speed up the development of the remote operations centre for its Centinela mine. The centre was originally planned to open in the centre of the city of Antofagasta in March 2021, but it is now expected to start functioning by the end of the year. It will improve operational efficiencies as well as the safety and life quality of more than 300 operators who will no longer need to work at the mine site.

Likewise, the company is close to an investment decision on buying autonomous trucks for Centinela’s new Esperanza Sur pit, where stripping is underway. The trucks are expected to be delivered and start operating in 2022 once stripping has been completed.

This follows the successful autonomation of two diesel drill rigs at Los Pelambres at the end of 2019, an important step in the implementation of the company’s digital roadmap. Automation forms part of the company’s efforts to improve safety and reduce workers’ exposure to occupational hazards such as noise, dust and vibration. Drill rig performance is also expected to improve by 40% due to greater operational continuity. “Antofagasta Minerals now plans to convert the mine’s electric drill rigs and is looking at the business case for its implementation at other operations, says Alan Muchnik,” the Manager of Innovation and Energy.

More tasks done from outside the mine sites

A sign of the company’s growing confidence is the recent creation of a new corporate position in the Strategy and Innovation department to stimulate the take up of remote operation projects and the use of autonomous equipment across the organisation. The role will support Centinela in implementing its projects and will work with the company’s other mining operations to unlock new remote and autonomous initiatives and ensure knowledge transfer. “The pandemic has shown us that many more tasks could be done from outside the mine sites,” says Patricio Picero, who heads up the function.

Alongside these changes, the coronavirus pandemic has also led Antofagasta Minerals to bolster its Digital Transformation plans, which seek to foster a culture of innovation and capture opportunities provided by technology to create value.

The Digital Transformation programme was established last year to support various functions in the company and has now been extended to support the operations. As part of the programme, a Digital Academy was launched in March to improve the digital literacy of employees through training on data reporting and analysis to improve their ability to make data-based decisions.

Some 2,200 employees are taking the digital literacy course which covers the use of digital tools; methods and techniques, such as design thinking and having an agile mindset; and understanding technologies, including cybersecurity and the Internet of Things (IOT). Around 10% are expected to go on to do more advanced courses.

“The Digital Academy will improve the company’s productivity and competitiveness as well as our employees’ skills and employability,” says Rodrigo Vidal, who heads up the Digital Transformation project. “This will differentiate us in the industry as our organisation will be better prepared for what’s coming in the future.”

The pandemic has deepened and kick-started many digital initiatives that were under evaluation or gradual implementation. “This way of working is here to stay,” says Hevia.

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