Mine operators can use digital twins to reach their environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals, says solutions developers.

Digital twin technology that recreates the physical realm with software will help miners place themselves at the centre of a sustainable supply chain, and to trace specific minerals to final use, according to Jeff Hamilton, senior director brand strategy and alliances, Dassault Systems.

Speaking to Mining Magazine, Hamilton said virtual twin technology can also help mining operators accelerate use of renewable energies by identifying areas of high consumption.

"The virtual twin is incredibly important to digitalise all the variables, not just so you're making the best economic decision but it also the health, safety and environmental implications," Hamilton explained.

"Ultimately, the long-term goal is to apply the concept of circularity to look at the entire ecosystem that exists around natural materials that are mined."

According to Hamilton, there is "enormous value that can be created" and there are many steps stakeholders can take to cut greenhouse gases. This includes tracking specific commodities, iron ore, from the exact part of the mine it was extracted from, onto the mill and beyond.

The idea that digital twin technology can be used to improve efficiencies across and cut carbon emissions across the supply chain is shared by Martin Provencher, industry principal, mining and metals, AVEVA.

Provencher said the digital twin is not limited to processes in the mine; it can also improve the flow of commodities across the value chain.

"There are numerous opportunities to optimise operations through the use of digital twin technology, from the pit, all the way to the port," he explained.

"While the implementations may feature their unique models, the overall approach to the digital twin is quite similar and can have similar benefits for mining operators, regardless of their mining approach."

ESG goals can be met by mining digital twins, such as by reducing energy consumption throughout the mining process, Provencher claimed.

This includes considerable opportunities in the crushing and grinding processes and improving an asset's reliability.  

"Consumables like process water, reagents, and flocculants can all be reduced through improved modelling of process behaviour with a digital twin.  

"The intelligence gained through the digital twin gives mining operators the chance to even more closely monitor NOx and CO2 emissions and reduce their output through more informed decisions."

"We can go from all the upstream material to, including material taken to the mill and what comes out; as well as how things are transported through the port to the manufacturer and end-user."

Deloitte said in a July 2021 report titled ‘The net zero workforce: Mining and Metals' that digital twin technology enables mining companies to conduct exploration, troubleshooting and planning without adversely affecting the environment, as they can be used remotely.

Digital twins of drill and blast designs and digital modelling life-of-mine plans can help operators improve forecasting, allocation, monitoring and managing of resources. This, it said, can improve data management, accuracy and efficiency.

"Creating digital twins and virtual models and work plans require new and unique skill sets including critical thinking, data visualisation, and pro-active decision-making based on predictive analytics," the report read.

In January 2021, Dassault Systems collaborated with IT services and consulting company Accenture on a report titled ‘Accelerate Sustainability with virtual twins', which said the technology can "drive sustainability and the circular economy at speed and scale".

It predicted that the technology could unlock combined additional benefits of $1.3 trillion in economic value and cut 7.5 Gt CO2e emission by 2030.

Additionally, the report said the technology can increased the speed of time-to-market and "reduce the risk associated with complex projects". It also said digital twins have been used in the development of 85% of the world's electric vehicles, with the market worth $5.4 billion in 2020.

The COVID-19 impact

In 2018, strategy consultancy firm Challenge published a report that predicted that the digital twin would become "the single most impactful piece of technology" in the mining industry's efforts to stay competitive.

It claimed that "virtual simulations" will prove themselves to be "extremely useful" when planning schedules and will allow mine operators to create short- and long-term schedules for more accurate drilling, crushing and extraction.

Hamilton said that while there was already a general trend towards using smart technologies in the mining industry in recent years, that COVID-19 "definitely accelerated" interest in the digital twin and emphasised to stakeholders how they can benefit from virtualising operations.

Provencher shares this view. On the pandemic's impact on innovation, Provencher told Mining Magazine that it has "increased every organisation's awareness" of digital technologies, "including mining companies".

He explained that concepts such as remote operations, which were not priorities in the past, have now become imperative for many mining companies, driven in part by workers having to work remotely.

"As workers developed more comfort working remotely and collaborating virtual, the value of digital twins has become more apparent to organisations throughout the mining industry."

Implementation challenges

A 2021 paper written for the University of Limerick, titled ‘Digital Twin: Origin to Future', said the true potential of digital twin technology is still "hidden behind the fog of its future form".

It said digital twins will grow in parallel with other smart technologies, such as the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, and big data.

The paper also predicted that the global market across all industries will grow by 58% in six years, reaching $48.2 billion by 2026, citing the pandemic as a key factor as more companies look to digitalise.

However, it also notes that there are substantial hurdles in the way of implementation, which can be engineering-, technology- or commercially related. There are other issues surrounding the definition of digital twins and the lack of international rules and regulations around data.

One of the biggest challenges in the way of fulfilling digital twin technology, the paper said, is the "high cost" it takes to implement. Additionally, deploying a digital twin is a "time consuming and labour-intensive exercise" that makes it an expensive investment.

Despite the possible high costs, Hamilton believes the technology could be implemented at mines of all sizes, and it need not be reserved only for the major ones.

"I would start by asking what problem you have to solve," Hamilton replied when asked how he would go about deploying a digital twin at a smaller mine.

"I would ask what value can add and say let's look at a smaller set of problems and have a project that is manageable from a cost standpoint and has a clear set of deliverables that adds value".

Provencher also said companies should take an incremental approach to implementing digital twin technology. That involves first identifying areas they know pose significant obstacles or challenges, such as those that consume a lot of energy or emit high amounts of greenhouse gases.

According to Provencher, the implementation of a digital twin depends on four key factors.

These include having the quality data to understand the state of the asset, process or operation; the fidelity of models used to predict the asset's future state; having an integrated, closed-loop method of updating the digital twin based on new data; and a visualisation method that enables actionable intelligence based on the digital twin.

"To successfully implement the full vision of the digital twin, mining operators will require a comprehensive data management approach and the application and visualisation platforms necessary to address all four of these factors," Provencher said.