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The industrial internet has arrived

June 1, 2015

Twenty years ago visionaries foresaw a future where automation and connectivity would mean miners no longer needed to toil in harsh conditions underground and manufacturing machines would ­self-diagnose their problems. Now thanks to the engineering sector’s conversion to the Industrial Internet, and to some of Atlas Copco’s latest equipment, that vision is being realized.

Joshua Marshall - Assistant professor of mining and engineering

Deep underground at LKAB’s Malmberget mine in northern Sweden, an Atlas Copco long hole drill rig maneuvers itself into position, pivots its giant dinosaur-like drill head, pauses and then, amid a spray of cooling water, hammers a precise pattern of holes into the iron-rich rock face.

It’s an impressive display of precision in a hostile environment, made even more so when you realize that the drill rig in question is navigating, maneuvering and drilling all by itself – there isn’t a human in sight.

The drill rig is running on ABC Total, the latest and most advanced of Atlas Copco’s Rig Control Systems. Operators on the surface preprogram navigation coordinates and drill process patterns into computers, and wireless communication then transmits these to the rig below.

The spectacle is a testament to the mining industry’s increasingly rapid uptake of Wi-Fi and sensor technologies to drive robotics-based automation.

“It’s been a long time coming,” says Joshua Marshall, Assistant Professor of Mining Engineering at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, in Canada. “People thought about fusing communications, sensors and robotics back in the 1990s, but computing power was relatively low at the time. Now that we have sensors, high-speed Wi-Fi and expertise in robotics, the future is here.”

Although the rig control system also offers more basic levels of automation, such as localized tele-remote, the fully automated version is a huge bonus for the industry as it enables a drill rig to complete an entire drill cycle without active human operational input within the mine.

Sensors and Wi-Fi are also being used in mines to operate load, haul and dump vehicles, which collect the mined material semi-automatically via an operator on the surface. As with the drill rigs, if the load, haul and dump vehicles are run in full automatic mode, an operator programs in a route and the vehicle carries out the repetitive task of going back and forth along its path without further input. Operators are still required to control the loaders tele-remotely during their actual loading, but they can operate several vehicles simultaneously.

The same sensor-Wi-Fi technology is also allowing mines to collect real-time data on every aspect of their operations, lifting the lid on the previously unseen antlike world of the mine and providing companies with 24/7 feedback on the deployment, performance and well-being of all its underground resources. This even extends to its human resources, with sensors now monitoring workers’ locations, heart rates and temperatures, as well as the mine’s air quality, to ensure everyone’s health and safety.

This Internet revolution that the mining industry has embarked on is bringing significant benefits in the key areas of reducing costs, increasing productivity and efficiency, handling labor shortages and increasing safety.

One such safety improvement is Wi-Fi-connected sensors and laser barriers, which are used to cordon off parts of the mine where blasting or automated load, haul and dump vehicles are working. If a human breaks the barrier, all the loaders in the area halt, and an alert is sent to the control room.

Olav Kvist, Vice President Mining and Technology

Although the rig control system also offers more basic levels of automation, such as localized tele-remote, the fully automated version is a huge bonus for the industry as it enables a drill rig to complete an entire drill cycle without active human operational input within the mine.

Sensors and Wi-Fi are also being used in mines to operate load, haul and dump vehicles, which collect the mined material semi-automatically via an operator on the surface. As with the drill rigs, if the load, haul and dump vehicles are run in full automatic mode, an operator programs in a route and the vehicle carries out the repetitive task of going back and forth along its path without further input. Operators are still required to control the loaders tele-remotely during their actual loading, but they can operate several vehicles simultaneously.

The same sensor-Wi-Fi technology is also allowing mines to collect real-time data on every aspect of their operations, lifting the lid on the previously unseen antlike world of the mine and providing companies with 24/7 feedback on the deployment, performance and well-being of all its underground resources. This even extends to its human resources, with sensors now monitoring workers’ locations, heart rates and temperatures, as well as the mine’s air quality, to ensure everyone’s health and safety.

This Internet revolution that the mining industry has embarked on is bringing significant benefits in the key areas of reducing costs, increasing productivity and efficiency, handling labor shortages and increasing safety.

One such safety improvement is Wi-Fi-connected sensors and laser barriers, which are used to cordon off parts of the mine where blasting or automated load, haul and dump vehicles are working. If a human breaks the barrier, all the loaders in the area halt, and an alert is sent to the control room.

“With sensors, Wi-Fi and the Internet, our ambition is to provide ­support within hours.” Olav Kvist, Vice president Mining and Technology

“Safety has been improved tremendously, as the miners now have a complete view of what is going on in the mine – where the drilling activity is, where the blasting is, where the load, haul and dump vehicles are, and most importantly where the humans are,” says Olav Kvist, Vice President Mining and Technology at Atlas Copco Mining and Rock Excavation division.

Wouter Ceulemans, Vice President Operations

Automated load, haul and dump vehicles also provide reduced operational costs and increased productivity, as they tend to offer increased utilization. This is partly a function of the fact that computers, unlike humans, operate them correctly on every journey.

As automated machinery becomes more established, and as more and more Atlas Copco machinery comes rigged with sensors, the company is switching its focus to the next stage of the Industrial Internet, namely the collection, communication and analysis of real-time data both for maintenance and for useful operational information.

“The key aspect of sensor-based data is to get the information quicker so that we can make decisions and support the customer from a distance faster,” Kvist says. “In maintenance the real-time aspect is the most crucial thing as the most expensive piece of equipment is the one that is not producing. Now with sensors, Wi-Fi and the Internet, our ambition is to provide support within hours in cases where before it may have taken a week.”

In 2015 Atlas Copco intends to use sensors and continuous feedback to take both the mining sector and the construction industry, where equipment is also now connected, a step closer to its long-term goal of predictive maintenance.

When predictive maintenance becomes a reality, engineers won’t wait for a machine to break down before intervening but will instead use collected data to anticipate looming problems and rectify them before they become an issue. The result should be zero downtime for the machines other than for scheduled maintenance.

This new Atlas Copco Mining and Rock Excavation solution, which is due for launch in 2015, won’t offer full predictive maintenance at this stage, but it will give customers a comprehensive view of their machines’ performance and thus enable them to switch from reactive to ­proactive maintenance, which will in turn significantly improve response times.

“It will be a complete maintenance service product based on remote monitoring,” Kvist says. “It’s allowing us to take the lead in offering a truly global proactive one-step solution, and takes us well beyond the local ad hoc solutions we have in place at present.”

It’s not just the mining sector that is benefiting from Atlas Copco’s Industrial Internet drive. The Compressor Technique business area is also helping to revolutionize its sector through the installation of sensors on all new compressors.

It’s an idea whose time has definitely come. Best practice states that compressors should be checked every day, but as most are tucked away in utility rooms this rarely happens in practice. Given that the average compressor runs 7 000 to 8 000 hours a year, this inevitably leads to maintenance issues.

Now with sensors fitted to compressors and the launch of the Atlas Copco SmartLink data-monitoring program whereby data is fed back to Atlas Copco customer centers 24/7, the company has a head start on detecting malfunctions and correcting them.

“It is part of our business strategy to use the received data to improve both maintenance and customer service.” Wouter Ceulemans, Vice President ­Operations

“SmartLink provides businesses with a complete overview of their compressors’ air production, and it helps them to predict potential problems and where and how production can be fine-tuned and energy can be saved,” says Wouter Ceulemans, Vice President Operations at Atlas Copco Compressor Technique, Service division.

In the compressor sector Atlas Copco is also harvesting all the data it receives from sensors around the world at a control room in Antwerp, Belgium, where the data is processed and analyzed to provide customers with pertinent information.

“We now know better than anyone else what these machines are doing and if they need servicing,” Ceulemans says. “It is part of our business strategy to use the received data to improve both maintenance and customer service, and to enrich it by revealing patterns and emerging trends.”

Anders Sjöström, Industrial internet consultant

As a result, Atlas Copco can now advise customers on how much surplus capacity a machine has, whether it is best suited to the task it is being put to, how much energy it is using and how much can be saved, and when and if an upgrade is required. All company information is treated confidentially, and none is shared with other clients.

“We’re enabling customers to use the compressors in a smarter way,” Ceulemans says, noting that rising energy costs are becoming a key concern for customers.

As an example of the benefits this level of information provides, Ceulemans cites a key account that produces plastic bottles at plants around the world. Compressors are central to the production process, as the more effective they are at pumping out air, the more bottles are produced. And the more energy-efficient they are, the less power is consumed.

As Atlas Copco has sensors connected to all of the producer’s compressors, it can now benchmark the efficiency and effectiveness of its compressors, calculate costs per cubic meter of air and compare these at the company’s different plants around the world.

“It’s enabling them to fine-tune their production to achieve optimal settings throughout their entire plant global production network without them having to leave their office,” says Ceulemans.

Industry insiders say that while mines, compressor users and construction companies can find it hard in the short term to absorb and analyze the accumulation of huge quantities of data, over the longer term the data will help them to build the sort of customized apps that have the functionality they need most.

“We’ve learned over the years that relevancy of software functionality comes with the context in which it’s used.” Anders Sjöström, Industrial Internet Consultant.

“We’ve learned over the years that relevancy of software functionality comes with the context in which it’s used,” said Anders Sjöström, who manages online, mobile and Industrial Internet consultancy at Sogeti, a Capgemini subsidiary. “And when we start to connect everything in a mine, for example, we are creating a massive amount of data that can then be transformed into contextually relevant functionality.”

Besides predictive maintenance, Sjöström says, a key component of such relevant functionality is performance monitoring, which can bridge the gap between on-site process controls and IT-based decision-making.

This sort of data collection, connectivity and functionality are helping to revolutionize industry and deliver on the vision of the early pioneers in the 1990s. This was not always considered inevitable in business circles. After the dot-com crash of 2000, the IT sector flatlined for several years as companies shied away from expensive Internet-based projects with outcomes that were viewed as uncertain.

A number of underlying factors have helped contribute to this favorable outcome, including the ubiquity of networks and universal access, bandwidth improvements and sharp cost reductions.

Sjöström acknowledges all of these, but he says the turning point really came in 2007 with the advent of a product that many consumers as well as business leaders now hold dear – the app-based smartphone pioneered by Apple.

“The app phone taught us as users and business leaders the value of having access to information and functionality anywhere, and it taught us to expect it,” says Sjöström. He compares the dynamic effect that app phones have had on the digital market to the effect that the light bulb and telegraph had on a dormant electricity market a century or more ago.

“Previously they had electricity, but very few could make use of it,” Sjöström says. “After we got the light bulb and telegraph, electricity started to change society and touch people’s lives. And the app phone did just that for digital.”

This process is now being accelerated by a generational shift among workers and executives, who are increasingly composed of people who grew up with computers and wireless technology and are comfortable with both – so-called digital natives. This is leading to exponential growth of the Industrial Internet, as managers seek to use it to drive competitive advantage, while skilled workers increasingly shun manual labor for more automated assignments, particularly in the West.

“Ten years ago there was some reluctance in the mining industry to adopt sensor-based, automated and remotely controlled technologies, mainly because people weren’t familiar with it,” says Marshall. “Now the new generation raises questions if machines do not utilize real-time communication and robotics.”

Looking ahead, the consensus is that the connectivity revolution is going to spread with smarter processing and ever-wider use of data.

There are challenges, such as the need for different vendors to sit down and agree on standards, so that the machines from one can readily communicate with the machines of another. And human-free mines or plants are not expected – there will always be a need for oversight. But repetitive and dangerous tasks will increasingly be delegated to autonomous robots, and machines will communicate with one another and act on that information without having to first consult a human. And all of this is going to be implemented at an increasingly rapid rate, both because of the technology itself and because of humans’ acceptance of it.

“The new generation of ‘digital novices’ are having a disruptive effect on companies and increasingly accelerating the pace of change,” Sjöström says.

The Internet of Things (IoT)

A vision that sees devices and systems provided with unique identifiers and the ability to transfer data over a network remotely. The vision is becoming a reality through the convergence of wireless technologies, micro-electromechanical systems and the Internet. Advocates foresee a world in which everything is connected and communicating, facilitating smart cities, smart grids and smart transportation networks.

Industrial Internet

The integration of industrial machinery with networked sensors and software. Benefits include improved efficiencies through remote operation, real-time performance feedback and enhanced analytics.

Industry 4.0


A high-tech initiative, also known as the fourth industrial revolution, led by the German government and aimed at promoting the computerization of the manufacturing industry in Europe. It aims to increase the competitiveness of European manufacturing through “smart factories” using cyber-physical systems, sensors and the Internet.

Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition

The U.S. equivalent of Industry 4.0. A nonprofit coalition of manufacturing, supply and technology companies, together with universities and government agencies, aiming to bring about the computerization of manufacturing in the United States.

Machine to Machine (M2M)


Refers to technologies that allow both wireless and wired systems to communicate with other devices. M2M is considered integral to the Internet of Things and the Industrial Internet.

Technological convergence

The tendency of different technological systems to evolve toward performing similar tasks. In telecommunications, convergence has occurred between telephony and data communications, with both now sharing common interfaces on single devices such as smartphones.

Cloud computing


The storing and accessing of data and programs over the Internet instead of locally on a computer hard drive. Businesses are increasingly turning to the cloud for the unlimited data volume it provides, IT efficiencies and bolt-on business analytics.

Mobile app
A type of application software, usually referred to as an app, designed to run on a mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet. Each app provides limited and isolated functionality. Apps allow users to tailor what their devices can do.

Atlas Copco SmartLink


A compressor-monitoring program that offers companies complete oversight of their compressed air production. It helps to predict potential problems, and thus anticipate them, and shows how and where the production can be optimized and energy can be saved.

Digital natives
Coined in 2001 by researcher Marc Prensky to describe people who were born after 1980 and who have grown up with social digital technologies. This distinguishes them from ‘digital immigrants’, who grew up without modern technology and remain ill at ease with it

Drill rigs Safety Control systems Global Value creation Automation Mining Research and development