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CVRD Inco Tracks Ore in Mine and Mill

Ruggedized EPC Gen 2 tags are mixed with piles of ore that are crushed and dumped into railcars, so that mills can identify the ore's grade.
By Beth Bacheldor
Nov 13, 2007CVRD Inco, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Brazilian mining company Companhia Vale do Rio Doce (CVRD), is testing RFID technology to track ore as it's extracted, crushed and sent to production mills. By improving its visibility into the amount and grade of ore it mines daily, the company hopes to better prepare its processes for turning the ore into quality ingredients for stainless steel and other metal alloys.

Headquartered in Toronto, CVRD Inco produces nickel, copper, cobalt, platinum, palladium, rhodium, ruthenium, iridium, gold and silver. This month, the company completed installation of an ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID system at its Stobie Mine in Sudbury, Ontario, about 40 kilometers north of Toronto. The system incorporates customized Avery Dennison EPC Class 1 Gen 2 RFID tags and Motorola mobile and fixed UHF RFID interrogators.

Tags mixed among ore are read by RFID antennas mounted over conveyors.

To develop, test and implement its RFID system, CVRD Inco enlisted assistance from Ship2Save, a Montreal-based RFID services company specializing in the transportation, manufacturing, warehousing and sea-freight industries. The installation includes Ship2Save's Raw Material Tracking software, based on the vendor's Operation Management System RFID platform. The tracking software includes a dashboard, or graphical visual interface, that offers a real-time view of ore extractions. It can provide alerts and reporting tools to inform end users about specific events, such as how much ore has surfaced within a given time, and it can also be configured to transmit the alerts via audible, visual or electronic means.

Ship2Save has ruggedized and customized the tags to withstand blasts and the crushing process that breaks up large rocks into smaller sizes. The specific reinforcements are confidential, but Konrad Konarski, Ship2Save's director of alliances, says the tags are protected by an acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS) base cover and other internal reinforcements.

"Mainly, we want to use RFID to be able to monitor the quality of ore from the underground," says Mark Palkovits, senior geological technologist at CVRD Inco. By knowing the value or grade of the ore, as well as maintaining accurate yields, CVRD Inco can make sure it has the proper chemical mixes at the mills to produce, for example, nickel. "We blend the chemicals much like you blend ingredients in a recipe to make a cake," Palkovits explains. "With optimized information and upstream visibility of what—and how much—is going into the mills, we can optimize the chemicals needed in the mixing processes."

Typically, determining ore yields and grades is a manually intensive process leveraging pen and paper and a good deal of forecast modeling—an inexact science reliant on historical and current yield data to estimate future yields. "We have to budget a year in advance how many pounds of copper and nickel we'll produce," Palkovits says.

Using RFID to track ore from excavation to milling is no mean feat. After miners blast a specified area within the mine, one or two RFID tags are tossed into the resulting heap of ore. As the tags are deployed, a geologist carrying a handheld RFID reader scans the tags to collect their unique ID numbers, while also entering specific coordinates (accessed from a pull-down menu) documenting the blast site's location. "The mine is set up on a coordinate system, so everyone knows where they are at all times," Palkovits says. At the end of each shift, the geologists place the handhelds into docking stations to upload the tag and location data collected that day.

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