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Working at the Coal Mine—With RFID

The BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance breaks new ground by using RFID to track and manage miners and their equipment.
By John Edwards
Apr 14, 2008—Until last year, the BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA) coal mine in Norwich Park, located in a desolate section of Queensland, Australia, tracked its miners and gear the old-fashioned way: "It was done manually by our employees," says Shane Hellwege, the supply coordinator in charge of the mine's warehouse operations. The process was both time-consuming and prone to errors—the management equivalent of mining coal with hand shovels. Now, more than 300 miners with RFID chips embedded in their helmets head into the earth each day knowing they, as well as the more than 17,000 pieces of equipment they use, are being tracked and managed by RFID technology.

For BMA, RFID's automatic data capturing and tracking capabilities provide an accurate and efficient method of controlling costs and making sure miners and equipment are available as soon as they are needed. RFID was selected over other competing technologies, Hellwege says, due to its ability to track people and equipment quickly and unobtrusively at a competitive cost. "Quite frankly," he says, "the business case of a successful deployment was compelling."

The real-time system is designed to ensure that the mine's equipment inventory is kept accurate and up-to-date, and in the location in which it's supposed to be.

First Steps
BMA's managers were fully aware of RFID's power to automate and streamline employee and inventory oversight. The company had its eye on the technology for several years, Hellwege says, watching for developments that would make it practical for use in its remote and hazardous setting. A little more than three years ago, Norwich Park began testing an RFID system, based on 125 MHz tags, to record equipment transactions in its SAP database. The system used tags provided by Sokymat Identification (now Cyntag RFID Systems) and LiveTrack handheld readers from Syscan International.

The simple inventory tracking installation, which provided a Bluetooth connection to the SAP application, impressed the mine's managers, Hellwege says, and built enthusiasm for a full-scale deployment. "It was proven it could be done," he says, "so we took it to the next level."

Taking the mine's RFID deployment to the next stage called for a process review. "We completed a full business scope [on] all of our requirements," Hellwege says. While the pilot proved RFID's ability to capture and transfer data at Norwich Park, the process had rough edges that limited its range and performance in a mining environment, where large numbers of miners need to grab different types of equipment during shift changes and report to their work sites as quickly as possible. "The technology was not were I needed it to be," he says. "We had to wait for it to catch up with our requirements."

In 2006, managers turned to Sunshine Technologies, an Australian RFID system design and integration company (since acquired by Syscan), to create a system that would live up to BMA's expectations. "BMA wanted a system that could track the movement of personnel, inventory and work orders going into and leaving their warehouse," says Scott Austin, managing director of Syscan International Australasia, located in South Brisbane, Queensland.

BMA selected the vendor on the basis of its track record helping a number of businesses—ranging from a livestock shipper to a television production company—create and deploy RFID environments. "They had demonstrated a capability in previous RFID deployments," Hellwege says, "and, at the time, it made sense for BMA to use their capabilities."
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