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Mining New Value From RFID

Mining companies worldwide have been using RFID to track assets, vehicles and workers above and below ground. Now industry pioneers are adopting new applications to further streamline production and reduce costs, as well as improve safety.
By Elizabeth Wasserman
Aug 09, 2010—For the past two years, Vale Inco has been using radio frequency identification technology to track the grade, or mineral concentration, of ore as it is mined in real time. Geologists at the company's Stobie mine, on the south side of Ontario's mineral-rich Sudbury Basin, inspect the ore at each blast site, then encode the grade to disposable RFID tags using handheld devices. They put the tags into the ore piles, which are picked up by large vehicles called "scoops" and transferred to chutes that lead them to a conveyor system. From there, the ore goes to a "crusher" that reduces it to 8-inch rocks, then to an elevator that takes it to yet another conveyor system, which deposits the ore in rail cars that transport it to processing mills.

Along the way, strategically placed RFID interrogators read the plastic-encased RFID tags, which are designed to survive the crusher. The information from the tag reads is transferred to a database designed for this project through a system of fiber optic cables that run through the mine.


Photo: iStockphoto

The RFID system, which replaced a manual, paper-based process, allows the company to more accurately forecast which type of ore it mines and provides visibility into how long it will take to haul the ore to the surface. It also enables Vale Inco to provide the mills with better information regarding the ore blend they should expect, so they can prepare the proper chemicals to process the ore into metals, including copper and nickel. Once the solution is deployed in all of Vale Inco's Canadian mines, and mine operators can supply the processing mills with a consistent ore mix to maximize metal production, the company expects to save $30 million to $70 million a year, according to Mark Palkovits, a geologic technologist who supervises the project.

The RFID program is one of several at Vale Inco's Ontario mines designed to gain efficiencies and insight into ore production, transport and refining. The company has been using RFID since 2005 to track containers, drills and vehicles in its mines over existing wireless access points, originally set up for voice communications, to ensure equipment is readily available when needed. Earlier this year, the company started using active RFID to track rail cars from its Creighton and Stobie mines to mills, to provide an audit trail of shipments to customers.

"RFID has helped us automate the ore movement from underground to mill processing," says Peter Cunningham, Vale Inco's superintendent of process automation. "It helps us know how much each mine is producing, track the blending of the ore and track the transportation."
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