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Orica lights fuse on fresh wave of mining transformation with data, AI and cloud

For 140-plus years Orica has carved a reputation as one of the world’s leading blasting companies, supporting mining customers in more than 100 countries.

Explosives are still its stock-in-trade – but the company is rapidly expanding its digital capability – creating data rich and AI-infused tools that enable step-change improvements in customers’ productivity, safety and sustainability.

Over the last four years, Orica has grown its digital team fivefold, and from a standing start it now has more than 200 customers for its digital solutions – building a whole new offering and revenue stream for the company.

portrait image of raj
Rajkumar Mathiravedu, Vice President of Digital Solutions, Orica

As Rajkumar Mathiravedu, Vice President of Digital Solutions, notes, Orica has always been about “better blasting” – its digital capability now takes it “beyond blasting” – but always with customer needs considered front and centre.

Leveraging advanced workflow, measurement, modelling and data science technologies, Orica is developing high impact solutions across mining’s entire value chain, from orebody intelligence to blasting and processing, widening the company’s footprint with both existing and potential customers.

FRAGTrack™ is just one example of Orica’s growing portfolio of digital solutions – a Microsoft Azure backed system that automatically measures rock size and fragmentation following a blast in a mine or quarry.

Mathiravedu explains that unless the size of the rocks is known accurately and instantly, they could create downstream inefficiency or delay. Using a stereoscopic 3D camera, the Internet of Things (IoT) and AI infused vision technologies, FRAGTrack™ identifies the size of rock fragments in three dimensions in real time – knowledge which allows mine operators to deliver the right specification for processing, ensure the rocks go into the right truck and take them to the right mill for processing at the right time, reducing delay and improving productivity.

A digital lens has also been applied to Orica’s core business of blasting with its BlastIQ™ platform. Traditionally blasting involves a three-step manual process – the blast engineers plan the blast by nominating the size and location of a drill hole; that hole is drilled by another team; and then the explosives are loaded by a third team, leveraging digitally connected trucks on-site.

If there has been overnight rain and the drill hole has been flooded, or the size of the hole is different to the one envisaged by the blast engineer, by the time the explosives are loaded into the hole, the blast may be very different than the one planned.

BlastIQ™ links all three steps in the process via a digital workflow. Any changes – such as water levels in the hole or the size of the drill hole – are communicated immediately to blast engineers who can adjust calculations and automatically update the team and trucks loading the explosives. “It’s a very simple value proposition for the customer – the right energy in the right hole every time,” says Mathiravedu.

These are just two of the digital solutions Orica’s digital team is developing to ensure better blasting and expand the company’s horizons beyond blasting.

Landscape shot of a mining facility
Orica is developing high impact solutions across mining’s entire value chain, expanding the company’s horizon (Source: Orica)

Azure selected as strategic cloud platform

Orica has selected Microsoft Azure as the strategic cloud foundation for its emerging digital portfolio. Azure’s performance, reliability, scalability and security provide trusted foundations for innovation while access to Azure IoT, a growing portfolio of Azure cognitive services and an extensive library of AI tools helps accelerate Orica’s digital innovation says Mathiravedu.

He’s also keen on the industry cross pollination opportunities that the Azure ecosystem affords. Mathiravedu notes; “We are seeing Azure being deployed in lot of oil and gas applications and some of those can easily be applied in mining.”

Meanwhile he’s keeping a close eye on how emerging Azure capabilities, such as Azure Space which allows satellite information to be made easily accessible, could further expand Orica’s innovation horizons.

The company is already working on open digital platforms that integrate Orica expertise, customers’ own data with machine learning to create intelligent production workflows that in real time reveal to mining engineers what they are working with at a particular site and provide live design recommendations. “Whether it is hard, medium, soft, and how the rock changes and where the most valuable ore is located. So what it really means is now you can actually optimise the right explosives energy specific to the desired outcomes,” says Mathiravedu.

This has a huge impact from a sustainability perspective. By using the right energy to break the rocks, we’re optimising the chemical energy.

“We are materially reducing the water and electricity, which is used for grinding and processing later, while readily managing environmental factors such dust and vibrations” he adds, noting that this solution is now in production with an iron ore miner based in Australia.

Sustainability is a core issue for Orica which has committed to zero net emissions by 2050. This dovetails with Microsoft’s own sustainability ambitions which are to be carbon negative by 2030.

The mining sector at large understands the benefits of reducing emissions and is keen to engage in a fresh wave of digital transformation – hot on the heels of mine automation efforts – that will improve sustainability across the industry.’

Image of an autonomous drill used to measure rock elastic
RHINO™ – an autonomous drillstring-mounted geophysical sensor that measures rock elastic moduli while drilling (Source: Orica)

Orica’s cloud based digital platforms are designed to allow information to be shared openly across mining ecosystems – from geological exploration, through blasting, extraction and processing – integrating sensor and IoT data with AI infused analytics to provide mining customers with the insights which will allow them to go “deeper, steeper and cheaper” says Mathiravedu.

Leveraging the cloud, IoT, edge-processing and machine learning algorithms Orica focuses on delivering real-time data-driven insights to help customers optimise energy use, drill patterns and maximise efficiencies both on the mine site and throughout the downstream value chain.

According to Srikant Kadambi, Energy Lead, Microsoft Asia; “Orica has unparalleled domain expertise and global industry knowledge. Combining that with Microsoft Azure capabilities & the ability of our teams and ecosystems to deploy these technologies at production scale allows us to work together to create literally ground-breaking – pun intended – solutions for the whole mining value chain.

We bring to the table our whole Azure ecosystem, access to libraries of AI tools developed for different industries, and skills and expertise that we can share with Orica as it continues to grow its digital capability.

Orica strengthens digital capability

Orica has also opened a Digital Immersion Centre in Brisbane – a specialised facility where it can work with development partners, including Microsoft, and customers to promote innovation, spur collaboration and also establish an Orica data and analytics centre of excellence.

Orica employee working with several desktop screens
Orica will continue to build its digital capacity and skills, working closely with Microsoft to help develop digital skills of its 13,000 employees (Source: Orica)

This centre of excellence brings together data science, artificial intelligence, modern cloud computing and Orica’s 140 plus years of domain expertise.

The Immersion Centre will also act as an incubator for any Orica digital businesses.

Mathiravedu explains that the digital team is building solutions to support existing Orica customers, as well as new customers from right across the sector’s value chain. Open by design, these platforms are tailored for a range of applications focused around efficiency, productivity and safety as well as to help support customers achieve their own sustainability targets. “We do not want to be constrained only to existing Orica customers. We want to be available to the entire mining value chain,” he says.

And he’s committed to always applying a customer lens to innovation – understanding first what the customer needs are and then working to deliver a suitable solution in partnership with them.

To achieve that, Orica will continue to build its digital capability and skills, both within the company’s dedicated digital team and more broadly across the entire business. Orica plans to work closely with Microsoft to help develop the digital capabilities of its 13,000 employees worldwide.

“We’re calling it a community of practice – a digital community of practice. Again, this is where Microsoft comes in. Can we do this at scale? Can we do it faster? And what are the things that you have learned in your experience that we could probably use?”

Mathiravedu stresses that besides a keen customer appetite for innovation, there is strong internal support for Orica’s digitally focused transformation and continued investment in open, secure and connected digital platforms focused on better blasting and a growing raft of opportunities beyond blasting.