Power to the people: How citizen development is driving a digital mining operations revolution

February 11, 2023

by Udit Poddar, CEO and Vahishta Mistry, Content Lead at WorkOnGrid

Citizen Development vs Traditional

There is much evidence to suggest that we are living through a fourth Industrial Revolution. If the first Industrial Revolution was heralded by the use of water and steam power in the 18th and 19th century, then widespread electrification of industrial processes, and the rise of automation can be said to be the second and third revolutions. Each period of change brought with it huge gains in productivity and efficiency. We stand now on the brink of what experts are calling Industry 4.0: an industrial revolution brought about by the use of cyber-physical systems.

The advent of Industry 4.0 has the potential to be no less than an enlightenment era of our times. However, the misconception that digital transformation offers a better value for money for digital industries than for more traditional industries such as mining, energy, manufacturing, logistics, etc. still plagues the overall concept. Nokia Bell Labs estimates that around 70% of all industries reliant on digital workflows (what we would call white collar, or ‘office’ industries) have invested heavily in pervasive 5G networks combined with solutions such as augmented intelligence, edge cloud, private networks and as-a-service business models, thus embracing the principles of Industry 4.0. Comparatively, only 30% of industries whose workflows and outputs are rooted in the physical world (such as mining, manufacturing, etc.) have made similar investments. However, physically-rooted industries account for over 70% of most countries’ GDP contributions. There can be only one conclusion from these statistics, we need to completely change our attitude towards digital transformation in physical industries, like mining, in order to capitalize on growth potential. In particular, when you consider that the need for clean energy and materials will drive up the demand for rare earth minerals by 500% by 2050, according to the World Bank, the need for mining and mineral exploration companies to begin the process of digitalization becomes imperative.

Understandingdigitalization in mining

According to McKinsey, historical data from mining and exploration companies indicates a decline in the productivity index. Faults and failures in an industry that involves massive capital, workers, assets, and legal constraints will only lead to significant losses. Thus, mining must evolve to become more financially sustainable and environmentally progressive. In order to accomplish this, we need to innovate and transform in order to:

  • Track primary productivity drivers in real-time, namely production, employment, capital expenditure, and operating expenditure;
  • Digitalize the entire value chain end-to-end from exploration to product commercialization, and subject every stage to continual improvement;
  • Minimize operating costs and unplanned downtime by utilizing invaluable insights from data.

By switching from traditional data-gathering systems to a digital system, decision-makers will be able to acquire a holistic view of the daily operations and take informed steps ahead of time, leading to highly efficient production.

The digital dilemma – what type of software do you choose?

Despite digitalization’s exciting potential, mining and mineral exploration businesses face certain obstacles that prevent them from realizing it. The underlying cause is that the industry is still in a very rudimentary stage of digital development. This further exposes the digital literacy gap in mining’s workforce, which constitutes the majority of its labor-intensive operations. Thus, migrating to software handling complex operations would disrupt the value chain, further complicating productivity. As a result, a comprehensive analysis of your business’s digital transformation plan, especially the long-term adoption and implementation, is critical before investing in new technology.

Most businesses opt for traditional canned software as a cost-effective readymade solution, but over time, as they scale, they start running into problems like:

  • Lack of mobile access;
  • Rarely used bloated features;
  • Lack of desired integrations;
  • Lack of requirement specificity in the software resulting in frequent support needs;
  • Long reiteration cycles due to operational changes.

In response, many businesses invest significant budgets in custom software that takes nearly a year to set up and implement. Due to the nature of custom software, there is often an increase in unforeseen complications, as a lot can change within a year. The project can even land in development hell, where time and capital are both wasted on iterations. Moreover, you have to involve the vendor for every update, making an already expensive process even more costly. As we can evidently notice, businesses are essentially bound by developers and heavily reliant on them for scaling operations.

Enter citizen development

The aforementioned shortcomings have inspired continuous advancements in the way software is developed, distributed, and used, leading to the rise of no-code/low-code platforms for software development. These platforms have democratized the process of creating software applications, taking the power of creating applications from engineers and coders and putting it into the hands of a new breed of programmer: the citizen developer.

Today, across all industries, citizen development has emerged as a beacon of hope to make technology more accessible than ever before. It bridges the disparity between digital and physical industries and empowers non-IT-trained employees with a platform for functional applications on the go. They can now create enterprise-grade apps that meet all their needs without relying on anyone else. In other words, people working in the industry wouldn’t have to dedicate time and resources to learning how traditional canned software works, adapting it to their business processes, and so forth.

Citizen development, or the idea of enabling non-technical staff to create technical solutions without the use of bespoke programming, is not new. We see this process playing out in various fields of business and computing. One such example comes from the world of marketing emails. About ten years ago, sending out a marketing email to a large mailing list would have involved serious programming investment: one would have to write (from scratch) the CSS and HTML code that would render the email correctly in recipients’ inboxes. Today, programs and services like Mailchimp, Sendinblue, and a host of other email service providers allow marketers with absolutely no programming knowledge to create, design, and send fully-featured marketing messages via email to vast lists of recipients, all with just a few clicks and no code.

Similarly, automatically-generated mobile applications can today be quickly and easily created by non-programmers using drag-and-drop interfaces, on a variety of platforms. The key benefit here is that the task of creating the application moves from a professional programmer (who is an expert at coding, but not the subject matter of the application being developed) to someone who better understands how the application will be used and so is in a better position to create a more intuitive and useful application.

The low-code/no-code platforms that facilitate citizen development also effectively eliminate the need for businesses to rely on IT teams for maintenance and customization. Reduced reliance on skilled software engineers drops the cost of development and data management by as much as 80% while improving efficiencies by up to 65%. We have discovered that consuming infrastructure, applications, and services via a centralized citizen dev platform enables mining businesses to be far more flexible, as these services can be tailored, and then adapted to the businesses’ needs as they evolve. It gives greater control to people over the running of the mines and also helps in making quick decisions.

Transforming a mining enterprise with digital transformation

In one example of a Western Australian mineral exploration company, our research showed that they possessed the expertise to run large-scale surveys, assess indicators and variables of soil and rock samples, tectonic evidence, and even archaeological data to determine optimum drilling sites. However, this knowledge and expertise needed to be captured, quantified, and eventually mapped out using modeling tools. Hence, they were looking for the right technology to save the time spent on data cleaning and standardization, and integrate their data entry platform and modeling database.

  • Their choice of a no-code platform enabled them to:
  • Optimize their frontline operations to a much higher degree of customization;
  • Create an end-to-end automated exploration logging platform that integrates with a consolidated database of all their exploration operations;
  • Visualize their data on a custom dashboard for real-time progress tracking, drill location planning and workflow setups;
  • Freely build more applications for their project monitoring needs.

The geologist teams alone saved over 60% of their time as a result. With citizen development, they were able to create and integrate apps and workflows within hours rather than weeks or months.

What more can we expect?

Today, mining companies are estimated to be operating at 70% efficiency, with approximately 40% costs spent on maintenance. These figures translate to huge potential for increased productivity and profitability. Businesses that have transformed digitally have managed to exploit this potential, and witness a 10-15% increase in profits. If there is one key takeaway, it’s that by adding the power of no-code to a robust digitalization plan, that percentage stands to increase even further, bringing the mining and mineral exploration industry even closer to the ideal Industry 4.0 standard.

For more information visit: www.workongrid.com

Read Issue 22 here:

Issue 22 / 2023