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Innovation Challenge update: a robot that ‘sees,’ sensors that ‘feel’

November 17, 2021

The Acid Train Car Loading team. Dennis, left, and Rob and Pat, right. Photo: Vale Archive

Last November, our company teamed up with NORCAT to launch the Open Innovation Challenge, which Vale News covered at the time. The NORCAT Open Innovation Challenge is an exciting initiative that invites small- and medium-sized companies to submit proposals to solve some of the most challenging issues facing the mining industry across the globe.

If you missed that story, you can read it here:  Here’s how we find solutions for vexing problems, if you missed it. 

Earlier this month, we checked in with Sudbury-based Anthony Downs, manager, Innovation Scanning & Curation, and Toronto-based Suzanne Balima, lead, Open Innovation, Global Expansion & Future Foresight, for an update on the Open Innovation Challenge’s progress since then. Anthony is the program’s sponsor, and Suzanne is the central point of contact from the Vale side. 

According to Anthony, the NORCAT Open Innovation Challenge is an important tool to assist Vale in realizing it’s core purpose: We exist to improve life and transform the future. Together. The challenge provides a mechanism to address some of our tough business challenges around personal and process safety, while also developing capability and opportunities within the communities where we operate. 

The original challenge called for solutions to three issues: 1) excess water and run of material in underground mines; 2) acid train car loading and 3) underground and operator alertness. 

Several unique and novel proposals were received in response to excess water and acid car loading challenges, and from that three companies were selected and progressed to the experiment development phase. While there were also a number of proposals received regarding operator alertness, after consultation with a range of internal peers, the decision was made not to proceed with any of the proposals in favour of a more “traditional” sourcing approach.

Next step, according to Suzanne, is to look at the companies’ offerings through an innovation lens, which means lots of unknowns, lots of uncertainty, but also bridging the connection between Vale and the companies.” 

Here’s where the projects currently stand:

The Challenge: Acid Train Car Loading

Weekly Teams meeting with the team working on the acid train car loading issue. Photo: Vale Archive

SK Godelius, a remote operations engineering company, has been selected to create a robotic solution to safely perform the loading process of the sulphuric acid trains. “The solution uses artificial vision combined with a robot arm. The artificial vision would be programmed to detect different components on a hatch, for instance, like bolts, the lid and the handle. When the robot “sees’ the bolt, it would unbolt it, when it sees a lid handle, it would lift it,” said Suzanne. SK Godelius is working with our Sudbury Operations and is in the proof-of-concept stage. “It’s a challenging one because of the nature of it. There’s hardware. There’s software. There’s machine learning. It all has to come together.”

The Challenge: Excess water and run of material in underground mines

Thumbs up for the MineVest team. Photo: Vale Archive

In the process of reviewing the submissions for this challenge, it became apparent that there were two solutions from two separate vendors that could work in tandem.

According to Roger Santerre, superintendent, Business Support and problem owner for the run of material, “Being obsessed with safety is not only monitoring and adhering to current controls but looking for opportunities to improve how we currently manage and mitigate risk. At Garson Mine, while we had the best-known controls to manage future risk post-events, we were still not satisfied. This is where we began our journey with the Open Innovation team and how we came upon MineVest and Podco.” 

Vaughan-based MineVest was chosen to design a digital soft sensor solution to monitor underground mine water systems. If there is excess water, or anything atypical is detected with the water balance, the model will “feel” it, and send out an alert that there is a potential risk. MineVest is working with our Innovation Team and the underground Mine Operations team in Garson to help reduce these risks. 

Meanwhile, Podco, a Sudbury-based electronic product design and manufacturing company, will develop a hardware solution that will both identify and alert when conditions leading to the risk of the inrush of material are identified. Like the robot/artificial vision project, this one is also currently in its proof-of-concept stage. After which, field testing at our Sudbury Operations will begin.

Kudos to the Podco team. Photo: Vale Archives

“This is a huge step in our journey to zero lives lost, zero lives changed,” said Roger. “Data analytics and early warning systems tied to water management in mines is an example of our company’s obsession with safety and risk management.”

Suzanne said the Open Innovation Challenge is a more collaborative and, as a result, a productive approach to solving problems. “Oftentimes, the vendor comes to you with a solution, and you just use it.” But with this approach, the end users participate in developing the solution. “We’re building it together. It not only builds trust; it also gives the end users exactly what they want.” Another bonus coming out of these projects, said Suzanne, was that global trainee Daniel Mendes had a great opportunity to develop his leadership and innovation management skills. She added that the Open Innovation Challenge and the partnership with NORCAT is ongoing. 

“It is Vale’s ambition to be a benchmark in safety, and innovation is one of our leavers in getting there. It is important that we actively partner with external ecosystems to identify, co-develop, test and then scale these solutions across our organization and the wider industry.

The next Innovation Challenge aims to reduce diesel particulate emissions in Vale’s underground operations. Details will be released in partnership with NORCAT in 2022. 

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