The Pilbara is a remote and ancient landscape in the north of Western Australia.
Despite COVID-19 restrictions, Australia mining company BHP was still able to innovate during lockdown.
For example, Andrew Wood a BHP mechanical fitter with 30 years’ experience under his belt and he works for BHPs iron ore team in Western Australia’s Pilbara.
A frontline operator with many years of experience, he uses his expertise to design new tools to help keep his peers out of harm’s way. Each day he pulls on the hi-vis and uses mixed reality in its day-to-day operations to keep BHP workers safe and its productivity up.
Dash Maintainer Tools, developed by BHP’s maintenance and innovation teams, allow front line personnel to securely collect data from machinery remotely, avoiding the potential risks associated with manually checking dials or taking readings from heavy mobile equipment such as trucks, excavators, drills and ‘dozers.
Leveraging IoT sensors and industrial computers connected to Microsoft Azure the Dash solution gets data into the hands of maintenance technicians on their smartphone or tablet.
To keep its people, families, and communities safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, BHP introduced many rigorous measures and controls to reduce the risk of transmission.
This has included limiting numbers at its mine sites to only those required to enable safe operations; anyone who can work from home has done so.
At first, it meant that Alex Bertram, digital products manager at BHP couldn’t get his team to South Flank to keep developing the Dash tool at the same velocity.
Many other experts who would typically be flown to a mine to set up new equipment, solve a problem or conduct an inspection, were no longer able to either, said Bertram.
“During Covid-19, I expected the pace of innovation to slow, but we’ve seen the opposite. People really rally together and are open to trying new things to safely get the job done,” he said.
He’d already witnessed the potential of HoloLens and mixed reality, and was convinced that in combination with Dynamics 365 Remote Assist it would allow expertise to be delivered virtually to the teams still working at BHP’s Pilbara operations to support continued development of the Dash Maintainer Tools.
“Given many of us were working from home due to COVID-19, the first device was delivered to my house to test and by the following week, we’d undertaken trials in our workshop environment in Perth,” noted Bertram.
The team were able to test the system on real machinery at BHP’s Innovation Centre Lab, located at the Perth Repair Centre, which provides a safe and controlled environment to trial new technologies and ways of working on mining equipment.
“The following week, we ran a dry run and test at the mine, and five or six days later we supported the installation of the first prototype of Dash Maintainer Tools on a 300-tonne haul truck. A process like that would normally take a few months at least,” he said.
In fact, it took less than four weeks from the HoloLens2 arriving at Bertram’s Perth home to it being used to install the first prototype of Dash tool on a Komatsu dump truck in the heart of the Pilbara.
Workplace restrictions designed to keep people safe from COVID-19 mean that BHP hasn’t been able to fly people to and from its mine sites as freely as it did in the past – but it still needs equipment inspected, serviced and maintained.
Equipping people like Woody with mixed reality means expertise can still be delivered where it’s needed, when it’s needed.
By using the HoloLens 2 – a head mounted computer with a see-through display – Wood can coach his peers at site, anytime, from anywhere using Dynamics 365 Remote Assist.
Wood is instantly able to see what mechanical fitters at site can see, send them helpful documentation, videos and schematics on the fly, and even use digital ink and arrows to annotate real things in the physical world in order to help them complete tasks and inspections on remote sites.
“Woody was able to put the device on, log in, initiate and receive remote assist calls and undertake inspection work, and get us to help him step through a task on the machine. Which was pretty impressive,” said Bertram.
The site team didn’t need a manual or formal training to effectively operate the HoloLens2, just a bit of phone support. Bertram had actually run an unofficial test at home with his mother-in-law, who was able to put on the HoloLens2, open Remote Assist and follow instructions to dissect a Lego model – a clear indicator that the solution was intuitive.
The trials with Wood allowed the team to fine tune how the system would be used, and make sure that people using it stayed safe. For example, when someone’s climbing in and out of a truck cab, they flip up the headset visor so they are not distracted by holograms, and when they start using the system they flip it back down and look around for a minute or two to let the system properly calibrate its surroundings.
BHP saw the opportunity for the solution to tackle the immediate challenge posed by COVID-19 travel restrictions – but also expose on-mine personnel to leading edge technology that could have long term benefits to the company.
After the initial trial and test of the system it was used to support the planning and installation of the Dash Maintainer Tools product on a 300 tonne Komatsu dump truck. The experts were in Perth while a mechanical fitter and an auto-electrician installed the IoT system at site.
This demonstrated the power of the HoloLens2 and Dynamics 365 Remote Assist which form the technical foundations of the solution used by BHP.
The deployment of mixed reality technology has the potential to be rolled out more widely, and deliver safety and productivity benefits long after COVID-19 abates. And there is further scope in making the physical delivery of equipment to sites more efficient.
“This technology can help us reduce the time and cost associated with regular travel, increase the speed of maintenance and new equipment deployment without compromising safety, and support greater inclusion and diversity,” said Bertram.
Having proven the HoloLens2 solution’s potential, BHP is now running further trials across its rail workshops and maintenance teams in Perth and the Pilbara, and at several other global locations in Australia, the US and Chile.
“We are seeing promising early results,” said Bertram. “If those trials are successful, we will look at how we can scale up. We are not getting ahead of ourselves, but we are well placed because the HoloLens2 solution speaks to our existing systems such as security controls, and device management.”
Bertram notes that technologies such as IoT and mixed reality are most powerful when they are put in the in the hands of the people on the front line of our business.
“When you get tech like this into the hands of the women and men at the front line of our business, it’s amazing to see what they can achieve to make our operations safer, smarter and better,” he said.