IIoT and digital transformation: From manufacturing an input to designing for outputs

The transformative impact of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is often talked about in think pieces, and conference key notes, but it is not as common to hear from a company that has adopted its strategies and seen an effective, fundamental shift in their business practices. This is why hearing from global commercial explosives and blast systems manufacturer Orica, and how they have shifted from manufacturing a product to creating an outcome through IIoT technologies, is so revealing of the nature of change that can be experienced by companies when they adopt IIoT technology.

Chris Crozier, the company’s chief digital officer, outlined how Orica has experienced this digital transformation.

“Until three years ago our customers would drill between every 100 metres and 500 metres and use an average of the hardness of the rocks and also the chemistry of the rocks to determine the explosives that we would be using.”

Today, inserting IIoT sensors into the drilling devices, which can measure a rock’s hardness and chemistry, allows Orica to determine the energy needed to break up the rock, and the size of the particles needed to effectively extract the ore from the product.

“Based on that information, we can then feed that forward into our smart mobile explosives delivery units, such as the Bulkmaster 7,” said Crozier. “These units have a series of adjustable compartments with different chemicals that, when they are blended together, make the explosive that is loaded in the blast hole.”

With the information gained from the sensors, Orica can refine the product that they are offering and fundamentally alter the nature of what they are selling to customers. It also indicates where manufacturing is being carried out.

“IIoT manufacturing is in the mining pit. We don’t only make explosives, we actually generate a rock particle size or rock particle size distribution to specification,” outlined Crozier. “What our customers are interested in is not an explosion; they want a rock of a particular size and we are able to, using IIoT technology, match the blast to the chemistry of the rock to be able to create a defined particle size for our customer. We move from selling inputs, selling ammonium nitrate and boosters and detonators to actually selling an output, which is a desired particle size fit for the operation.”


Orica’s SHOTPlus Blast Design package enables users to design, visualise and analyse blasts for optimal outcomes

From product to service
Such a shift in thinking enables Orica to expand its product offering beyond selling just products, to providing a service at multiple points of the value chain. This has not only been enabled by having the IIoT sensors that determine an explosive’s chemical composition, but utilising IIoT technology to synchronise stages in the mineral production process.

“For every hole that’s being drilled, we’re customising the blast that’s occurring,” said Crozier. “The data from IoT sensors in the drilling, feeds into the IoT sensors that are on the truck, and we then use that to deliver precise explosives, digitally. In addition, the detonators that are used with our explosives have computer chips in them, which means we’re able to time the blast down to the millisecond timing. This technology also ensures greater certainty of the blast outcome in line with our customers’ specific needs.”

Once that blasting process has been completed, Orica has developed digital products, named ORETrack and FRAGTrack, which automatically analyse the rock that is produced after the blast to determine what should happen to the material. Using the latest optical sensing technology, the fragmentation characteristics of the rock can be determined, and waste rock can be sorted from the valuable ore. Built into these tools are machine learning algorithms that improve the software that is aiding the successful processing of mineralised ore, taking Orica from an explosives manufacturer to a digital services company for mineral extraction.

These advances in product offering have been driven by the advances in technology that have opened upon the potential of IIoT for Orica and other companies like it. As Crozier highlighted, this system would not be possible without certain technological elements.

“The first one is the application of IoT sensors in the pit. The second one is the ability to be able to aggregate that data with edge computing, so you do the majority of the data analytics at the edge rather than in the cloud. Finally, the platform that underpins all of that is developed on the cloud. It’s fundamentally been enabled because of the high capability, low cost, high performance that cloud computing brings.”


Orica’s BlastIQ Digital Blast Optimisation Platform helps customers optimise drill and blast operations

Managing the transition
At the same time, while advances in computing capabilities have enabled the development of Orica’s software and hardware, there has been institutional support, which has been essential for the successful implementation of the IIoT system.

“Our CEO and executive committee are aware that technology is the future for the organisation and our board embrace it. We’ve seen some changes in our board dynamic with new board members coming in with a digital background, who have seen the disruptive influence of digital in other more mature environments and want to be part of the self-disruption here in Orica,” said Crozier.

Emphasising the role that having a supportive executive is in the implementation of IIoT, Crozier made the point that, “This is ultimately all about human beings”.

“Anyone can go to Amazon Web Services or Google – there are plenty of platforms that can do this. The technology is not the issue here, it’s the human beings. It’s the foresight of the executive and the board to see how it all comes together, and then put the right people in place to make it happen.”

Having been part of this transformation, Crozier is aware of other issues in implementing IIoT technology that a traditional manufacturer would not have had to confront when simply selling a product. This includes controls around the data generated during the operation of the Orica system at a client’s site, which is essential for the machine learning algorithms to improve their results in future.

“The data ultimately is the customer’s, but we want customers to respect that we are learning from them and the insight gained from that is important for them and Orica to be able to improve our service offering going forward. My catchcry is we’re the Switzerland of data; we want to be data neutral, but we want to be ensuring that we generate insight that is beneficial to our customers across the board.”

Orica’s Bulkmaster 7 Smart Connected Explosives Delivery System

These insights, which instead of being driven by a hypothesis, or models, are driven by correlations in the data derived from Orica’s operations. Increasingly, Orica has been able to create microservices that leverage the data they have generated for products built on the core platform which Orica has developed.

“It’s about building out that ecosystem,” said Crozier. “It’s almost like Android and the Google Store. Those microservices are our Google Store.”

Differentiating these services into discrete offerings also allows Orica to scale its platform for the individualised needs of each customer. With automation, an unavoidable wave sweeping across Oria’s core business areas of mining, construction and agriculture, preparing for the future means embracing the digital disruption.

“It sounds cliched, but it is real, and organisations need to understand there is a massive disruptive influence in their value chain,” said Crozier. “You either need to embrace it or someone else will embrace it on your behalf.”

Chris Crozier will speak at IoT Impact in Sydney on October 16 on the panel “Manufacturing through IoT: Seizing the opportunity for Connected Manufacturing – Seeking to solve problems using IoT”. The panel will be moderated by Bradley Trewing, Industry 4.0 industry development lead, Bosch and other speakers include, David Chuter, CEO, IMCRC, Chris Brugeaud, CEO, SSS Manufacturing, and Milorad Srdic, business development, OMRON. IoT Impact is run by the IoT Alliance Australia (IoTAA), the peak industry body representing IoT in Austalia.

Manufacturers’ Monthly is a media partner for IoT Impact and readers of Manufacturers’ Monthly are offered a 10 per cent ticket discount using the MMIOT code.