International Minerals Innovation Institute

How the Fourth Industrial Revolution is Improving Mining Safety and Efficiency

Did you know? We’re in the fourth industrial revolution, often referred to as Industry 4.0.

The innovative advancements of Industry 4.0 are having a huge impact on the minerals industry’s processes, revolutionizing both safety and efficiency to address the growing world population and the energy transition. 

We spoke with Cole Kehrig, Senior Manager of Automation at Nutrien about his experiences and insights on safety and efficiency from within this leading minerals company. 

*Nutrien’s Cory Potash Operations

What is the Fourth Industrial Revolution? 

Let’s start at the beginning. As the third industrial revolution saw the rise of memory-programmable tools and computers, the fourth industrial revolution, building off the third, is characterized by automation and data exchange. Some key examples include: 

  • Cyber-physical systems (robotics, autonomous car systems, etc.)
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Cloud computing (analytics, data storage, Saas)
  • The Internet of Things, describing devices with sensors, processing abilities, and technologies that exchange and process data with other devices
  • Cognitive computing (machine learning, neural networks, expert systems)


The Fourth Industrial Revolution in Mining

Industry 4.0 has permeated the minerals industry—and for the better! Here are some of the key technologies and processes that have come from the innovations of our time: 

  • Remote operations. This refers to equipment and processes and serves the dual function of keeping personnel safe while increasing productivity. Remote operations are being adopted across the minerals industry from on-surface loaders to underground hauls cars to drilling and blasting operations. The soft rock industry has its own unique challenges that do not enable off-the-shelf solutions. For this reason, Nutrien has led in the development and operationalization of its Tele-Remote and Operator-Not-Present (ONP) technologies.


  • Integration and adaptation of existing technologies. Minerals companies often utilize technologies from closed-loop industries by innovating upon them for dynamic mining environments. This includes technologies that enable remote operations (simultaneous location and mapping—SLAM, computer vision technology & algorithms, edge computing). 


  • Innovative safety systems. Many of the above technologies are being adapted and adopted to improve safety systems within mining operations. For example, minerals companies increasingly utilize vision systems and various forms of AI to innovate on existing safety systems. 


The Benefits of Larger Mining Equipment 

The technologies of Industry 4.0 have been adopted in many forms, notably within larger equipment and machines. 

At Nutrien, the use of larger equipment comes down to their culture of care and priority on safety. Adopting larger equipment allows personnel to spend less time at the active mining face and more time safely performing other, value-added tasks. The equipment can more efficiently extract ore while keeping people safe and addressing productivity demands. 

Here are the main trends and technologies in larger equipment being enabled by the cutting-edge technologies of our time: 

  • Higher connectivity. With mines operationalizing larger equipment, companies like Nutrien utilize additional instrumentation in addition to pre-installed options to further improve the machine’s capabilities. 


  • Increased data extraction. Where data collection in the past was the simple historicization of tags, it now includes real-time data from the active face utilized throughout the mine in processing decisions. 


  • Predictive maintenance. As equipment and machinery increase in size and capabilities, it becomes ever more important for them to function well. Today’s equipment is required for more instantaneous production than ever before, and a breakdown can cause major concerns for safety and productivity. Artificial intelligence and machine learning advancements contribute to more advanced predictive maintenance technologies. We expect a large development focus in this area in the coming years.


Improving Mining Safety 

In Cole’s experience, Canadian minerals companies are pushing to exceed safety standards and requirements. This is exemplified by Nutrien’s constant improvements in Tele-Remote and Operator-Not-Present technologies. 

In addition, Nutrien’s Health and Safety team is collaborating with their IT and data science departments to develop AI systems that assist with the analysis of complex data streams relating to health and safety. The goal is to make data-driven decisions when it comes to elements like mitigations, hazard recognition, and engineering solutions. 

The safety improvements and changes range in significance from moving personnel away from the active mining face to the ergonomic improvements of Tele-Remote operating stations. Every successful adjustment lends to the overarching safety and health of the industry, and we’re excited to continue watching safety improvements progress!