What should we expect with the “gamification” of mine planning?

This week’s edition of Mining Journal reports on the unveiling of Runge Pincock Minarco‘s
yet-to-be-released mine planning tool Xecute at last month’s SAP Mining & Metals Forum in Darmstadt, Germany. Runge’s CEO Mr. Richard Mathews gave the Forum’s attendees  a sneak peak of Xecute in presentation, titled “How the Gaming World is driving a Productivity Transformation in Mining.” Xecute, as it was reportedly presented, is a platform that combines high-end gaming-style visualization and graphical manipulation, with powerful scheduling and reserving engines, and cloud-based computing speed. The product, when available will replace, what Mr. Mathews says, is an entirely manual, often time consuming and repetitive, process.

Sequence

The product was apparently well received as an innovative product in the all important mine planning visualization space. I decided to comment on this development because of the perceived importance of visualization in mine planning. Visualization of any scheduling optimization solution is important. However, this should not be more important than the optimization algorithm itself, for many reasons. Firstly, optimal solutions are, often, counter-intuitive and not obvious when compared to other sub-optimal solutions. That is, two solutions that look similar (visually) may have significantly different optimal values (whatever the objective function). Secondly, there is a limit to how long a human mine planner can watch an animation with keen attention to detect issues.

I note that Runge says this tool is aimed at short range planning and not strategic mine scheduling. This distinction is important because in short range planning, production efficiency and tactical goals are much more important than driving value (NPV, IRR etc.). However, there is too much emphasis placed on visualization of production schedules these days.

I do not know all the reasons behind this trend; but I venture to say it is because many mine planning engineers do not understand optimization (operations research). In the absence of any real optimization training, visualization is the only way to perceive the value of a particular schedule. Hence, the company that focuses on improving the optimization engine in the next update is more likely to lose market share than the company that comes up with superior visualization and user interface. It is becoming a better business strategy for mine planning software providers to focus on visualization instead of the engines. In fact, a quick survey of today’s mine scheduling tools will reveal that most of them are heuristic algorithms that the user cannot understand or validate. Also, most of the algorithms are legacy algorithms from the last two decades with almost all recent updates focused on visualization and user interfaces.

The uncertainty inherent in mine planning make it difficult to know the impact of  these sub-optimal schedules (generated with old heuristic algorithms) on invest return. I venture that in long range planning, in particular, this runs in the hundreds of millions per project for the large metal mines. As I pointed out earlier, Runge notes that the their tool is for short range planning. Also, Xecute combines graphics and visualization tools with powerful scheduling engines. I hope the scheduling engines are more powerful than the animation platforms. Though, I will settle for scheduling engines that are as powerful as the animations.