A global digital transformation is underway. New digital solutions, powered by artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), the Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data analytics and augmented reality (AR) are driving a digital revolution. Across every industry, companies are facing new challenges and exploring new opportunities. But digital transformation is more than the simple adoption of cutting-edge technology; those companies that wish to reap the largest rewards are the ones that look to transform more than their software solutions. “We’re not guided by new technology, but by the new applications of that technology and the new ways of thinking and operating that it enables,” says Ludovic Donati, Chief Digital Officer at French mining and metals giant Eramet Group.
Operating since 1880, Eramet is a leading global player in the extraction of metals like nickel and manganese, as well as the processing and manufacture of high-value alloys such as high-speed steels, high-performance steels, superalloys, and aluminum and titanium alloys. “We also produce special alloys for different sectors like aerospace, nuclear, defense, et cetera. For instance, when you travel in a plane made by Boeing or Airbus, you are traveling with Eramet, because we produce a lot of very important parts for those companies,” Donati explains. “Eramet is an interesting organisation because it's both a metallurgical and mining company; we are present all the way up the value chain.” Eramet employs around 13,000 people across 20 countries and reported revenues of more than US$4bn in 2018. The company’s main operations include mines and processing plants in Europe, Africa, Oceania, Asia and North and South America.
After obtaining a PhD in chemistry, Donati joined Eramet in 2011 and spent three years in the company’s R&D department as a research engineer. In 2014, he moved over to the corporate strategy department and, in 2017, was asked by senior leadership to conduct a study of what exactly the digital transformation of a mining and metallurgical company like Eramet would look like.
As the global business landscape is reshaped by the digital revolution, a shifting political zeitgeist and a worsening climate crisis, Eramet is undergoing a unique digital transformation in order to employ new mindsets and technologies to overcome new and evolving challenges. “We started by making some proof of concepts that showed good results. Then, we decided it was necessary to create a new digital transformation department,” recalls Donati. “Today, the crux of Eramet’s strategy is to use digital to support being a leading producer of nickel, manganese and also of lithium. We’re predicting exponential demand for lithium in things like electric vehicle batteries, smartphones, etc. and, to produce it in quantities that meet our customers’ needs, we’re going to use digital to drive efficiency wherever we can.”
In order to effectively transform Eramet’s operations using technology ranging from IoT and drones to digital twins and advanced data analytics, Donati and his team need to overcome several challenges that are unique to a company like Eramet. “So the first problem is: how do you make digitalise a mine when it’s in the middle of a rainforest? Or the middle of the pacific ocean? That’s a challenge,” he reflects. The second challenge is that mining is a relatively old industry, and the skills required by Eramet are set to shift dramatically. “If you’re a miner or a geologist today, tomorrow you’re also going to need to be a data scientist and a drone pilot,” Donati says. “In order to align ourselves, we held a workshop with people from our operations in New-Calédonia, Gabon, Senegal, Norway, Paris - you name it. We sat down with everyone and worked together to define our vision for Eramet 4.0 using three axes.”
In locations with environmental threats, Eramet is using IoT and drones to check equipment and monitor operations with more accuracy and speed. “In New Caledonia, cyclones are quite common, and you need to run regular checks to make sure equipment hasn’t been damaged,” says Donati. “Previously, we’d send a car with two people in it to check and hear back in three to four days if everything was ok. Now, with a drone, we can reduce that down to two to three hours.” The company has also begun implementing AI-powered collision avoidance technology in its truck fleet, as well as overseer software to prevent fatigue-based accidents.
In addition to reducing fuel consumption across its entire operation, Eramet is using AI-powered data analytics to manage its fleet and process topographical modeling data gathered by drone surveyors. “We’re using drones to do these topographical measurements and, in 2019, we mapped more than 300,000 acres, which is about 100 times more than the previous year,” says Donati. “With all this data, we’re actually building a digital twin of the mine in New Caledonia, so we will soon have the possibility to run different scenarios based on, for example, fluctuations in the price of nickel.”
As a way of solving the problem of changing skill needs, Eramet is investing heavily in an operational transformation of the way it delivers expertise to remote locations. “We’re using remote expertise powered by AR,” explains Donati. “It’s very important for our operations to be connected, in real time, to our experts. We’re collecting all the data from our mines and plants and in 2020 we will implement remote operations centres across our operations.” This, Donati explains, allows the company powerful insight into the processes of its facilities, helping to drive efficiency on a global scale and enabling Eramet to be more reactive to changes in the market.
This transformation has been defined by its speed and scale. “A year and a half ago, we had no competencies in data science, cloud, analytics etc.,” recalls Donati. “Since then, we’ve built a digital transformation team of about 70 people, 50 of whom are focused on data science and engineering and now we’re working on AI, data science and ML projects. Our algorithms implemented in our ferronickel or silicomanganese furnaces are learning and, every day, they’re becoming more and more accurate.” At the end of a successful year of small-scale implementations and proof of concept tests, Eramet is at a tipping point. Looking to the future, Donati acknowledges that the coming year will be one of monumental change for Eramet. “We did a great job in 2018, running proof of concepts and tests. This year, we industrialised and deployed a lot of proprietary solutions,” he says. “Next year, in 2020, we will be aiming for full scale deployment.”