GTK Mintec has started to build virtual mineral processing plants (Digital Twins), which provide remote dynamic feedback to actual plants, leading to improved mineral recovery. A digital plant will have the capability of monitoring a mineral processing operation in real-time by using advanced machine learning protocols and methods. The target is digital service solutions for the industry, utilizing our technology platform.
Here and now, we stand on the brink of a major technological revolution, which means the presence of new interconnected technologies in plant operations. To meet the global digital transformation challenges as well as our customers` needs, the Geological Survey of Finland GTK has developed a strategy that includes the following target: “Scalable digital mineral processing solutions in the circular economy to improve our productivity and our customers` process efficiency.” The milestones for our development work are digitized partial processes and digitized twins for customers.
The main idea of Digitalization of Mineral Processing Plant is building a virtual pilot plant based on a real one by using Digital Twins tool to improve the operation of the installation, and for a digitized customer experience.
There are many general definitions of the Digital Twin, and one of them is given by Gartner  as follows: “A digital twin is a digital representation of a real-world entity or system. The implementation of a digital twin is an encapsulated software object or model that mirrors a unique physical object, process, organization, person or other abstraction.”
The digitalization process together with an automation system through state-of-the-art-technologies will provide timely information about the important process performance. Conclusively it will speed up decision-making, troubleshooting, and performance efficiency.
The planned digital mineral processing solutions are based on advances in our ability to instrumentally measure phenomena at several stages of the mineral processing circuit, manage the data in real time, and to analyze this data by using machine learning artificial intelligence (AI) to develop the next generation of process control. These capabilities and approaches make GTK Mintec a sought-after testbed facility for advanced research in mineral processing. The first target is to improve our process development, to facilitate development of digital twins for processing facilities. The second aim is to provide an important component for GTK’s digital data continuum that starts from mineral deposits and their raw materials and extends to tracing these materials in their downstream uses.
GTK Mintec Standard
GTK Mintec consists of mineral processing pilot plant and laboratories for minerals, ores, geomaterials, and circular economy materials. The pilot plant test is preceded by a laboratory examination phase to obtain the necessary information. The feeding capacity of tests can be up to 5 t/h for pilot plant operation. The pilot plant allows for flexible testing of an entire process or optimizing a part of it. GTK`s pilot plant services include multiple unit operations that can be easily combined into a functional full-scale process suitable for our customer’s needs.
Full automation and digitalization of the GTK Mintec Pilot Plant considers all possible sources of data, from in-situ ore characterization, through bench scale study, to comminution, separation, concentration, and to the creation of final products and tailings. The following conceptual figure shows the structure and main data flows in our platform-based service development. We call it the GTK Standard.
The GTK Standard stands for a digitized customer experience, an interactive journey along a project implementation resulting in a signature GTK research report. The concept comprises a standardized operation route through the entire research chain of GTK Mintec to meet the various needs of our customers. The goal is to be able to provide all necessary information required for feasibility studies at different levels, or troubleshooting of existing plants in terms of process performance and tailings management, while customers are able to view the progress of the work and the results achieved in real time through digital solutions.
The GTK standard concept is divided into two main stages – a laboratory scale and a pilot plant scale testing ‒ which are surrounded and supported by digital applications (Fig. 1). Uniform and consistent, standardized practices play an important role in the concept, making it possible to utilize the results obtained in digital programs now and in the future. The data collected is processed and taken into the digital platform which is the digital link between GTK and the stakeholders.
The research journey begins in the mineralogical and chemical laboratories where the feed characteristics of studied samples are analyzed. Suitable beneficiation methods are chosen based on the characterization data and the methods are tested and optimized in the processing laboratory facilities. The tests provide the necessary data for pilot plant process design, process modelling and produce tailing materials for the testing of environmental characteristics.
The automation control system is the heart of the pilot plant operations. For each test run, a process designed based on the laboratory tests is drawn in the system and the physical assembling and mobilization of the pilot process takes place in parallel. The connections between the control system and field equipment are created in the control system to operate the plant equipment fleet and to monitor different measuring instruments from the control room.
A digital twin is created alongside the process control system which digitizes the process stages both individually and as a whole. In addition, the system allows researchers to view the process equipment and performance virtually and to test different process parameters before being introduced to the physical process (Fig. 2). Remote access is provided for our customers to witness the progress of the run and the process performance from anywhere in the world via smart devices.
Figure 2: Virtual model (on the left) and the real pilot plant (on the right) at GTK Mintec
The outcome of the experience is the GTK standard report which combines the necessary data and conclusions from feed characterization through mineral processing testing in laboratory and pilot plant scales to tailings management into one comprehensive package.
Two spearheads: modelling and digitized experience
Our roadmap includes building virtual mineral processing plants (Digital Twins), which provide remote dynamic feedback to actual plants through real-time monitoring and diagnosis, leading to improved mineral recovery. A digital plant will have the capability of monitoring a mineral processing operation in real-time, and by using advanced machine learning protocols, will be able to fine-tune the parameters itself over time to progressively achieve higher mineral recovery efficiencies within the real plant. The concept will be developed and tested on our pilot-scale plant. The target will be digital service solutions for the industry utilizing our technology platform.
In addition to developing new technologies and their core possibilities, well-proven process data handling methods and tools deserve attention in the roadmap:
- Experimental design
- Simulation and modelling
- Process optimization
All the planned ideas will also need new approaches for servicing customers and scientists. We are going to create a whole new information system to support these requirements. As a basis we will choose a cloud-based data lake solution as well as a solid Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) (Fig. 3). On top of that foundation we will create a complete information system that is capable, secure and able to serve our internal clients as well as our customers.
We have identified the following potential use cases for the Digital Twin:
- Remote presence of pilot plant customers and various online visualizations of the pilot plant.
- Testing of processing parameters before going live.
- Co-working with partners, customers, researchers and startup community support.
- Platform for Internet of Things (IoT), data analytics and AI tools that further generate and refine process and materials data.
Especially the first of these is by our customers` request and therefore a high priority. The second item in the list would be a natural complement to the remote presence case. The third item needs scoping based on our capabilities and customers` needs in the future. A standard process for data mining would help in managing the data beneficiation. Also, a high level of automation and tool-based approach is required in data mining because of our limited resources to conduct these tasks in a coding intensive manner.
The beneﬁts of the digitalization and automation of the GTK Mintec Pilot Plant for customers and for us can be described as follows:
- Process stability improvements.
- More efficient ways of using raw materials (higher recovery, decreasing of metal losses, increasing of concentrate grade).
- Reduced maintenance and improved safety.
- Improved process knowledge.
- Increase visibility of obtained results.
- Collect process data for their further analysis and use.
Explore GTK Mintec
Make a short (1 min) journey into the Virtual GTK Mintec Pilot Plant by Youtube video.
For a more detailed video (6 min) about GTK Mintec Mineral Processing Pilot Plant, Process Mineralogy Laboratory, Bench Scale Process Laboratory, and Chemical Analysis Laboratory in Finland at the city of Outokumpu.
Alona Nad, Postdoctoral Researcher, Mineral Processing and Materials Research, Circular Economy Solutions, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sauli Kivikunnas, Senior Specialist, Circular Economy Solutions, email@example.com
Arno Kirpala, Chief of Pilot Plant, Circular Economy Solutions, firstname.lastname@example.org
Tero Rönkkö, Senior Specialist, Digital Innovations, email@example.com