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Comms System Keeps Vale Running, Workers Safe |

Comms System Keeps Vale Running, Workers Safe

Using a combination of services and devices, Vale nickel mine in New Caledonia keeps workers safe, increases productivity and maintains critical network reliability.

Vale, one of the largest mining companies in the world, operates in approximately 30 countries worldwide. In New Caledonia, Vale’s nickel mine and plant at Goro is located 70 kilometres from the capital of Noumea.

The industrial complex includes a mine, hydrometallurgical plant, refinery, auxiliaries and leaching dam as well as the second largest port in New Caledonia. The entire area of the project covers approximately 1,900 hectares, with about 3,000 people working either in the mine, port, plant or support.

To support Vale’s communications needs, Motorola Solutions reconfigured and repaired the existing network system in 2009. Two ongoing services, managed network services and managed radio repair services, ensure the reliability of the system.

  1. Managed network services
    Motorola Solutions’ Network Operations Control Centre (NOCC) in Australia manages and monitors Vale’s radio network, ensuring maximum availability and reliability.

    Service level agreements (SLAs) are in place to ensure performance targets are met with the right level of service. The NOCC monitors the network via a display that shows any alarms. If activated, the alarms are validated to determine the need to engage the on-call engineer. The fault is diagnosed, and field support is dispatched if onsite intervention is required.

  2. TETRA two-way radios
    For communication with a large number of workers over a huge area, Vale has a fleet of more than 1,000 TETRA radios. 

    “After the PCS (process control system (ie automation)) – without which we can’t operate at all – the radio is the most important thing,” says Kamel Azzoug, IT manager, Vale New Caledonia. 

    Chosen for their durability, the radios also provide dedicated secure talk groups between employees: 

    “Due to the isolation of the mine we are required to have a hospital onsite. The doctors have their own dedicated channel so they can talk confidentially to each other. There is also a talk group each for emergency services, security and for each area (port, mine and maintenance).”

  3. Managed repair services
    Any supplies or equipment must be flown in via relatively infrequent flights to Noumea, with the accompanying formalities, costs and delay of freight and customs. Vale engaged Motorola Solutions to help maximise the availability of its fleet with managed repair services. 

    The predominant benefit for Azzoug is the ease of the repairs process. 

    “Now, it’s working and I don’t spend any of my time on radio repairs. We just ship the radio under the contract agreement. Very few are not returned because they can’t be repaired. The process is fluid and transparent, and a key part of our repair cycle.”

Benefits start with better safety

The most important outcome of the communications system is improved safety:

“Given the nature of the process (chemical) and the topography of the site, absence of communication becomes a safety issue. If the network is down, operations and safety teams can’t communicate. Safety is the first critical requirement of the business.”

For Azzoug, safety comes down to three factors:

“Firstly, some areas such as geology or environment activities could leave people completely isolated because of the very large area and location of the mine. It’s in the middle of nowhere, without full GSM [global system for mobile communications] coverage. If someone has been injured, radios are the main way of communicating.”

“Second, we must also be able to contact people at all times and workers must always be aware of what’s going on. For example, they may need to move because of certain operations or to know that a truck is arriving.”

“Finally, we must be able to give instructions such as the go-ahead for operations.”

All Motorola radios onsite at the Goro nickel mine are intrinsically safe, that is, they are designed for use in hazardous areas where there is a risk due to the presence of explosive gases and/or dusts.

Core system: 100 per cent reliability

Managed services proactively keep the network running reliably.

“Since Motorola Solutions came on board, the mobile switching office (MSO) – the core system – has never gone down. And in five years there has only been one incident related to the network, where a link went down because of no redundancy. So the core system has 100 per cent reliability, and the network almost the same, despite the lack of redundancy,” says Azzoug.

“Since 2012, everything has been smooth because the network is monitored 24/7. We operate with ‘les yeux fermés’, meaning with ‘closed eyes’, a French expression meaning with complete confidence.”

Ensuring maximum productivity

Working radios are critical for ensuring maximum productivity on the site, as a lack of timely communication will significantly reduce or stop some activities at the plant.

In addition, Azzoug can now focus on plans for long term and future developments, which “definitely wasn’t the case before. Three years ago, radios were burning up my team’s time. There were almost three full time equivalents (FTEs) to look after only half the current fleet, and the service was not stable. Today it’s a 1.5 FTE equivalent and I am not spending my time on them.”

“We’re no longer dealing with getting the network to work. Instead we can focus on how to improve the system in the next two years, and provide better mobility capabilities.”

Applications for more functionality

Currently Vale use the radios for data transfer of job tickets to the trucks, but there is capacity to do more as the TETRA network is capable of greater data throughput.

Using a basic level of log reporting, Azzoug can determine if a particular radio has been used. Another future development under consideration is a console, which would provide a real-time inventory of radio location and usage.

While the man-down functionality is not currently in place, Vale are looking to activate or add this feature to their fleet. This function would enable Vale to identify workers who have fallen or had an accident. On detecting a lack of movement, a horizontal tilt or both, the radio’s motion sensor dispatches a notification to the appropriate response group to ensure that the worker is safe.

Predictability of costs

The managed services agreement encompasses everything including radio repairs, which means a predictable amount of spend per month. Azzoug says that knowing what managing the network is going to cost makes financial management easier and keeps costs predictable.

An ideal partnership

Motorola Solutions works with Avionics, a channel partner organisation in Noumea, which meets Vale’s needs on the ground and facilitates onsite activities.

Azzoug describes the relationship with Motorola Solutions as a “long-term partnership. I really can say that Motorola is one of the top three of my partner relationships, and I have 50-60 other service providers to deal with. I feel that the customer is worth more than just money to Motorola. It’s a very good partnership.”

To read the Vale New Caledonia case studies, click here.