Vale is the one of the largest mining companies in the world. One nickel mine and plant is located in the south of New Caledonia at Goro, approximately 70 kilometres over rough and mountainous terrain from the capital of Noumea. In 2009, Motorola Solutions reconfigured and repaired the existing network system, and put managed services in place to manage and monitor the radio network via the Network Operations Control Centre (NOCC) in Australia for maximum availability and reliability.
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.
100 per cent core availability
About 3,000 people work at the Goro site, either in the mine, port, plant or support, with more than 1,000 radios in operation. Kamel Azzoug is the IT manager at Vale, and talks about the benefits of the managed service:
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 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.”
Reliability: “Since Motorola 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.”
“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.”
There is an added incentive to ensure the port – the second largest in New Caledonia – is not forced to close. The port receives deliveries of coal for the territorial power plant, and diverse bulk products that require communication to guarantee their safety (such as fuel and gas).
Operational efficiency: “After a few hours of system downtime, some activities have to operate with a workaround with some impact on production. After 24 hours, there will be an impact on the business. If we can’t communicate in a timely manner this will significantly reduce or stop some of the activities at the plant.”
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.”
SLAs at the right level: “From when the managed services were set up, the service level agreements (SLAs) have been appropriate. They don’t include services we don’t need or cover situations we won’t meet, which is cost-effective.”
Biannual audits: “We have an audit every six months, which means that we don’t need to call on Motorola all the time. Now that the network is resilient, Motorola comes for two things: review what’s going on and how to improve the system.”
Dedicated, secure talk groups: “Due to the isolation of the mine we are required to have a hospital on site. 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).”
Predictable costs: “Each month I know what managing the network is going to cost, which makes it easier to manage financially and keeps costs predictable.”
Azzoug adds that the relationship with Motorola Solutions is 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.”
Avionics is the channel partner organisation in Noumea, which works with Motorola to meet Vale’s needs on the ground:
“Avionics is a great third party,” says Azzoug. “They are the link between us and Motorola, facilitating the activities onsite. We help push each other in order to improve each feature. We don’t always agree at first, but we need to challenge each other to do better and grow as businesses. It’s a very honest relationship. Avionics will spot the wrong decision. They will tell us what is not compliant and help reinforce how to do things properly. Avionics does not cut corners, but it’s still cost-effective.”
“They are professional, customer-oriented, and go above and beyond what they are contracted to do. They recognise the need to have the radios up all the time.”