When Lachlan McMahon left the defence force in 2012, he started working in the operational technologies in the mining and resources sector.

What he discovered was that within the network space – specifically the design, maintenance and support areas – miners seemed to be, in general terms, quite underdeveloped in their on-site resource capabilities and their network operations centres.

With a team of others who were looking to leave the forces at that time, FTP Solutions was formed.

FTP stands for Forces Transitioning Personnel – although the other acronym in the space, File Transfer Protocol, served as a pretty good ice breaker when needed!

FTP’s team were made up of people handpicked for their skill and experience, primarily from the defence force.

Their first engagement concentrated on remediating physical infrastructure related to critical networks, then focused on developing a robust set of protocols, measures and monitoring capabilities around the network connectivity and infrastructure governance elements of their customers business.

FTP had a slightly different view on what was important – data wise – from a mine environment and instead of focusing on what is usually referred to as “Business Intelligence”, FTP’s focus was on what the team calls “operational intelligence”; that is identifying important information that is actually valuable, or critical to operations and where decisions need to be made now.

This awareness focuses on issues which disrupt or hinder not only network connectivity – but has the propensity to impact production.

“The data is there if you want to deep dive and get into those logs, but 99% of the time, you only need to know about the high-level information,” Lachlan said.

Now, FTP has two operational streams – the software side of the business, and consulting and support.

The support team are people who are reporting to all levels of the mine site technology chain, analysing, and reporting on the data, and advising on how to improve on what they are doing.

It is a team which has been built largely on people who have amassed a niche and high-value skillset in the military.

Providing opportunities to ex-military personnel is a big part of the FTP story – and one they are rightly proud of.

Co-founder Lachlan McMahon in FTP’s Perth head office.

Theatres of Connectivity

The team started identifying gaps in some of the wireless technology support and found there was nothing out on the market which would meet the situational awareness or contextual awareness needs.

“A mine has a multitude of assets moving around site, such as trucks, dozers, drills, and other plant and equipment which are connected to the wireless network.

The issue is when these failed, it wasn’t easy to understand why, or where they were on the mine site,” Lachlan said.

“We couldn’t determine the egress point or identify the closest point to where they were actually located, or moving beyond, the network area.

“Traditionally it was difficult to try and figure out what went wrong, and why did that particular asset lose network connectivity.” Enter defence force experience.

It seems unusual to liken a mine site to a theatre of war, until the risk of loss of life and being surrounded by multi-million dollar equipment is considered.

The FTP’s military operational experience is extensive and this knowledge enabled the situational awareness needed to make operational decisions.

This formed the foundation to a new approach to connectivity and communications on site.

“Our team understand exactly what it means to have communications, and the criticality of knowing the location of where assets are,” Lachlan said.

From there, the team developed a system which would identify where the vehicles were and a means of gathering basic network statistics around whether an asset was actually connected.

Real Time

That is where the software started, but before long the team started looking further.

“We went down a path of trying to scope out around ‘wouldn’t it be nice if this was actually in real time?’” Lachlan said.

“And wouldn’t it be nice if we could replay past events for analysis?” It is here the real challenges started.

“It was a massive, massive challenge for us,” he said.

“As we were adopting more features, we did get to a point three years into the development cycle of the software where we realised what a challenge and opportunity we had on our hands..” The platform and software were functioning well – from a basic monitoring point of view, but to make it more useful, and meet market needs, the data being collected needed to be available in real time.

“The feedback we were getting was, ‘Yep. Network’s great. Can I have added systems such as de-watering? Can I put my drills on? Can I bring my CCTV Camera in, and can I start looking at engine statistics?” Lachlan said.

Eventually they re-aligned focus, which gave rise to what Lachlan calls a “massive lightbulb moment”.

“So, from that point, FTP focused on growing our software development team,” he said.

“From that point – our software solution became known as IMS (integrated management system) platform and was a key focus of the business moving forward.

Another gamechanger was the fact they were not tied to one specific technology or OEM.

“IMS doesn’t care what IOT devices are being used on a mine site, we’ve got the ability to interrogate any device and pull the data that important to our clients and visualise that in IMS,” Lachlan said.

IMS being used to monitor and adjust wireless network coverage across a mine site.

The Value of Data

The next challenge was that people did not know the value of data.

“They didn’t understand what it meant to the business. They had their processes in place for fleet management, for example, and they had applications and tools which were aimed at increasing productivity, but they had nothing that was actually achieving that,” Lachlan said.

“Using IMS and our services, you don’t have to have technicians running down into the pit every half an hour to try and fix something when you can do it remotely.” The technology could also identify the source of the problem – whether it was a line issue in the network, or whether the issue was with an application.

“If there’s data missing from an application, IMS will identify it… it is about full transparency around where there are issues and why,” Lachlan said.

The platform can also pull in information needed to enable the making of decisions that an operator might need to make on a day-to-day basis, without the operator’s actual input.

Within the framework there is a series of triggers and alerts.

IMS will receive and monitor statistics, ask a series of questions and depending on how the data answers those questions – and how those triggers and alerts respond – IMS will then send out an email or an SMS to a maintenance person with an action.

“The response time and resolution of issues is dramatically decreased,” Lachlan said.

Pathways

There are paths FTP solutions could travel given the capability of the software its team has developed, but the acute focus for them is to be providing a “governance layer” around the data collected and its use.

“At the moment, if a system needs network connectivity or data integrity, we want to be that sort of governance lab around the data,” Lachlan said.

“But can we track people? Absolutely. Can you put all the rules in the system around whether a person is inducted or has qualifications, etc. We can.”

The issue, though, Lachlan said, was not the capability to capture the data, but what it was used for and where it went once it was collected.

“This is where, mining companies have to be accepting of technology, but they also need to be prepared to change policies and procedures to be able to use and keep up with that technology,” he said.

“For us, the miners who are willing to take that step are the miners who are going down the autonomy path.

“Miners who have gone down the autonomous path have quickly realised that If they do not have a functioning network, they do not have an autonomous operation. It’s as simple as that.”

Autonomy

Knowing what it takes to run an autonomous solution from a technology and configuration and planning point of view, puts the FTP team in a box seat to be a part of the autonomous transition movement.

They are driving operators to bring FTP in early, when a mine site is going on the autonomous journey, so they audit where they are from a network point of view, and where they need to be.

“We then align that to whatever autonomous solution is required and audit a customers network, finally simulating an autonomous operation before they actually go autonomous – we can prove to the customer if their networks are capable of full autonomy,” Lachlan said.

“If you take it from design, commissioning and then support point of view, that is really where our team is focusing at the moment.

“We don’t build a physical networks, but we can manage a third party to do all of that.”

Throughout this process, everything is undertaken in full consultation with OEMs to ensure what is tested and works in a controlled or workshop setting is fully supported in real world conditions and in real time operation.

“That’s the nature of autonomous operations. But for us, it adds to our story because, when a truck stops moving, something needs to be done about it.

“Prior to autonomous operations being adapted, there was no data on why a truck had stopped and no clear visibility until there was a direct or immediate impact to operations,” Lachlan said.

The Operational Technology Service Centre using IMS to assist customers diagnosing issues on-site.

Remote Control

With an office in Brisbane, in Perth and another in Calgary, FTP offers 24/7 coverage.

Distance is not an issue either because the nature of FTP’s IMS is such that, in 3D mode, a clear picture of what the mine looks like is available, negating the need to be physically on site.

In the effective transitioning of people, processes and technology when turning on site after site after site, being available 24/7 to provide that remote ability to support these operators is important.

“When you have a company which is bringing in autonomous operations to multiple sites consecutively, one of the major issues arising is the ability to train staff quickly enough and to an adequate standard,” Lachlan said.

This is where the FTP support is vital.

“We can assist the onsite teams and we can do it all remotely,” he said.

“When we are in 3D mode, we have full situational awareness and we can even be positioned on the edge of a pit. We can talk to the technicians and advise them as to where they should be positioning a trailer, for example.”

Growing

“Our view is limited only by the potential of our product, but we are trying to structure it so that we can be sustaintainable,” Lachlan said.

FTP is an organisation which has taken a considered and sensible approach to the development of its technology, and a fair and sector-wide approach to clients.

It is what it calls vendor-agnostic.

Industry standards are built into IMS and these apply across the board in each industry.

And it is not just mining – there are opportunities in sectors like transport operations, agriculture, and ports – all with the focus on what data is important, how that is absorbed into IMS and the visibility of it.

It is these significant parts of their organisational ethos that, when paired with an intuitive and powerful platform, and logical user-focused interface, that lend FTP the “problems” that come with managing growth and providing support in line with the potential of the product.

“Our mandate is that we don’t just sell you a product. We are in partnership with our customers, and we are there for them,” Lachlan said.

SOURCE
FTP Solutions
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