Downtime in any industry is costly, but even more so in the mining world. When production mining equipment is down, either due to the mechanical failure of the machine itself or the failure of the installed technology, so are profits. Helping to eliminate costly downtime is 3D-P, a Calgary-based product manufacturer and services company that believes in technology for mining designed by people who know mining and the rigors of the field.
3D-P’s customer-driven solutions include: wireless data networks for open-pit mining, connectivity to new and legacy applications, open and direct access to onboard data, and ruggedized hardware with mining application specific I/O and hosting capability. Currently 3D-P’s mining technology solutions are deployed in more than 85 open-pit mines and more than 9,000 devices worldwide in the U.S., Canada, Peru, Chile, Indonesia and Australia.
The company has steadily gained global footing since starting in the U.S. in 1996 by two of the four partners — Al Leman and Jim Knapp. Leman and Knapp saw a need for a distributor of technology targeting the open-pit mining industry. For the first 10 years, the business was a distributor and reseller of third-party technology products.
In 2001, Evan Hansen, CEO and founder of 3D-P, started Evtech Solutions Ltd. in Alberta. “Our focus was designing ruggedized hardware for heavy industrial applications such as construction, landfills and mining,” says Hansen. “In 2005, I merged Evtech Solutions Ltd. with 3D-P to begin the design and manufacturing of our product line of Intelligent Endpoints. In 2006, Calgary became headquarters for 3D-P and our engineering and manufacturing remain here today.”
The all-in-one solution
“Downtime can cost some of our customers more than $10,000 an hour if they have a mining shovel that isn’t digging,” says Hansen. “The more networking and computing devices you have installed on a single mobile machine and the more complex the resulting wiring harness, the more failures you are going to have and it’s more complex to troubleshoot those failures.”
This is what sparked 3D-P’s Intelligent Endpoints solutions, which takes all devices and consolidates them into one rugged mobile-computing platform including a suite of data management and integration tools. After years of working with mining customers in prior business ventures, 3D-P saw a void to fill in the industry.
“As technology evolved, it became apparent that more and more data was being generated onboard mobile equipment,” says Hansen. “It started as customers coming to us asking for a better radio solution. At the time most were low-bandwidth radios and mobile machines would have two or three radios, one for each system installed, making the equipment more difficult to maintain.”
3D-P launched the search for a broadband radio solution and partnered with a company with experience in developing mesh networks for military applications. “This was the first deployment of broadband radios in the mining industry,” says Hansen.
But 3D-P quickly ran into another problem: systems onboard the machine didn’t communicate with Ethernet ports or IP; there was no universal connection. “Some systems had Ethernet ports, some had CAN ports, others had serial ports and although we now had the broadband radio onboard, the missing piece was still how to connect the disparate systems through a single radio network. In addition to the new radio, the job required multiple media converters from legacy I/O interfaces, network switches and a CPU to poll for and manage the data. With four to five additional devices being installed on the equipment in addition to existing systems, reliability and maintenance was a problem,” explains Hansen.
There had to be a way to consolidate devices and that’s what 3D-P set out to do with its Intelligent Endpoint platform. “Now you have a data radio, integrated switch, a bunch of interfaces and an open platform that allows you to gather and manage data and send it back to the office,” says Hansen. “It is an open platform too, so that the customer can work with a third party of their choice to run whatever applications they want on the box.”
3D-P now writes firmware for its Intelligent Endpoint solutions and it writes the “glue” to assist in the integration of mining applications. “The mining applications we are integrating are third-party applications, sold by another vendor,” explains Hansen.
Four generations of improvement later
Developing this complex computing platform took years of time, energy, research and testing and Hansen says 3D-P is still working to innovate and perfect this technology. “Our first box was produced in 2005 and now we’re on the fourth generation of the product, evolving with the needs of the industry,” he explains.
The most recent Intelligent Endpoint solution is 3D-P’s e200 Hornet model. The e200 Hornet features expanded application hosting capabilities and integrates with Linux and/ or Windows-based applications, natively or within hardware-virtualized machines (VMs).
Built on top of a modular platform, e200 Hornet allows for factory upgrades in processing, memory and storage, as well as the ability to migrate to new radio options as they become available. “This means our product offers a high-level upgradeability and scalability,” says Hansen. The user-friendly design offers the full suite of integration services and resource-sharing tools. “The e200 is the ideal choice for end customers, OEMs and application vendors looking to satisfy their current and future on-machine computing and communication requirements,” he adds.
Today more than 98 percent of 3D-P’s business is comprised of open-pit mining customers around the world. “For being such a global industry, open-pit mining is a relatively small world,” says Hansen. “Everyone in the industry knows each other so it’s hard to compete in this business unless you’re delivering a quality product on a global scale — wherever the need is.”
3D-P now has 45 employees with the majority based in Calgary, where the company manufactures its Intelligent Endpoint technology in Canada. “Service-level agreements are about a third of our revenue; professional services make up another third, with product sales being the final third,” says Hansen. “Over the years our services have become as much of a product as the products we manufacturer. We offer 24/7 product and network support. We customize our solutions to meet the needs of each individual mine.”
In recent years the mining industry has suffered and there isn’t a light at the end of the tunnel just yet, says Hansen. “It’s going to be another 18 to 24 months before we see an uptick because there’s a lot of surplus in the global mining market and world economies continue to slow,” he explains. “We’re not planning for things to really change much in the next few years, but that being said, we’re seeing a lot of optimistic activity and new opportunities for our products.”
Through the lagging market, 3D-P is preparing for future activity. “We’re working hard to provide a more powerful platform and to open up our onboard devices and to improve our support of other vendors in the industry,” notes Hansen. “We’re not creating a silo where every application has to be one of ours. We’ve created an open strategy so other vendors can run their applications.”
In a down market, mining companies are looking for more ways to cut costs, decrease downtime and improve productivity, making 3D-P’s solutions highly desirable. 3D-P continues to deliver a flexible, customizable product with reduced maintenance costs, improved access to productivity data and greater network management — the field-tested and -trusted tools for success.