Willow could have a tier-one mining company reference for its WillowTwin for Mining product in the first half of 2022, opening a new growth lane for the well-funded Australian technology company.
Rob Foster, who joined Willow in August to head its mining arm, tells InvestMETS.com a 12-month collaboration with an Australian-headquartered miner and another long-term alliance “on the mining rail side” were parts of a purposeful build-up in a market seen to be ripe for digital-twin use that is expected to become a key value driver this decade.
“We’re being patient and investing to build our people capability and product value with our first customer partners before we go to market more broadly,” Foster says.
Sydney-based Willow was formed in 2017 and says it already has about 300 employees in seven offices in Australia, the US, UK, Israel and the Philippines. The company reportedly raised US$43 million of private equity funding in September, valuing Willow at more than US$170m, after similarly raising $40m in 2019.
Foster, a mechanical engineer who worked for BHP and AMEC Foster Wheeler and spent nearly seven years at the helm of a junior mineral exploration company, says the work to “productionise” WillowTwin for Mining and get it ready for regular use by front-line supervisors, superintendents and reliability engineers had run pretty much in parallel with the development and roll-out of WillowTwin for Rail with “another tier-one in Western Australia”. The mining deployment was “on track to go live in Q1 of 2022”.
“Willow is now productionising our first digital twin mining solution encompassing an underground mine and materials handling system,” Foster says.
“WillowTwin for Mining provides near real-time visualisation and prioritisation of throughput constraints across these systems.
“We will then be expanding to the process plant to bring the entire production system together in mid-2022. Follow-on stages will bring predictive decision support – including predictive maintenance integrations – and dynamic control logic functionality.
“Our journey over the next 2-3 years is to provide miners with a tool that enables them to maximise production profit by explicitly trading off throughput, recovery and cost across their operations.
“The mining and rail products are built off the same platform and form our first investments into providing pit-to-port value.”
Willow has established itself on the back of exposure to so-called “built world” customers in the real estate and infrastructure markets. Digital twins have been around for a while, says Foster, but they’ve been “heavily constrained by cost and access”.
“In the past few years they’ve become much more accessible and functional for industries outside manufacturing, including mining,” Foster says.
“Industry 4.0 has been making an impact globally for some time now and mining is forming a Mining 4.0 thesis of what this digital transformation will look like over the next 5-10 years.
“We think there will be many and ongoing entries into mining from other industries by tech companies who are built from the ground up on the basis of as-a-service solutions”
“One of the major challenges identified is the gap between technology investments and improvements in our fundamental ways of working. Mining differs from some other Industry 4.0 sectors like manufacturing in that we have low certainty of our inputs, high variability of commodity prices, and a high-risk working environment. The industry has built a foundation of profit making in good times and surviving the lean times, and doing so based on the experience of our people.
“In a world where fewer young people are coming into mining, fewer people are willing to move their families to remote locations, and the poor track record of health and safety and environmental stewardship is no longer acceptable and in fact very unattractive to all, we are facing an existential crisis of needing to change how we work, not just what we do, if we want to build sustainably profitable companies that can attract talent and capital.
“We think that talent and capital availability and continued tightening of social licence to operate will drive miners to continue investing in digital transformation, and that these investments will need to create fundamental changes in how people work or risk not making any impact at all. Digital twins are tools that enable digital transformation to augment our people and combine their experience with the masses of data we’re collecting and the machine learning and artificial intelligence tools that are being built now.”
Foster believes Willow has the technology, people and, soon, increased visibility to establish itself as a force in a mining market landscape that is starting to rapidly evolve.
“I think the great opportunity for digital twins is that the infrastructure and technical requirements for building any digital twin are quite complex, but are relatively industry agnostic,” he says.
“We work closely with Microsoft and use their Azure Digital Twin as the foundation for our product suite and Microsoft is very focused on security, scalability and performance. So that’s a fantastic base to work off.
“At the industry level, it’s the application layer on the top that needs to be well aligned to the needs of that industry and to deliver real value through specific use cases.
“Our fundamental point of difference is a focus on system constraints rather than specific asset or process improvements. The solutions market is very heavily focused on creating local maxima – for example, personal productivity, or maximising utilisation of a key asset, or improving planning accuracy. We are targeting improvements in global maxima: throughput, recovery, all-in sustaining cost and profit. By focusing on the system constraints we enable miners to continue to evolve and invest into specific point solutions and continuous improvement of processes that are very specific and valuable, and to use them in the context of overall system impacts. If the changes create a positive impact in one area, and an unintended consequence in another, the WillowTwin highlights this with real time alerts and historic trends. Identify the constraints, elevate the constraints, measure the impacts, identify the new constraints, elevate the new constraints – repeat forever. WillowTwin helps asset owners maximise the return on their asset investments.”
Mining’s digital transformation is still in its early stages, Foster says.
“Many miners are still built around legacy siloed products, sometimes completely unsupported and often very proprietary, and these products are used as an adjunct at best to experience-led decision making.
“The real transformation that is yet to come is how we support humans to make better decisions, and how we integrate humans and smart systems to collaborate for better outcomes at lower risk.
“The big incumbents are spending up to acquire more products and more capabilities and then will face a real challenge to make these enormous ecosystems usable and valuable at the coal face, in a very dynamic and rapidly changing environment.
“We think there will be many and ongoing entries into mining from other industries by tech companies who are built from the ground up on the basis of as-a-service solutions, and who are focused on creating tangible outcomes that are very easy to stand up and consume, rather than trying to secure very long enterprise accounts in order to just keep selling more stuff.
“We expect the market to become more competitive, not less, and we see disruption coming from unexpected avenues.”