Case Study: Engineering ISV Uses Cloud Computing to Increase Productivity in Mining Operations
DEM Solutions designs software that helps mining companies optimize ore-handling equipment. To help customers more quickly calibrate models with physical ore-flow tests, it created an offering that uses Windows HPC Server 2008 R2 SP1 and "burst to Windows Azure" functionality for scalable compute power. DEM Solutions expects customers to get more accurate simulation results, leading to greater adoption of its software in the mining industry.
DEM Solutions provides software that solves complex problems in the design, prototyping, and optimization of bulk material handling and process equipment for the mining industry. The company developed EDEM, a computer-aided engineering platform that uses discrete element modeling (DEM) to generate simulations and analyze how ores flow through conveyor systems and transfer points from the mine through the various ore-processing units. Accurate simulations of such ore flows allow mining companies to improve mine productivity and reduce operating costs.
Proper deployment of DEM simulation by the mining industry requires DEM mathematical models to be calibrated with specifically designed physical tests involving actual ore samples. This calibration process involves repeatedly performing computerized parameter adjustments until the simulation output is sufficiently close to the observed outcomes of the experimental physical tests. However, each adjustment can take one or two hours to complete on an eight-core computer, and most scenarios require up to 1,000 adjustments for proper calibration, which adds weeks to the usual two-week window that physical tests already take.
"Due to tight project timelines, mining companies and engineering procurement and construction management (EPCM) companies have been forced to compromise on proper model calibration, leading to less accurate and even misleading DEM simulation results," says Dr. Richard LaRoche, vice president of engineering at DEM Solutions.
Mining operations face constant pressure to increase production using existing equipment to meet worldwide demand. When ore flows exceed original equipment design, the equipment could fail, potentially causing significant downtime and worker safety issues. "Properly calibrated DEM models test whether current equipment can handle higher flow rates without risking employee safety and production downtime," says LaRoche.
DEM Solutions determined that it could help customers and promote adoption of its software by increasing computing power to expedite the parameter-adjustment process. "We wanted to make the preprocessing steps less daunting so that more mining companies and EPCMs could benefit from using EDEM," explains LaRoche. "We decided to offer customers a cloud-based calibration service that could provide a fully calibrated model within a day after completing physical ore tests."
The company opted to use "burst to Windows Azure" functionality as part of the Windows HPC Server 2008 R2 Service Pack 1 (SP1) operating system. DEM Solutions deployed an on-premises instance of Windows HPC Server 2008 R2 SP1 to act as a head node that "bursts," or sends, sets of parameters to worker roles in Windows Azure, which conduct asynchronous simulations with the given parameters, perform queries on the data, and send query results back to the head node. The head node either generates more input parameters to further refine the calibration or stops the optimization if the results fall within the acceptable tolerance.
The company partners with Bulk Materials Engineering Australia (BMEA), which conducts the physical testing of bulk materials. To evaluate the new cloud service, DEM Solutions and BMEA are recalibrating a real scenario for a bauxite ore loading system in northern Queensland, Australia. "It used to take between three and four weeks to derive the EDEM material model parameters for a single particle size and shape distribution," says LaRoche. "We'll use hundreds of Windows Azure worker roles to complete the same test in less than 12 hours."
DEM Solutions expects to send 10 to 40 megabytes (MB) of data to Windows Azure, with up to 200 MB for the largest calculations, only paying for what it needs through a Windows Azure subscription. Although the company could use up to 1,000 Windows Azure worker roles to complete a single parameter sweep in just an hour or two, more likely it will use a few hundred worker roles for an overnight turnaround.
Rather than its usual software licenses, DEM Solutions will offer its calibration solution as a service. "This new business model allows mining companies to improve mine productivity and reduce operating costs," says LaRoche.
Adds Dr. Peter Wypych, general manager of BMEA, "When combined, DEM Solutions and the BMEA team will be able to offer timely equipment design simulations and analysis to assist our mining and EPCM customers during times of peak demand."
The benefits of bursting to Windows Azure include:
Expanded business opportunity. Delivering a cloud-based calibration service represents a new revenue stream for DEM Solutions. "We are already anticipating large demand from our calibration service based on early discussions with customers," says LaRoche. "It is nearly impossible to put in place the physical infrastructure quickly enough to meet that demand with an on-premises scenario. Bursting to Windows Azure in a pay-as-you-go scenario means that we can instantly scale to satisfy multiple customers' project timelines."
Accelerated project timelines. Mining projects typically build in two to three weeks for physical ore tests. Companies can use the service from DEM Solutions to receive optimized parameters without adding weeks to the schedule. "With the ability to use as many Windows Azure worker roles as needed, we can deliver a more refined EDEM calibration and still meet tight project timelines, meaning that the computations are no longer the bottleneck," says LaRoche.
More efficient mines and equipment. If more engineering and mining companies take advantage of EDEM, they can design more efficient equipment. "By offering a service that bursts to Windows Azure to quickly and accurately calibrate models, DEM Solutions is giving engineers an efficient, effective way to improve uptime for more profitable production," says Wypych.