Research and development
R&D plays a key role in implementing Nornickel’s strategic priorities such as reducing the environmental impact, improving production efficiency and setting stage for the Company’s sustainable development in medium and long run. Nornickel’s main R&D facility is Gipronickel Institute. Part of the Norilsk Nickel Group, it is also one of Russia's largest research and engineering hubs for mining, concentration, metallurgy and processing of minerals that provides a wide range of research and technology services. In 2018, Nornickel’s R&D activities mainly focused on research, technological development, and feasibility studies under the Company's updated strategic plan.
Nornickel is actively embracing and applying information and digital technologies to streamline production processes. Since 2018, a digital laboratory within the Company’s IT department is working on several dozen promising projects. Technologies introduced in 2018 include the digital vision to monitor short-circuiting of the cathode and anode in the tankhouse, digital twin to optimise the delivery of copper matte from smelting furnaces to converters, ore contaminant identifier to prevent foreign objects from getting into the concentrators’ crushing machines, and the automated management system at Bystrinky GOK to control and collect online all the information on the underground mining equipment – from fuel consumption to cargo carried.
In 2015, the Company launched the Technology Breakthrough initiative to automate and digitalise most of key processes at its mining and processing facilities by 2020.
In 2018, Nornickel and Skolkovo Foundation signed a partnership agreement to set up Nornickel’s digital lab within the Skolkovo Innovation Centre. The lab will track and analyse innovations and digital initiatives. In 2018–2021, the Company plans to invest some USD 80 mln in going digital.
Artificial intelligence and computer vision
The reporting year saw Kola MMC deploy advanced technologies – weak artificial intelligence and computer vision – for the first time in its history. For this purpose, the facility ran a pilot project to control product quality at its concentrator's briquetting section where copper-nickel ore concentrate is prepared for smelting. Computer vision is one of the most rapidly growing and promising areas of artificial intelligence that allows computers to acquire, process, analyse and understand images of real-world objects to perform appropriate action. The company’s computer vision system includes a video camera mounted above the finished product conveyor and three neural networks processing the video stream to analyse the quality of transported products and sort them accordingly. The data so collected is fed into a database, processed and sent to the concentrator’s management in the form of images, charts, and tables in near-real time. It helps to analyse the production process, effectively control process parameters and adjust the product quality.
Industrial exoskeleton trials
Despite a high level of automation, processes at mining and metals facilities are still very labour-intensive. The exoskeleton can reduce load and improve safety. To experiment with the new technology, Polar Division ran a competition among its employees, inviting them to think of ways they could use the industrial exoskeleton at work. The proposed applications included scrap metal sorting and removal of cathode deposit build-up at the third recovery stage. The winners were the first in the history of Norilsk to test digital technology and take part in exoskeleton trials at the South-West State University in Kursk in March 2019.
Mine automation system
Nornickel installed personnel and machinery positioning and radiocommunications systems at Zapolyarny Mine. The automation system scans individual tags assigned to the employees and self-propelled machinery and maintains wireless connection with each employee via their personal phones. It also features an anti-collision technology informing the driver of getting close to the deployed staff or equipment. The staff or equipment location data is continuously transmitted to the control room ensuring real-time coordination of actions in case of emergencies.