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Mining in the
Gold Belt

Determined to have the safest and most productive gold mines in the world,
Barrick is putting digital at its core. Learn more about how mining and
technology are coming together in the world’s premier gold district.

May 15, 2018

Did you know that 50% of Barrick’s production comes from Nevada?

In the high desert of the Great Basin Desert, 420 miles north of Las Vegas, sits Elko, a city steeped in folklore of the rangeland West interwoven with cultural infusions from Northern Spain. Elko is home to the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering as well as the National Basque Festival. It’s a great place to raise a family, with a deep sense of community. It’s also the proud capital of Nevada’s world-famous gold district.

Mining and other extractive industries provide over half of the region’s economic output. In Elko, gold mining is “the industry.”

Miners in Elko rise early. Starting at 4:45 a.m., buses transport workers 98 miles southwest of Elko to Barrick’s Cortez operations. After a standard 12-hour shift, they shuttle back to town. A fond tradition is to end the day with grilled steaks and chops alongside Picon punches at The Star, a family-style Basque restaurant that’s been around since 1896.


At first glance, Elko looks like a town married to its old West legacy, but dig a little deeper and you soon discover that it’s the epicenter for Barrick’s ambitious digital transformation.

Not your grandfather's mine

Barrick's Cortez operation was identified as the site to make the blueprint for this transformation. Moves to make this a reality have been swift.

The first signal of this change is Barrick’s newly opened Analytics & Unified Operations (AuOps) Center. After connecting tens of thousands of sensors on equipment, machinery, workers, and locations, the AuOps Center processes vast quantities of data from sensors, sending insights and alerts directly to operators at the mines.

The focal point of the room is a set of sixteen screens feeding dashboards of rich, real-time data. A dozen analysts sit attentively at workstations, identifying potential risks and disruptions while reacting to any emerging issues.

In addition to real-time responses to such critical issues, Barrick has also adopted processes from the manufacturing industry, such as short interval control (SIC).

By strapping sensors to personnel and equipment, supervisors now have a better view into how underground operations are conducted and they can more accurately fine-tune continuous improvements to mining operations.

While these course corrections and quick fixes are small individually, on an aggregate basis it has resulted in significant performance improvements.

SIC has enabled the Cortez mine to increase throughput by up to 380 tons per day, a 10% increase in underground throughput.

Step 1 Drill Jumbo drillers drill holes into hard rock
to load with explosives for a blast

Autonomous drilling jumbo

Once an area is surveyed and cleared underground, drilling is the first step of the mining process. Massive machines called Jumbo Drills bore holes in the rock, to be loaded later with explosives for blasting. Rather than spending hours maneuvering the controls from inside the cabin, operators can now set tasks for multiple drills on their tablet. What’s more, these drills can be set to operate during the mine’s shift changeover, allowing the mine to take advantage of downtime that would otherwise occur.

When I first started my career in mining in north Idaho we were like cavemen,” says Eric Meade, Jumbo Operator at Cortez. Drilling was more akin to “a guy beating the rocks with a sledge hammer.”


A shift's worth of drilling being set by an operator in a jumbo.

Step 2 Blast Controlled explosion to break rocks for excavation

Detonating 300,000 pounds of explosives with nanosecond precision

In the open pit, rock is broken up into small pieces through the use of explosives in drill holes made 50 feet deep. This is known as “blasting.” Because rock formations differ in hardness from place to place, different magnitudes of explosives are required. Explosive timing is a science-meets-art moment designed to create a desired pattern formation—often a chevron pattern that allows rubble to accumulate in the center.

A decade ago, blast timing was calibrating using materials with different levels of combustibility, but digital control of explosives has changed blast timing radically. At the Cortez operations today, each hole has a number that is recorded by a logger. The data for any given blast is uploaded to a central detonator, which is then able to time and execute the blast with nanosecond precision, enabling greater control, safety and efficiency.


Explosives occur nano-seconds apart to create a pattern for efficient mucking.


All operational personnel have to be 500ft from the blast.


Step 3 Muck The collection of broken rock into trucks

Money-dirt: mucked tele-remotely

Back in the underground mine, after blasting, it’s time to load the loosened earth into trucks, a process called “mucking.” To ensure safety in traditional mining operations, there are hours of hold-time before mucking can even happen while operators wait to safely re-enter the site. At Cortez, this is beginning to change.

Thousands of feet above on the surface of the mine, in the corner of the control room, there is a device that looks something like an arcade machine. There are joysticks with buttons and pedals on the floor, but this is no video game. This is where Bryan McCombs, Underground Operator, maneuvers a rock shovel and loader, often called a mucker, with a joystick.

At Cortez, blasting happens after every shift. With two shifts a day, four hours of operational time were lost every day to allow personnel to clear the site. Fewer hours means less mucking, less mucking means slower processing, and slower processing means less gold. But today, with driverless technology, mucking can begin almost immediately after the blast.

Step 4 Haul The transportation of dirt–broken rocks containing microscopic quantities of gold–to production facilities

Predicting truck failure

Across the street from the AuOps Center in downtown Elko is the C0dem1ne (aka CodeMine), Barrick's software development center.

A major initiative for the company is bringing in top tech talent to work shoulder to shoulder with mine operators to develop digital tools that make mining more efficient.

While many of these tech specialists are outside hires, Barrick has also invested in training current employees to develop these key skills.

I like getting feedback on the issues and fixing them,” says Jake Detweiler, Product Stabilization at CodeMine. “I studied UI/UX in Chicago, and when talking about my job with former classmates, it's pretty satisfying to say that I’m underground everyday helping miners to get gold out of the ground for the largest gold producer in the world.”

Crushed rock is hauled off by a fleet of Cat 795s, each carrying 400 tons of what they call “money-dirt” from the mine site to a processing mill, 30 minutes away. Truck break-downs can bring operations to a halt, especially if it’s on the ramp leading from an open pit.

Another recent success at Cortez is the “Asset Health Tool” app, which is making major strides in flagging probable part failures to maintenance technicians on haul trucks when they begin to show signs of wear.

Just like the sensors found in modern automobiles that trigger “check engine” alerts for overheating or low oil pressure, sensors in the Caterpillar 795 trucks now communicate any abnormality that could lead to failure.

Operators are able to transmit maintenance issues during shift. O P ER A T OR Analyzes RPM and oil pressure to prevent costly unscheduled maintenance. ENGINE SENSOR Detects trace elements found in oils that indicate potential failure. OIL SENSOR Ensures maximum amount of ore is loaded (400 tons) without risking frame/suspension damage. PAYLOAD SENSOR


Caterpillar 795 trucks are equipped with sensors for diagnostics.


Behind the box is a fuel sensor, providing information in real-time so that maintenance groups can make data driven decisions.


Cody Bakker, Reliability Engineer, is able to immediately diagnose critical issues with the truck via a tablet.

Step 5 Mill Facilities where tons of dirt are transformed into gold bars

Meticulous scrutiny; tall ambitions

Competitiveness in gold mining comes from a razor focus on efficiency—on squeezing the last ounce of productivity out of every aspect of an operation. Processing is a make-or-break point where operational efficiency drives production goals.

Rock containing gold is also referred to as ore and is brought by truck to processing facilities, where it is ground into tiny particles of 150 microns or less (the consistency of baby powder) and then turned into gold. Last year the oxide mill at Cortez processed more than one million tons of ore.

Mills typically process between 600-700 tons per hour. Running the operation is a highly complex job that requires adjusting on the fly for multiple parameters—such as mill speeds, reagent levels, power usage, and the amount of water and lime used in the grinding circuit.

Slowdowns from supply chain disruption can be costly. A 50-ton reduction in hourly output translates into a lot of lost gold and, ultimately, lost cash flow. To reduce such variability, the mine recently installed and commissioned an Advanced Process Control system that effectively automates the mill grinding circuit.

Rather than focusing on hourly process minutiae, operators have been freed up to consider processing over a larger timeframe. Since implementation, ore throughput has increased by six percent, which can mean gains of hundreds of thousands of dollars per operational day.

In the years ahead, as the company grapples with increasingly complex ore types and more costly underground mining, Barrick’s goal is to make its operations as safe and efficient as possible, at the lowest possible cost.

Data analysis, autonomous controls, teleremote operations, coordinated blasting—these are the emerging signals of a 21st century gold mining company.


A refinery technician handles molten gold at almost 2000°F.