The Fortecue Solomon Iron Ore Project


Fortescue Metals Group (‘Fortescue’) is Australia’s third largest and the world’s fourth largest iron ore producer.  Fortescue commenced operations in 2003, and undertook a $170 million exploration programme in the Pilbara (Western Australia).

In 2004, Fortescue found large scale iron ore deposits at Christmas Creek and Cloudbreak. These mines became the Chichester Hub.

When access existing rail and port facilities in the area was denied, Fortescue built their own infrastructure at Anderson Point called the Herb Elliott Port & Rail infrastructure. This commenced in 2005 and the first deliveries of iron ore from by rail from the Cloudbreak mine were delivered and stockpiled ready for export in mid 2008.

In late 2011, as competitors Rio Tinto and BHP continued to rapidly expand their port and mining facilities, Fortescue started early greenfields work at the Solomon Hub, 120km west of the Chichester Hub. 


The scope of Fortescue’s Solomon iron ore project included the development of the two new mines, three primary and secondary crushers, two ore processing facilities, seven overland conveyors covering 15km, stockyard, the train load-out, and their control networks.

To compete with its rapidly expanding rivals, Fortescue needed the 60mtpa iron ore project to be completed quickly. To allow a speedy development, Fortescue needed both reliable partners, and an innovative approach.

To accelerate the project to completion, Fortescue, in consultation with its project partners, opted for an unusual approach in splitting the project into seven Design & Construct (D&C) packages, with each standalone package to be developed by a different contractor, then brought together via the communications system backbone.

Major partners

Drawing on its experience from earlier projects, Fortescue chose partners who had a proven track record of delivery.

WorleyParsons, which was the EPC (Engineer- Procure- Construct) for the Chichester Hub and Rail & Port Facility development at Anderson point, reprised its role for the Solomon Hub. As EPC, WorleyParsons would be responsible for delivering a complete project solution – including industrial network design and construction.

Fortescue then appointed I&E Systems as system integrators, responsible for designing, engineering, integrating and implementing the electrical and control systems, including making the seven D&C packages work together.

Motherwell Automation, which had also previously worked on the Chichester Hub project, was also appointed. It in turn brought on GE as the preferred hardware and software vendor for the project.

Fieldbus specification

The Project combined proven capabilities with innovative new approaches in industrial network design and technology.

The Profibus control system solution was selected for most of the iron ore processing machinery and infrastructure, including:

  • Three crushing plants
  • 15km of overland conveyors
  • Two ore processing facilities
  • Water services
  • Stockyard
  • Train load-out
  • Power Station


For PLC-to-remote-I/O communications, the Solomon project would use PROFINET, the Ethernet-based version of Profibus fieldbus technology. This future-proofed the installation, and allowed synergy with GE's capabilities since it had standardised its Proficy Plant Systems (PPS) platform on PROFINET in 2012.

To prove the technology, Fortescue, GE and Motherwell conducted extensive trials and tests to examine how Profinet would work with GE's RX320 PLCs and the VersaMax units, raising their awareness of the technological and capabilities edge that Profinet had over Ethernet, especially around added functionality and improved diagnostics of field instruments.

PROFINET’s advantages for the project which included:

  1. Major operational and productivity gains from integrating information and automation systems
  2. Allows deployment of thousands of easily-replaceable nodes on a single network, rather than just 126 nodes in Profibus
  3. Rich network alarm and diagnostic capabilities
  4. Tap into the global "Industrial Internet of Things" ecosystem of expertise and replacement items
  5. Devices identified by application-specific Device Names. Each D&C package builder could independently name their devices, while still ensuring consistent node addresses
  6. PROFINET’s ‘Neighbour Recognition’ feature allows faulty devices to be replaced and automatically configured without specialist tools or knowledge, enabling cost-effective maintenance after handover

Ensuring fast integration

With seven different contractors involved, clear instructions and advanced planning was critical. To maximise interoperability, contractors were required to use I&E System’s DAD Software to design the electrical, control and communication systems for all the D&C packages.

I&E Systems provided the software licences, training, application support and coordination services to the teams.

The digital system design models created via DAD were then installed on a server at the Fortescue headquarters, allowing the commissioning teams to fast-track the project.

To address the potential for poor communications between the different packages, Tom McCarthy (I&E Systems’ Lead Engineer for Fortescue Solomon) said that the team engineered all the interfaces up front using the PPS language on the GE firmware.

“We made sure all the D&C packages lined up beforehand. So when the time came for the final integration, they were engineered in rather than forced into place,” McCarthy explained.

“PPS is very quick and seamless at interfacing. It's all done at PLC level and it replicates itself up to the SCADA level.  You don't have to worry about lining up addresses and having an address table and a map table."

That said, because PPS was relatively new technology during the project implementation phase, it had missing functionality and issues that required the I&E engineers to write some function blocks to ensure the system would do what they needed.

As the Solomon Hub project progressed, a new and improved version of PPS was released, negating the need for those function blocks.

With the control network in place, every PLC could seamlessly communicate with every other PLC using defined interface blocks.

Overcoming hurdles with technology

In all, the project involved 200 PROFINET scanners and 35 PLCs. I&E Systems also designed and commissioned over 50 GE Cimplicity HMI workstations, and 15 servers. Managing for availability and redundancy would be critical during network planning, but Tom McCarthy of I&E Systems stated that Profinet and GE had pulled through.

By not relying on third-party applications, GE ensured a clear line of responsibility for any equipment issues.

Additionally, PLCs could directly connect into remote I/O via fibre interfaces, with no need for switching and other complexities.

The technology and design was optimised for finding and solving problems, not just during the maintenance phase, but also during construction.

“We had fibre issues between nodes that was highlighted by the GE PROFINET Scanner. The fibres were replaced and fixed while equipment was running without issue," McCarthy said.

By using a Ring topology on each separate PLC, I&E Systems could commission different parts of the plant at different times, allowing, for example, a single marshalling panel to be isolated even while still running equipment, increasing commissioning and maintenance flexibility.

“We commissioned a sample station which had its marshalling panel in the middle of a ring of marshalling panels for a conveyor," McCarthy explained. "We could power down the marshalling panel, but the conveyor would stay running due to the dual paths of the ring.”


Fortescue actively leveraged the support networks provided by the participating companies in training its staff. They took full advantage of GE and Motherwell Automation resources to train operators to use the PROFINET systems, and embedded one of its engineers into the I&E team to learn the DAD System Information Modelling Software.

Fortescue also enrolled its engineers in Profibus Australia’s Certified Profibus Installer and Commissioning & Maintenance courses, where they learned about Profibus's approved commissioning and troubleshooting practices.