As the mining industry embarks on a dynamic phase of development, AIMEX has provided a platform to express both concerns and excitement on what’s to come.
While visitors can’t be blamed for getting lost in the present among the plethora of exhibition stands at the Asia-Pacific’s International Mining Exhibition (AIMEX), there is a distinct futuristic feel at the 2019 conference.
Virtual reality, vehicle simulators and remote flying objects are ubiquitous while also being almost unavoidable as industry enthusiasts descend on the Sydney Showgrounds for the 15th edition of the event.
Against the backdrop of a thriving sector that is prospering off a record gold price, AIMEX provides the opportunity for suppliers to showcase their products and latest technology to eager onlookers.
Walking into the exhibition centre, it is impossible to miss Hitachi’s bright orange ZW370 wheel loader that towers over visitors.
If anything, the placement of the impressive piece of mining machinery is a statement by AIMEX of a shift back to the conference’s glory days when colossal vehicles dominated the exhibition floor.
Behind Hitachi’s vehicle, there are a scatter of the big mining services companies that have traditionally dominated Australia’s resources landscape.
For Hitachi and Hilliard Corporation, whose stands are frolicking with activity on the first two days, it is an opportunity to immerse with decision makers in the industry.
The front pavilion is also home to some of the most dynamic and innovative companies that are making strides in the mining industry and take the opportunity to showcase their newest products.
Strata Worldwide has its popular refuge chamber on display, while ifm capitalises on the increasing safety focus of mine sites to showcase its O3M smart sensor, offering a glimpse into the innovation that awaits mining in the years to come.
Visitors are able to switch between the various product demonstrations provided by exhibitors and the AIMEX conference stage, where key industry stakeholders discuss the next horizon in technology, sustainability and safety.
For the first time, the conference features a ‘Mining Pavilion,’ which attracts some of Australia’s biggest names, as both services and mining companies alike listen in on the challenges facing the industry going forward.
This section of AIMEX attracts leading coal producers, such as Centennial Coal, Glencore, Mach Energy, Whitehaven Coal and Yancoal Australia, and day one of the conference doesn’t miss a beat as a result.
The opening topic revolves around the relationship between the mining sector and regional communities, which has plagued the perception of the industry at times.
Austmine chief executive officer Christine Gibbs-Stewart chairs a panel discussion between numerous relevant parties.
From the outset, Gibbs-Stewart urges the industry to improve relationships with communities, given the “poor image the mining industry has, which seems to be increasing.”
Against the backdrop of a country that has been divided by Adani’s approval at the Carmichael mine in Queensland, Gibbs-Stewart is steadfast that communication, both internally and externally in the industry, is crucial to improving its reputation.
“Partnership and collaboration is the key, it’s important that we discuss on the panel how to work with the METS sector to change the image of mining and change the way we do things to create the community we want for tomorrow,” Gibbs-Stewart says.
Yancoal Australia manager, environment, approvals and community relations Mark Jacobs is on hand to provide the viewpoint of a mining company with operations in close proximity to regional communities.
He says mining companies are facing increased pressure to listen to, and develop relationships with surrounding towns, given how accountable they are in the digital era.
“Things like the digital age and the availability of information, makes us more visible to communities, with good reasons, they are concerned with what we do,” Jacobs says.
“We are still trying to break down the mistrust from the last 15-20 years, however, we still have some way to go.”
The discussion comes amid ongoing sentiment within the sector that the increasing shift towards automation is negatively impacting jobs.
For those in favour of the adoption of automation, however, the benefits are widespread and not only allow for increased efficiency at mine sites, but also the opportunity for jobs.
Enterprise Improvement Solutions managing director Craig Hurkett is one advocate who is excited about the industry’s autonomous future.
“I’ve been watching the rise of autonomy and it’s an exciting time to be involved in the industry and the autonomous world,” Hurkett says.
For the most part, the pro-technology crowd at AIMEX is riding the wave of excitement around the benefits of automation, which Hurkett says offer higher productivity rates in the range of 20-30 per cent.
The somewhat tainted image of the mining industry is again a hot topic as the conference moves to its second day, with murmurs of a bumper morning of activity permeating the showground floor.
Day two doesn’t disappoint, with a noticeable buzz capturing the audience as mining leaders turn their focus to the issue of gender imbalance and the attraction of young talent within the industry.
Leading off the hot topic of day one – preparing for a digitised and autonomous future – the question for industry leaders is how to appeal to the next generation in order to develop the skills necessary to capitalise on the industry shift.
Weld Australia’s chief executive officer Geoff Crittenden is particularly vocal on the need to start educating youth of what the mining sector offers as early as school.
“We need a well-trained, vibrant sector in order to bring people into mining trades,” Crittenden says.
“We need to reach out to people that influence kids, such as career advisors, parents and teachers, saying there is opportunities in mining and engineering, and encourage them to go down this pathway.”
The requirement stems from a need to change the common perception of mining jobs, according to Gibbs-Stewart.
She points out that for many, jobs associated with mining such as welding are simply viewed as someone standing with a welding gun in 50-degree heat in remote Western Australia.
Gibbs-Stewart emphasises that this isn’t the case and that instead, the industry offers stimulating jobs that often aren’t exposed to the rigorous environments associated with it.
“Most mining jobs are actually in the city and within the METS sector, not necessarily out in remote regions,” Gibbs-Stewart says.
“I’m not saying that doesn’t happen, but if that is what a young person has in their mind, of course they won’t be appealed to that.”
Tackling the gender imbalance and the impact a lack of equality has on the industry’s image is also at the forefront of the topics discussed.
The panel conversations, which allow for audience engagement in the form of a question and answer, are well received by AIMEX visitors that are inquisitive about what is being done within the industry to even out the gender balance.
Whitehaven Coal chief financial officer Kevin Ball has noticeable faith that while the gender imbalance in mining will not be a quick fix, it is trending the right way and will gradually even out over time.
“A lot will change, I think it’s a decade thing, not a year thing; in 2025-2030 the gender balance will be better, leadership structures more balanced and there will be multiple races and religions,” Ball says.
“If (the industry) provides flexible workplaces and support for parenting, then over time the gender issue will be more balanced.”
This is set to not only benefit the industry as a whole, but also companies in general, given the business outcomes that result from a more diverse workplace, according to HVTC chief executive officer Sharon Smith.
“There’s a lot of research that says if you have culturally diverse leadership and policy then you get better decision making and organisational performance,” Smith says.
The outlook coincides with the employment of Indigenous Australians in the industry, a major focus for a number of large companies over many years.
Rosemary Howard, chairperson of the AIMEX panel and of the mining leaders group, says the sector has great potential to assist with creating jobs for Indigenous Australians.
“As jobs shift to cities and there are less high skill jobs in rural area, this sector is in a unique position to help Indigenous communities,” Howard says.
Howard, pointing to the work Whitehaven Coal does with Indigenous communities, including its reconciliation action plan, believes mining has and should continue to make strides with Indigenous employment.
The issue of energy security and climate policy and the inevitable adjustment the mining industry faces as regulation clamps down and community expectations rise rounds out the conference sessions on the final day of AIMEX.
New innovations, such as the use of hybrid renewable generation and leach processing, are highlighted as ways the sector can use cheaper, lower emission renewable energy.
It caps off a jam-packed three days that are largely focussed on what’s to come rather than what has happened.
While the mining industry undoubtably faces some challenges ahead, leaving AIMEX it is the prospects and potential growth that is arguably the most resonating.