An acceleration of intelligent mining

A worker at Rio Tinto’s bauxite Integrated operations Centre in brisbane. Image: Rio Tinto

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted mining by pushing the industry further in the path of digital and cultural development. Vanessa Zhou speaks with Deloitte Australia partner, consulting, Paul Klein about the prevailing shift.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the move that many mining companies are making in the direction of intelligent mining, but this doesn’t mean they have lost their focus on people.

Intelligent mining is a term used by Deloitte to describe the future vision of mining organisations and operations that are connected, integrated and automated, but still human-centric.

Long before the impact of COVID-19, Australia’s largest miners had started a journey towards automation, including a focus on developing the skills of the future within their workforces.

Rio Tinto, for example, has committed $60 million to developing automation skills in its Western Australian mining workforce.

The company has helped build automation courses in the state since 2019 as part of the first nationally recognised automation qualifications.

According to Deloitte Australia partner, consulting, Paul Klein, mining companies are putting their focus on people more than ever to complement the digital transformation.

“Global major miners have been on the journey of automation in their operations for many years, particularly BHP and Rio Tinto in the Pilbara region of Western Australia,” Klein tells Australian Mining.

“They run autonomous trucks, drills and trains, which clearly has a productivity benefit, but arguably the biggest benefit of these automation initiatives is safety.

“Safety is the number one objective for most mining organisations. Automation takes people out of dangerous situations and roles where safety incidents are more likely.”

The pandemic has accelerated investment in digital capabilities and automation of operations, and this is the biggest shift that Klein sees happening since COVID-19 impacted the mining landscape. 

Due to necessity, the mining sector is welcoming new and remote ways of working with more urgency than during pre-COVID-19 days.

“If there hadn’t been COVID-19, technology innovation to support new and remote ways of working would’ve been considered by many as something nice to have, but not a priority,” Klein says.

These changes are driving more demand for employees with science, technology and data analysis skills in the mining industry.

“This has a positive outcome in regard to improving the diversity of the workforce. It opens up the way for new people,” Klein says.

“Now, there will be a greater diversity of people who come from different backgrounds and fulfil these new roles because of where the jobs are located, compared with those who typically fulfil hands-on roles on site.”

The consulting partner emphasises that technology and automation do not take jobs away from people – they simply shift the skills that are required. This results in a reduction of certain skills and an increase in others.

Fortescue Metals Group, for example, has achieved zero redundancies during its transition to autonomous haulage across its Pilbara operations in Western Australia.

The company re-trained 3000 workers in autonomy on the path to introducing 183 driverless haul trucks across its Solomon and Chichester Hubs in the Pilbara.

A fleet of Cat 793F, Cat 789D and Komatsu 930E autonomous haul trucks have travelled more than 52 million kilometres and moved 1.5 billion tonnes of material since 2013.

“Our approach to autonomy has been to be open and transparent with our plans and to work closely with our team members to offer opportunities for re-training and re-deployment,” Fortescue chief executive Elizabeth Gaines explains.

“Around 3000 Fortescue team members have been trained to work with autonomous haulage, including over 200 people trained as mine controllers and AHS (autonomous haulage system) system professionals.

“Most importantly, the introduction of AHS technology has improved safety outcomes across our operations and we’re very pleased that the team achieved this important milestone in the truck conversion program to the highest safety standards.”

Part of Deloitte’s vision of intelligent mining includes the realm of the “nerve centre”. This is where data converges from across the value chain to enable integrated and data-driven decision making.

The concept is more prevalent in the manufacturing sector, where more processes have been digitised and operations have been automated to aggregate data across the value chain.

“It varies in terms of the different types of manufacturing and its extent, but I believe they are further down the path than where the mining industry is right now,” Klein says.

The shift to new ways of working this year also opens up a greater openness to wearable technology and artificial intelligence (AI) among miners.

BHP puts AI alongside process digitisation and automation as the three key sources that will drive the next wave of productivity in the mining sector.

AI has already produced cost and operational efficiencies at BHP’s Western Australia Iron Ore operations, where a system helps to choose which crusher a truck should use to minimise queueing and reducing costs and idle time.

According to BHP, the changes not only deliver operational efficiencies, but also help to make the company’s workplace safer.

Klein says COVID-19 has shifted the way all organisations are thinking about workers and the workplace.

The push towards intelligent mining prompts organisations to consider various opportunities to make better use of technology and digital capabilities.

In response, miners should reconsider the work (what), the workforce (who) and the workplace (where) in the context of future work scenarios.

New skills, new roles and changes to organisational structures and governance processes need to be aligned to new ways of working, with the right culture and mindset.

When implementing new digital capabilities, mining companies need to start small and quickly get to the point of realising the value.

The deployment of technology solutions needs to be driven by business outcomes, and not technology outcomes.

“It has got to involve the right people across the organisation from the start,” Klein says.

“You need to have a business vision and strategy of where you want to go. Having set the big picture of what you want to achieve and starting small are very important.

“Begin with a minimum, viable product and deliver them quickly while involving people as the beneficiaries in the process. That’s the key to success.”

This article also appears in the December issue of Australian Mining.

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