As mining rides the latest cycle of boom and bust its story appears to be done and dusted for many outside of the industry, but is this really the case?
The industry has reached the bottom of the current pricing trough with the state of commodities unlike to start trending upwards in the near future, forcing the majority of miners to look to change from its previous focus of simply moving as many tonnes through door as possible to moving as many tonnes as efficiently as possible.
Productivity is now underlying every action in the industry.
Automation is being touted as the main driving force of this step change for the mining industry: the saviour of the resources sector.
But is automation alone enough to resuscitate mining and help it move into the next era?
Not according to Rio Tinto Group Executive and head of technology and innovation, Greg Lilleyman.
"A well run mine that implements automation becomes a well run mine that is automated, while a poorly run mine that implements automation simply becomes a poorly run mine that has automation," Lilleyman told Australian Mining.
"Automation of the various processes of a mine helps to add incremental improvements, but if you don't have that strong management team behind it, and the talented and skilled workers to implement it correctly and makes the best of the technology then it won't add much to an operation."
So why are so many mines looking to automate their processes?
The productivity push
Automation has been viewed by some as the answer to the current productivity problem plaguing much of the mining industry.
Unfortunately, Australia is in a worse starting place than other nations mining industry, with a recent PriceWaterhouseCoopers report rating the country as one of the least productive regions in the world.
The report claims there is an inherent conflict between the productivity plans of the mining boom which were based on increased volumes, and plans based on cost reduction which are now coming to the fore of business strategy.
Across the globe, mining productivity has declined by 20 per cent over the past seven years, despite the push for increased output, and declining market conditions.
The report found productivity across Australian mines peaked at 104 points in 2007, and slumped to a rating of around 88 points in 2013.
Equipment and the way it is used is a key focus of the report, which shows that productivity differences between the best and worst performing mines are stark, with some of the best practice outputs coming in at more than 100 per cent greater than the median performers.
"The popular tagline of the mining sector is that the miners are serious about productivity," PwC states.
"We suggest that most are reducing costs and increasing volumes but there are precious few with legitimate claims to improving core productivity in their open cut operations."
Lilleyman cited Rio Tinto's Mine of the Future remote operations programs and its global centres of excellence as examples of how the miner is addressing core productivity issues facing miners.
"We've been looking at improving productivity, and the development program associated with that such as the Remote Operations Centre and Centres of Excellence, since 2007 [at the height of Australia's reported resources productivity levels]; over the last eight years we've really aimed at increasing productivity – however to us it's all about reducing input and increasing output, whether that's through automation or better processes.
"When I was in the iron ore group with Sam Walsh, even then we were looking at what to do to stay ahead of the game and focusing on making our operations better, and ignoring the cyclical factor of commodities.
"We consider ourselves world class, and to stay that way we have to keep looking ahead at increasing our efficiency whether it be a time of boom or bust."
However Lilleyman does not discount the important role that technological advances are making in creating efficiency gains, whether it be full or partial automation, remote operations, the newly formed role Big Data is playing in development, total site visibility, or centralised skills centres.
Yet "with innovation and technology not all will turn the industry on its head, but they will improve efficiencies, even if it is just in an incremental way. Some improvements are just smaller than others".
The tech on deck
So what kinds of technology is Rio Tinto using, and how, to gain efficiencies in this current slower mining cycle?
While its top tier Remote Operations Centre, run out of Perth, and its wider Mine of the Future program has drawn much of the attention, the miner is also working with its existing kills in developing Centres of Excellence – which provide additional help as remote collaboration centres, as well as integrating technological advances such as automation, drone technology, and the Big Data revolution to aid its operations.
Surprisingly, despite the hype around Remote Operations Centres, Lilleyman states Rio Tinto only has one, which runs its iron ore business, adding that while the model is successful for its Pilbara operations it may not be applicable right across its suite of mines.
"What makes them work is the interconnectedness of the site, and being able to run operations from the pit to the port, having that complete visibility and control," he said.
In regards to its technology centres Rio Tinto has both a Processing Centre of Excellence, dubbed by some as 'the excellence centre for excellent excellence', and a Centre for Emergent Technologies, based in Brisbane and the UK respectively.
In a Rio Tinto statement, it said "the aim is to develop and deploy leading-edge technology to create safer working operations, improve environmental performance and increase the productivity of mining operations."
Professor Sam Kingman, Research Director of the Rio Tinto Centre for Emergent Technologies, said "this truly multi-disciplinary partnership with Rio Tinto will enable the delivery of significant tangible outputs that have the potential to provide a step change in the performance and productivity of Rio Tinto's operations".
And it is with these centralised skills centres that Lilleyman sees the future of mining and the development of new efficiencies.
"There are likely to only be a few more remote operations centres in the future, but there will be more focus on these centres of excellence," he explained.
"These centres are about looking at combing people roles with Big Data, and world class expertise, and seeing how we can provide actionable outcomes, such as making tweaks in how we are processing down our ore or how control systems operate for better movement – this is why we are likely to see more of these excellence centres because, while like automation they are linked to sites, they are not physically wed to a single operation.
"We see real value in these centres as you can put your experts with a network of other companies experts and really pool that talent."
Big Data, the new buzzword in industry, is also on Rio Tinto's radar for its ability to aid efficiency.
"We've just started dipping our toe in to Big Data," Lilleyman told Australian Mining, "we're really starting to understand how this concept can best apply to our business".
"For us Big Data is about knowing how to ask the right questions before we start using it, as its different to standard analytics, it's predictive.
"Previously, to get an understanding of our operations, we looked at the prior month and saw how sites performed and then change the operations from there whereas now Big Data allow you to identify patterns to predict operations in the future to where there might be a safety issue, or where equipment failures may occur, or how operations may perform in into the future.
"There's a lot of opportunity, but it is still a bit of 'watch this space'."
Lilleyman went on to discuss additional technology such as drones and 3D printing.
"In regards to UAVs and drones, these are just tools and it's more a matter of what you do with it; it's not a game change but it is a useful tool for jobs such as checking areas that may be unsafe or far away such as using them to check issues along distributed power networks in the Pilbara instead of using manned helicopters."
When it came to 3D printing however Lilleyman was less enthusiastic.
"We have seen 3D printing in action in Japan and China, where groups are showing us what they are capable of; at this point it is not that likely to be used but may at some point in the future, however it is not scalable for our purposes now," he said.
He outlined how Rio Tinto looks through four lenses to work towards efficiency consisting of people, energy, the asset itself, and how these factors work together.
"It's these four aspects we look through to improve our operations, whether its people and the asset itself to understand how to better ready the ore through process centres, or how to gain fuel efficiencies on rail cars etc."
For Lilleyman, it comes down to what technology, automation, and the increasing interconnectedness of operations can add to an already strong management and people focus.
This was echoed by Honeywell Automation's principal consultant for mining and metals, Neil Freeman, who said: "Automation requires careful planning and scheduling with implementation over a considered timeframe to ensure the smooth and efficient running of operations. It is critical that the right systems are in place to ensure the viability of the technology, and more importantly, the safety of all workers: the technology is the enabler; the people make it happen; and the right systems and processes keep operations safe and viable."
"In regards to my job most people like to look at the big, sexy high tech stuff, and it sells newspapers, yet a lot of gains are actually in the grunt, and the good hard work. It's about working with people to understand how to work better," Lilleyman said.
"Even with our remote operations centre in Perth, 90 per cent of our focus is on management process in work; it's about what sits behind the screens in place such as these, and it's in working with our people that we get the biggest gains for our operations."