Automation ushers in transformative change in mining leadership

Strategic partnerships can connect the sector with the brightest talent.

In a sector where automation requires different ways of working, collaborating and engaging, leaders must also change to retain and attract talent. BHP vice president Rag Udd explains how the mining giant achieves this.

Mining has changed in ways previously unimaginable to BHP vice president of technology global transformation, Rag Udd.

In 1997, Udd joined the mining major. It was also the year when the seeds of the world’s digital transformation were sowed.

Steve Jobs returned to Apple, and two Stanford students changed their search engine domain from Backrub to Google.

“Fast forward to 2019, and the mining industry is now on the cusp of its own digital transformation, as we re-imagine the way we mine,” Udd, in a speech at the Qode innovation and technology event, says.

“When I started work as a project engineer at the San Juan mine in New Mexico … my computer was not in my pocket – it took up half my desk, and the other half struggled under the weight of a dot matrix printer.

BHP vice president of technology global transformation Rag Udd.

“Now, in my role, I have a privileged vantage point – I can look back on what’s changed and look forward on the changes still to come with the hope of changing it.”

Mining, however, hasn’t progressed at the same pace of the digital revolution, according to Udd, who is also Queensland Resources Council (QRC) president.

Technological advances are driving an exponential rate of change, with some fearing that it may exceed their capacity to cope.

Udd, however, disagrees with this sentiment. He encourages the mining industry to partner with suppliers, communities and government to do more than ‘cope’.

After all, “A tech-driven future … is a future that we can shape together,” he says.

Through technology, BHP connects and supports the ideas, abilities and ambitions of over 60,000 employees globally – from Brisbane to Santiago, London to Moranbah, Perth to Houston.

Technology already means a lot of things to people. At BHP, it means a lot to a drill operator, who controls three automated drill rigs from the safety of a remote operations centre.

It means a lot to a re-skilled mining veteran, who drives a light vehicle around a BHP site in the Pilbara with the latest mine modelling software.

And it will mean a lot to a computer science undergraduate inspired to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects at school, when, to her surprise, she considers mining as a career option at the end of her degree, Udd says.

Leaders are, therefore, faced with new demands of a changing workforce – one that is driven by new technologies, automation and changing demographics.

There is an increasing role that autonomous machinery plays in helping resources leaders ‘unlock’ productivity and efficiency gains.

For example, autonomous machinery is operated around the clock, and that reduces costs, while enhancing health and safety for resources professionals, according to Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (AusIMM) chief executive Stephen Durkin.

The role of leaders is also moving away from an authoritative approach to one of empowerment and enablement.

“What I do strongly believe, from a workforce planning point of view, is that a lot of people mistakenly think that automation will lead to a loss of jobs. They see it in a very binary way,” Durkin tells Australian Mining.

“A leader sees the future differently to that. We see automation driving a more productive and efficient, and safer industry that will support long-term industry growth. And we believe that as the industry grows it will employ more people.”

The resources industry will employ different types of people with different skills – an entirely new cohort of professionals across a range of different disciplines entering the sector over the next decade.

When leaders plan for this workforce transition, and talk openly about it as an industry, identifying skills and providing professional development for employees, they are embracing the opportunities of technology and the future, Durkin says.

“We must build skills and capability – and we must do it now,” Udd urges.

“By 2030, half of the future workforce will need advanced coding and software design skills. So in preparation for tomorrow, we’re building a technology savvy workforce today.”

BHP is creating a culture of learning and upskilling, and in doing so it is raising more controllers, more builders and more technicians.

The company is also contributing more than $55 million to the Australian STEM skills gap in an effort to prepare the workforce of tomorrow.

Just as technology has made BHP reconsider the skills profile, it has also reimagined the gender profile of its workforce, according to Udd.

BHP is creating new roles and ways of working, which saw its integrated remote operations centre (IROC) in Brisbane achieve gender balance from the outset.

The IROC also created an extensive suite of training and upskilling opportunities for its people, many of whom were long-term miners.

“Over 50 per cent of the IROC’s mine control team have formerly operated heavy vehicles. I’m talking about trucks, diggers and graders – some the size of a small house,”
Udd says.

“One of these controllers, a truck driver for 16 years, describes his transition into the IROC as: ‘The best thing I ever did.’

“We can do a lot, as an organisation and as an industry, to solve for the future. But we can do more when we combine our capabilities with others.” 

Rag Udd will speak at the AusIMM Mining Leadership Summit, which will explore the impact of automation on organisational leadership, on September 17–18 in Sydney. For more information, visit the website: miningleadership.ausimm.com

This article also appears in the August edition of Australian Mining.

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