BHP’s five stream focus: The push for innovation and automation

Innovation. Adding value. Reducing exposure. Mining smarter.

These are the bywords BHP is operating to in the new era of mining, according to the miner’s  group head technology, geoscience, and engineering Bryan Quinn.

Speaking at the recent BHP Science and Engineering awards, Quinn outlined BHP’s new approach to innovation, automation, and technology integration, and how the now trimmer company is seeking to become a greener, more efficient company in this age of tighter production costs.

“We’re looking beyond production, and how to build our future, the acceleration of our resources, and more efficiency in operations,” Quinn said.

It is little surprise the miner is looking towards the future, beyond how it once did things and towards a new mode of thinking.

Following the splitting of its assets earlier this year, and the shifting of these divested operations into the newly named South32, BHP has refocused on maximising efficiency in its iron ore, coal, copper, and petroleum, and how innovative technology is aiding these applications.

“We’re refocusing on what will generate the most value; and where there is the biggest bang for our buck,” he said, pointing to applications at its joint-owned Jimblebar iron ore operations and BHP’s new downhole tools.

“We’re thinking now, for future operations.”

However, in line with the current global slowdown in actual exploration BHP is unlikely to carry out wide ranging exploration on the ground, Quinn explaining that instead the miner is looking to “a more efficient use of [existing] drillers and geologists, and using data better.”

By understanding its deposits in a deeper manner and using more intuitive technology “we can give our geos more time to carry out analysis on site, cutting lab times and giving us more time to access the data”.

“Additionally it also reduces the levels of exposure of people in the field,” he said.

“We’re working with technology to help us find and define our current resources, and get a better understanding.

“At the moment we aren’t focused on the [new resource] discovery, we’re more focused on the developing downstream products at this time.

“It’s about making these tangible benefits from sophisticated decisions. If you plan well you can execute it well.”

A five stream focus

In terms of actual focus areas for technological development Quinn was reticent to specifically outline strategy, however he did state that BHP is increasing its focus on maximising the value in its orebodies, increased vehicle efficiency, and the throughput stream from blasting through to processing.

These are underlined by the company “using automation where it makes sense”.

“It often depends on the site itself, as it doesn’t always make sense to implement automation, so we’ll only use it where it can improve business opportunities.”

Trickle down innovation

When it comes to developing this knowledge, and using it as a decision making driver BHP is using a ‘suck-it-and-see’ principle.

“We’ve set up a structure in the organisation where we may not have [a lot of] people working on the development of new technologies, instead we have focused areas and parts of the business where we can uncover technology being researched and bring these people into our organisation via partnerships,” he said.

“We’re working on how to work with academies and institutions to focus on these opportunities.”

However Quinn was quick to add: “Where technology or an innovation makes value and doesn’t exist then we will invent it, but if it exists then we’ll buy it.”

But Quinn said BHP is not on a technology acquisition spree.

“Then we get to the next stage, and if a pilot trial is being done and it fits within our focus area we then ask – does it move the dial? That’s one of the major questions.”

When it comes to innovation integration he said the miner will look to “leverage best practice across the company, business by business, learning from other parts of the business and then deliberately spreading that knowledge in a holistic manner”.

“It’s about building capability, and working with the wider business to build this capability using technology, and then sharing this experience to further the business.”