Mining’s innovation imperative [opinion]

Innovation is the mining and METS industry’s buzzword right now, and with good reason. It’s long been a core value of Austmine’s, and a value many of our members pride themselves on embodying in their products, services and approach. Most in the sector are agreed that for Australia to remain competitive in the years to come, the way we do things needs to change – dramatically.

This is where innovation comes in. When we refer to innovation, we’re not simply referring to the next big invention, we are also encompassing incremental innovation, or a re-thinking of how we use equipment, technology or processes that we already have in place.

This concept of re-thinking is key for innovation to succeed in the mining and METS sector. We must change how we think about innovation, about how we partner to achieve innovation and what innovation looks like.

The big challenge we all currently face, is that there are several systemic barriers when it comes to innovation and technology adoption and utilisation.

Many miners have made reference to a need for better utilisation of existing technologies, particularly following the furious investment phase of the mining boom. At IMARC in November 2015, Anglo American’s Group Director of Technical, Tony O’Neill noted that challenges as a sector generally came from adoption and system issues, as opposed to a pure lack of technological innovation.

A challenge for METS companies has been ensuring miners use their technology, equipment or systems to full capacity once installed on the mine site. A lack of training, personnel changes, and cultural attitudes all contribute to a high-tech piece of kit not being used to its optimum capability following installation. Therefore, the recognition from miners that they need to get “fit” and be smarter on-site is good news for METS, providing it filters down throughout the ranks, and is enforced from the top.

The best industry-wide example of under-utilisation is that of data, or big data, given the volumes collected daily by mining operations. Every mine site around the world gathers vast quantities of data, in a variety of formats, from driverless trucks, through to manual sampling orebody data, and video imagery from drones or surveyors. The major challenge for the industry, METS and miners alike, is how to process, prioritise and act upon this data from both an operational and strategic point of view.

Along with the opportunity for METS and miners to tackle the productivity challenge via better utilisation of existing equipment and technology, the need for new innovation remains critical. The Federal Government’s “Ideas Boom”, as part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda, is a call to action to encourage greater innovation across the board. The METS sector is a leading light in this regard, with new innovations being launched by Australian METS on a regular basis. In fact, in our 2015 survey, 63% of METS companies reported that innovation was core to their business strategy and 81% of companies reported that they launch a new product or service continuously or every few years.

Examples of leading innovators including a relatively new company Vayeron, who has developed an intelligent conveyor roller monitoring system which predicts and reports potential failures, significantly reducing downtime and maintenance costs, whilst improving safety. Or WA company, Safescape, who designs and manufactures the Laddertube, a state of the art escapeway system designed specifically for use in underground mines and is unaffected by water, salt or other mineral deposits.

However, we see many innovations fall by the wayside early in their development, for reasons such lack of on-site testing opportunities, difficulties in accessing decision makers, a shortage of potential commercial partners and inability to obtain funding. To help address some of these issues, Austmine introduced our inaugural Innovation Mentoring Program, sponsored by METS Ignited. This is a program for the mentoring of individuals aimed at creating the next generation of innovators. Demand for this program was exceptionally high, and we have paired expert and experienced innovators from within mining and METS with new and aspiring METS innovators. The program began in February 2016 and this first round will wrap up in July 2016, with the second round kicking off in September 2016.

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