Overcoming automation anxiety in future workforces

Copyright © 2018 Rio Tinto.

Andy Ewe speaks with Global Mining Guidelines chair Michelle Ash about a technology-related question that persists in mining circles – will the robots take our jobs?

The advent of automation on mine sites has caused controversy and divide amongst miners, creating automation anxiety that is felt throughout the industry.

Pilbara iron ore mines in Western Australia started to roll out the technological phenomenon in Australia’s mining industry a decade ago.

BHP, Rio Tinto and Fortescue Metals Group have launched hundreds of autonomous trucks at their mines by either introducing automation-ready machines or converting their existing fleets.

Their sights have more recently turned to production drill rigs, the latest pieces of equipment where automation is now being widely adopted.

Pilbara may have been the first Australian region to see widespread use of autonomous equipment, but it won’t be the last.

The east coast coal industry and underground hard rock sector are both investigating, or have already implemented, aspects of automation.

As more and more mines are automated, and create value at mine operations, the question persists – will the robots take our jobs?

Global Mining Guidelines (GMG) chair Michelle Ash says automation will become the norm for mine sites across the world. Ash believes the true challenge lies in working people through the inevitable transition.

“Technology will change jobs, and that’s what we need to prepare people for,” Ash tells Australian Mining.

“What’s important is to help people work through the change as soon as possible, answering what it means for their future work and reorientate them.”

Even though fears of mass unemployment through automation seems to be a modern issue, it is not the first time automation anxiety has swept through the workforce.

Waves of automation have negated the need for elevator operators, switchboard operators, pinsetters and more. Miners, for several years now, have feared they will follow these footsteps into redundancy.

Michelle Ash

“I’ve seen models both ways, ones that show automation will increase jobs and models that say automation will reduce jobs,” Ash, who will speak at the WA Mining Conference & Exhibition in Perth next week, says.

To ease the workforce’s automation anxiety, Ash looks to China’s rise as a steel superpower for lessons.

“When China became one of the biggest steel producers worldwide, it affected the United States and Germany, which have been two of the great steel producers and manufacturers,” Ash says.

“Both countries reacted to that fundamentally differently and the fallout has been fundamentally different.

“In Germany, they spend a lot of time to retrain and reorient people. Whereas the U.S. has seemed to abandon people, and the workforce has experienced huge unemployment and dislocations.”

The introduction of haul truck automation continues at a rapid pace. In September, Komatsu announced it would roll out 41 automation-ready 930E trucks at BHP’s South Flank iron ore project in the Pilbara.

BHP has outlined ambitions to introduce 500 autonomous trucks, in addition to its existing fleet, on both sides of Australia in the coming years.

“Automated trucks are nearly at its tipping point to became standard in the industry,” Ash says. “The next question is how do we automate other parts of the process?

“As we automate, we will have less direct operators but more maintenance staff and more trainers of robotics and more overseers of robotic applications.”

With the change of the mining workplace, Ash says it is vital to retrain and reorient the existing workforce, as well as integrate the rising workforce, while capturing the current expertise available.

“It’s all about how you implement it and how you work with people through the transition,” Ash says.

“Around one third to one half of the current workforce will retire over the next 10 to 15 years, particularly in developed countries. We have to utilise the knowledge, experience and talents of our existing workforce.

“For those who continue, it’s about how we will transfer them into new roles through upskilling and reskilling.”

As chair of GMG, Ash aims to speed up the rate of transformation in the mining industry through industry collaboration on technological and social innovations.

“As artificial intelligence starts melding with robotics and can perform a wider range of activities, it allows us to fundamentally redesign mining,” Ash says.

“It allows people to be more analytical and to make decisions when we have machines doing more tangible front-line work.”

Safety can often be overlooked as the key advantage of automation because of the focus on job retention.

With automation, the intention is to remove people from high hazard activities, with the goal of shifting workers from mine sites to offices.

“For health and safety, we have to agree that it is better to work in an office environment rather than underground,” Ash says.

“Once you take people out of the mines you can fundamentally redesign it. That has impacts on environmental footprint and health and safety, while dramatically bringing down the costs and risks of mining.”

Looking at the business case for automation, Ash believes the removal of people and the reduction of salaries has relatively small benefits, with true advantages arising from increased productivity and precision of mining.

As we automate, we will have less direct operators but more maintenance staff and more trainers of robotics and more overseers of robotic applications.

“Retraining and reorienting workers into different roles is positive both from a productivity and health and safety point of view,” Ash says.

In Ash’s previous role as chief innovation officer at Barrick Gold, she laid the foundation for automation and robotics at their operations, which span multiple continents.

“We implemented the fundamental layers at Barrick by applying 4G LTE networks underground. This allows the use of cellular technologies underground,” Ash says.

“This doesn’t sound impressive, but when you’re used to using radios and working in the dark by yourself and having to walk 400 metres to have any form of communication, the ability to use your mobile phone underground is important.”

Cellular technologies in mine sites provides a platform for the implementation of more sophisticated technologies. It forms one of the three base layers of technology, including sensors and powerful computing systems.

“With the base layers, you can add mining 4.0 technologies, electrification, automation and robotics, including machine learning, computer visions, and deep learning,” Ash says

“After this, disruptive technologies which will fundamentally change, not just mining, but also other industries, including blockchain, quantum computing, and nano-engineering.”

The future of mining is fast approaching. The mine sites of today will not be the same as the mine sites of tomorrow. To prepare then, it is vital for both mines and miners to educate and inform themselves above the possibilities of the future.

Ash will speak on the topic, ‘Future generation of mining: Who, what, when and where” at the WA Mining Conference & Exhibition.

WA Mining 2019 is a new mining conference and exhibition held in Perth. The theme of the conference, accelerating Western Australia’s Mining Future to 2030, will look at the life of mine from operational strategy through to execution.

It will address both the strategic and technical approaches to improve productivity, lower costs and optimise the end to end process.

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