Preparing the workforce for an autonomous future

A collaboration between WesTrac and Rio Tinto has led to the creation of a tailored program to teach team members the fundamentals of operating within an autonomous mine site.

Rio Tinto is quickly approaching first production at its Gudai-Darri iron ore mine near Newman in the Pilbara, Western Australia.

The company has plans for Gudai-Darri to be one of the world’s most advanced mine sites with automation technology solutions across the value chain.

However, for the site to work efficiently and safely, all workers employed at the mine must be trained to work with autonomous technology.

Rio Tinto and WesTrac have developed a tailored program to teach team members the safety fundamentals of operating within an autonomous mine site.

The Automated Haulage Systems (AHS) module at the WesTrac Technology Training Centre in Collie has prepared more than 260 operators since its launch, with another 100 people expected to be trained by December.

The centre is only the second such training facility in the world focussing on the technical skills required to operate autonomous equipment for use in the resources sector. 

WesTrac chief executive officer Jarvas Croome says Western Australia currently accounts for around 90 per cent of the world’s Cat autonomous haulage fleet and that is why the training centre was established in the state. 

“Because not all sites have autonomy on them, this particular training facility is all about that initial introduction to autonomy,” Croome says.

“They may have worked on a mine site for five or 10 years but now they are going to be working with autonomous equipment. So we can get them up to speed for their first day on site.

“Traditionally we have done a lot of the training on site, so this is a perfect opportunity to train people before they get to the site, and we can also train a greater volume of operators.”

WesTrac is also delivering a maintainer training module, focussed on in-field service operations for autonomous equipment. Rio Tinto expects to send employees to the facility on an ongoing basis over coming years to train both new team members and those wishing to upskill. 

Rio Tinto vice president of human resources Scott Browne says the program has given the company’s team members invaluable development in AHS. 

“The (Gudai-Darri) site will be autonomous in regard to our haulage fleet, so we are really focussed on our haul trucks,” Browne says.

“We recently announced with Caterpillar the first autonomous water cart and we have also got our autonomous drill system.

“There are other digital technologies around the mine in regards to refuelling and other warehouse parts, but the big focus is really on the autonomous haulage fleet.

“The aim is about how we can create the safest environment, and obviously a highly productive environment, and see where autonomy fits within that.”

Rio Tinto VP of human resources Scott Browne and WesTrac CEO Jarvas Croome.

According to WesTrac’s Technology Training Centre operations manager Jeremy Manuel, Gudai-Darri will be a unique working environment which presents some training challenges for Rio Tinto. 

“Before engaging with the Gudai-Darri team, WesTrac had been working with customers to roll out autonomous haulage equipment at mines that were already operating, so it was possible to phase the introduction of the new technology and to train workforces on site in line with that rollout,” Manuel says. 

“As Gudai-Darri is a new site, WesTrac worked with Rio Tinto to develop appropriate courses and deliver them at our purpose-built Collie facility, ensuring team members leave the program site-ready.” 

The training includes practical components for operating and using manually controlled equipment such as passenger transport vehicles within autonomous zones. Such equipment must be fitted with technology to allow safe interaction with the autonomous vehicles, ensuring all moving equipment is site aware. 

Browne says the training is critical for Rio Tinto to make sure the company has safe and competent people on site.

“It is also an opportunity for people to come into the mining industry and from our other sites to upskill from here at this facility,” he says.

“It is important to be able to take people out of the operating environment and give them that dedicated focus where it is just about the training rather than have people both trying to do their role receive training at the same time.

“We are highly invested in the development of trainees, apprentices and graduates, and we want to make sure we keep that investment going, as we did with the VET qualifications, into the future.”

The Technology Training Centre was opened in August last year by Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan and Regional Development Minister Alannah MacTiernan.

The Western Australian Government contributed $2.7 million through the Collie Futures Fund towards the project.

Member for Collie-Preston Jodie Hanns says the training facility has created benefits for the wider Collie community.

“The facility is getting people trained with new skills to use new technology,” Hanns says.

“The flow-on effect for Collie means that people are coming to the region and staying for a number of days during their training on site.

“This provides a boost for the Collie community with people using local accommodation and food providers, and the wider community, as these people get an opportunity to see what Collie has to offer.

“This is also reflected in the number of people returning to Collie – we have had massive numbers of repeat visitors through town for lots of different reasons.

“They may come to town for the training, but they come back due to what they have seen and that is a massive benefit for our community.”

WesTrac is also delivering a maintainer training module.

Hanns says having the facility located in Collie will position the town at the forefront of automated heavy vehicle training and has the potential to create a range of opportunities for Collie residents.

“Being an industrial town, people are very used to seeing heavy vehicles going through town, so these kinds of facilities are really welcome out here,” she says.

“We really welcome the investment of the state government, but we also really value the interest that Rio Tinto and WesTrac have provided to support this facility in our region.”

The training at the facility is specifically designed for Rio Tinto employees, in conjunction with Caterpillar and WesTrac.

However, Croome says there is potential to provide training for other miners should the need arise in the future.

“While the borders have been shut, we haven’t been able to bring some of our eastern states people in for training, but there has been a huge demand and we have basically been booked out the whole time,” Croome says.

“Now we are looking at future opportunities and other kinds of training we can provide in the technology space as we see newer technology start to emerge.

“We are looking at training on autonomous drills as well as opportunities for training with autonomous dozing.”

Croome says the latest interstate border closures have increased the number of applications to attend the training.

“We have got a lot of people applying. We recently held applications for apprentices and we would have had 1000 applicants for 30 positions,” Croome says.

“It is really challenging right now to be able to train the volume of people to meet the requirement here in Western Australia.

“WesTrac has always had a really strong focus on training and we have hundreds of apprentices on our own books, as well as training hundreds of apprentices each year for the industry.

“We did used to rely on a lot of interstate or international people to come into the state to meet the demand, but the good news is this is a great opportunity for the people of Western Australia to be part of some really interesting industries.”

Browne says the recruitment for Gudai-Darri has progressed with the site well positioned to ramp up.

However, the current issues with snap border closures have meant Rio Tinto is focussed on a Western Australian workforce.

“Our roles are actually advertised as either having to relocate to WA or actually be a resident of WA already,” he says.

“So since the middle of last year we have had a strong focus on WA employment and we are really focussed on that apprenticeship pathway.

“About three months ago we had a program involving a light vehicle to heavy vehicle module that we are doing, so we have a pilot underway at the moment with four female light vehicle fitters and we are re-training them to become heavy duty fitters.

“We are really looking for those transferrable skills for our industry.”

This article appears in the November issue of Australian Mining. 

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