Rising to the challenge

METS Ignited is responding to mining’s many challenges through close collaboration with technology companies. Australian Mining reports.

Cyclical by nature, the mining industry has survived economic downturns, ecological reform and, occasionally, public opprobrium, to maintain its status as a pillar of Australian growth.

Mining is in a good place right now; of the $400 billion of goods and services exports recorded by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in 2017-18, around 55 per cent ($220 billion) were from the resources industry, a record of its own.

Coal exports were particularly strong, posting a record high of $60.1 billion, an 11 per cent rise on the previous year.

But as the industry evolves, so too does its challenges.

The availability of skilled workers is decreasing, for example, with fewer young graduates entering the industry than during the boom times. This conundrum is forcing the industry to diversify its recruitment strategies and highlight mining’s focus on emerging technology and digital transformation.

Community expectations of the industry — including communities in the developing world — have also never been higher, with miners privy to increasingly strict regulations surrounding the social licence to operate.

And on a production level, new ore body discoveries of decent size and quality are becoming more difficult to find, while existing mines are getting deeper but returning lower yields.

“The issue of being able to get better productivity and more value out of existing mines continues to be a challenge that is being addressed through some of the work that is being done in data analysis, artificial intelligence and machine learning,” METS Ignited industry engagement general manager Peter Clarke says.

“They’re the real, major challenges that we see facing mining.”

Australia’s mining equipment, technology and services (METS) sector is an important part of the industry’s growth and contributes $86 billion to the Australian economy.

The government-backed METS Ignited has identified several key growth areas to deal with mining’s challenges heading into the 2020s.

METS Ignited works with companies and mining industry bodies across Australia to develop technologies and programs addressing automation, data analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT), and several other research areas.

It also works to make METS jobs more attractive, and increase student awareness of the sector’s opportunities. According to Clarke, there is a wealth of opportunity for skilled graduates in the aforementioned tech sectors as the mining industry attempts to meet the needs of the so-called fourth industrial revolution, otherwise known as Industry 4.0.

“What happens with automation is it’s not necessarily jobs that get replaced but tasks; that has been happening for a long time and will continue to happen,” Clarke says.

“We think that overall Australia is a leader in mining technologies and we can create more jobs in the combined mining and METS sector if we take advantage of the opportunities in the global mining industry.”

Exploration technology is a strong area of interest for the organisation, which entered a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Deep Exploration Technologies Cooperative Research Centre (DET CRC) in late 2017 that eventually evolved into the $218 million Mineral Exploration Cooperative Research Centre (MinEx CRC) in October 2018.

The CRC has been established to help unlock the value of mineral deposits that lie beneath deep rock cover, and has already received $50 million in government funding.

METS Ignited’s other recent collaborations in this space include Qteq’s subsurface drilling measurement technology; Imdex, which delivers real-time geological information to provide companies more accurate information about blastholes; data analytics company Manufacturing Intelligence. These and five other companies received funding from METS Ignited last year.

“Mining has lagged behind manufacturing significantly, but part of the reason for that is that manufacturing is a far bigger industry globally than mining, and a lot of the equipment and processes for process control that are used in mining have essentially been built for the manufacturing industry,” says Clarke.

“They have done a lot more in terms of making their equipment and process interoperable, and that’s going to have to come across to the mining industry if we are to take advantage of a lot of the developments and progress being made.”

METS Ignited is also addressing the challenge of securing a social licence to operate for companies. This includes reducing (or even eliminating) water use at mines, avoiding the need for tailings storage beyond the life of the mine, and improved remediation and rehabilitation of mine sites.

Research into cheaper, safer and more efficient rehabilitation can then go back into improving local communities.

“Mining companies in the METS sector are becoming much more responsive to social licence issues and so technology can in fact play a big part in this,” says Clarke.

“Mining companies are much more aware of community expectations, community responses to what they’re doing, so there is certainly some opportunity for METS companies to develop products and technologies that support that.”

With a stacked calendar for 2019, featuring everything from business accelerator programs to international ‘innovation exchanges’ in Chile, METS Ignited plans to continue delivering opportunities for collaboration until the project closes next year.

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

To keep up to date with Australian Mining, subscribe to our free email newsletters delivered straight to your inbox. Click here.