Technological progress looks like many things to different mining companies. Vanessa Zhou finds out what it means to mid-tier miners OZ Minerals, New Century Resources and Mineral Resources.
Is digitalisation and technology advancement still reserved for the industry’s biggest players?
For quite some time, stories of automation and digitalisation have won the attention of those who follow the development of the mining and METS (mining, equipment, technology and services) sectors.
While this progress attracts praise from both parts of mining, on the other side of the coin are mine workers who are concerned about competing with machines for jobs.
A shake up of industry workforces is taking place among large mining companies, but without neglecting rigorous plans for employee reskilling and job transfers.
For the mid tier, the considerations have been different to this point, as they advance technology at their operations in different ways.
What the mid-tier mining sector contributes to the overall industry is, indeed, noticeable.
The 50 largest mining companies in the mid-tier sector grew at a rate not seen in years during 2019, combining for $64 billion in market capitalisation on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) by late last year.
This represented a 9 per cent hike from the previous year, the highest growth in nearly a decade, according to Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC).
OZ Minerals, which ranked sixth in PwC’s 2019 mid-tier 50 (MT50) list, regards modern technology as only one part of the picture.
The Adelaide-based company’s people hold the key to technological advancement across sites, according to OZ Minerals chief transformation officer Tania Davey.
“We won’t install technology for technology’s sake; it has to be something that helps us (be) lean, innovative and agile, and work within our devolved way of operating,” Davey says.
The company’s focus has always been to ensure its technological and non-technological foundations are in place.
OZ Minerals aims to integrate the benefits of new and emerging technologies with diversity of thought and skills that are presented by the workforce.
Davey claims that this is the company’s way of modernising how mining is done: to have a workforce with the right culture and mindset to drive the desired changes.
“The more significant part (of tech advancement) is the mindset and culture of innovation of the people behind the business,” Davey says.
“As a modern mining company, we want to harness the innovation mindset of our people and use it with technology so mining work can be carried out more safely and sustainably.”
OZ Minerals has actively built diversity of thought within its workforce, starting with welcoming people from different backgrounds who don’t always come from the mining industry.
The company invests in creating the right environment for people to think differently and exploit technological opportunities.
Without the right culture, the opportunities of technical innovation can’t be fully exploited, according to Davey.
OZ Minerals has this year reached nameplate mill throughput rate of 500 tonnes an hour at its newest operation, the Carrapateena copper-gold mine in South Australia, shortly after achieving first concentrate.
The company aspires to bring Carrapateena’s run rate to 4.35 million tonnes a year by the end of 2020, before jacking it up to 4.7–5 million tonnes a year from 2023.
“(At Carrapateena), the automation in itself was not the sole focus, but rather the value-add that can be obtained by prudent and timely application of automation technologies to a well set up and effectively managed underground mining operations,” Davey says.
“Also, collection of information from the beginning of operations allows the site to use insights and answer questions that haven’t been thought of yet.
“This will see the mine be an early adopter of technology and automation where it adds value to the operation as opposed to installing maximum upfront functionality.”
Rob Bryant, Asia Pacific executive vice president at InEight, a technology company that has established a strong presence in Australia, says mid-tier companies are also typically more nimble and better able to adopt digital transformation.
“They face less bureaucracy from a chain of management point of view and often have fewer existing systems and IT infrastructure to compete with as they introduce change,” he says.
“This is true across sectors, where in the past millions of dollars have been spent on bespoke solutions that took years to develop and implement. Solutions such as InEight are now available to juniors and mid-tier companies.”
Partner companies have held the key to New Century Resources’ technology-driven economic rehabilitation at the Century zinc mine in Queensland.
The company, which ranked 45th in PwC’s MT50 list last year, partnered with a South African company that specialises in hydraulic mining to restart the historic site.
New Century head of corporate affairs and social responsibility Shane Goodwin says the technique for large scale mining is mostly deployed in Africa and South America, but has little to no penetration in Australia.
“New Century, during its study phase, identified this and engaged the South African company to transfer know-how and the hydraulic mining cannon setups to the Australian industry,” Goodwin says.
“In the 18 months of operation, New Century has taken this base, built on 20 years of experience, and innovated around both the physical designs of cannon and the operational systems.”
This move confirms the clear economic benefits of automation, Goodwin says, as the need to innovate is driven partly by an increased cost of labour in Australia.
“The major innovation in relation to mining has been from new nozzles, designed through extensive fluid flow dynamic modelling, which have delivered increase laminar flow, in turn delivering more efficient transfer for energy from the high pressure water to the cutting face,” he adds.
“This efficiency increase has resulted in streamlined operations through being able to mine from one location for longer and also via increased density of the material being moved down to the sump for subsequent delivery to the processing plant.
“(This uses) less energy, (gives) greenhouse gas and operating cost benefits, and (minimises) requirement for increased infrastructure to meet New Century’s ramp up of production.”
Since operations re-commenced at the Century mine in 2018, the company has reprocessed 10 tonnes of the tailings waste stream that had been left behind by its previous owners.
This represents 12 per cent of Century’s total tailings waste, which will be reprocessed and removed over six and a half years.
“At the Century mine in North West Queensland, the process of economic rehabilitation via tailings reprocessing provides for all of the scheduled mine rehabilitation to be achieved through new cash flow generating site activities,” Goodwin says.
And while New Century is focussed on generating cashflow through economic rehabilitation, eighth-ranked Mineral Resources (MinRes), according to PwC’s 2019 MT50, aims to generate weight savings.
MinRes has developed an internal fleet of dump trucks that are fitted with carbon fibre trays.
It has created a carbon fibre manufacturing facility to develop trays that weigh 8.5 tonnes to go on 150-tonne dump trucks. Its weight contrasts with trays that weigh 31 tonnes from the original manufacturer.
As of August last year, MinRes had developed five 150-tonne dump trucks using the lightweight trays, two of which were “running around” on site at the Koolyanobbing operation in Western Australia.
“We’ve got an extra 22.5 tonnes that we’re hauling on every load that comes out of the pits,” MinRes managing director Ellison explains in a February announcement. The carbon fibre trays will increase dump truck payloads by 10 to 15 per cent.
MinRes had planned to develop the tray for its 200-tonne dump trucks before COVID-19 hit the markets.
With such a “cleaner slate” to begin with, it is exciting to see what innovations mid-tier mining companies will come up with next.
After all, it is in their best interests to maximise tonnage, improve efficiency and leave the sector in better shape than when they started.
This story also appears in the May issue of Australian Mining.