As we move to the mid-point of 2016, we examine the apparent trends that will be defining 2016, and what way the industry will move.
2. Ensuring innovation: preparing for change
Innovation is more than just a buzzword for mining; it’s an entirely new take on how they do business. They are quite literally reinventing the wheel in many cases.
“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,” Austmine chair Christine Gibbs Stewart explains.
This view was supported by Deloitte, which labelled innovation as a new critical theme for miners.
“Solutions once considered unviable or inapplicable to the industry continue to be adapted to suit the needs of mining companies,” it said.
Many of these innovations centre around automated and semi-autonomous processes.
But the problem of capturing these efficiencies hinges on uptake, a problem the industry seems to have difficulty with; automation is being seen as the next step, rather than as the new normal.
“Despite this dizzying array of technologies, many miners remain at the early stage of the adoption curve – placing a majority of their innovation focus on technological optimisation of old techniques in a bid to reduce costs or discover deposits more efficiently,” Deloitte said.
“To evolve, companies need to expand their innovation focus beyond technology to also consider new ways to configure and engage externally.”
It listed a number of game changing technologies that will disrupt the mining industry. These include:
- Networks: This is the interconnectivity brought about Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), and feeds into the Big Data movement. As machinery sensors become more prevalent miners now have greater oversight of how their equipment truly operates, giving them more flexibility in their usage and maintenance. This in turn is driving the predictive maintenance trend, which reduces the likelihood of costly, unplanned and unscheduled downtimes, instead allowing users to push get a realistic pattern of usage and the ability to predict when machinery will fail and wear rates and maintain/repair accordingly. OEMs will soon offer uptime guarantees, which will be supported by users’ in-field operational data.
- Machine learning: As automation becomes more widespread, the potential for machines to perform increasing complex tasks grow, lifting safety and productivity on site. According to Deloitte, an end game for this is the continued growth of centralised remote operating hubs, such as Rio Tinto’s Mine of the Future remote operations hub or its Processing Centre of Excellence, as well as similar remote control hubs run by Roy Hill, Fortescue, and BHP from Perth.
- Geonomics: Geonomic solutions are already seeing usage to a degree in mining, being used for in-situ mineral extraction processes as well as bio-remediation programs that use natural enzymes to clean contaminated sites through metal leaching and drainage.
- Wearables: Similar to machine sensors, but for the miners themselves. Systems like FitBit, incorporated into miners’ clothes and PPE can measure and monitor their performance and health. These are already being rolled out in terms of fatigue management systems that monitor haul truck drivers’ tiredness; heat measurement vests that monitor if workers are at risk of heat stress; and RFID systems that track workers locations on site and can be used to alert others if they face an emergency situation.
- Airships: Pegged as the potential transportation of the future, new heavy haulage designs are being developed by Lockheed Martin that can lift heavy mining trucks to remote mining locations fully assembled and ready to roll on to site the moment they land.
Australia is working to address this issue with Austmine’s 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 (See page 6 for more). However, the next innovation wave needs to be supported by full information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) collaboration, as well as enhanced asset management procedures, if its full impact is to be felt.