The future of mining

A recap of the 2017 ABB Digital Transformation Summit in Brisbane, which explored the importance of implementing digitalisation across the mining, oil and gas and utilities sectors.

The 2017 ABB Digital Transformation Summit was held in Brisbane once again, reinforcing the need for companies, particularly in the resources sector, to implement innovative strategies to enhance operational efficiencies.

Organised by global power and automation technology company ABB, the two-day event featured a range of speakers, presentations and software demonstrations around the advantages of digitally enhancing businesses and business models.

ABB Australia managing director Tauno Heinola highlighted the opportunities that can be derived from implementing digital systems and processes, such as reduced energy costs, improved maintenance and increased productivity.

One of ABB’s key focus areas is the integration of information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) and how this can help miners in a range of areas, such as remote monitoring.

“You don’t have to have expertise in all the technologies you have in the mining environment on site,” Heinola told Australian Mining. “Many mine sites are in remote areas and it is difficult and expensive to get specialists living there. [But with digital technologies] you can remotely monitor and have an expert somewhere else.”

Digitisation to digitalisation

Rick Nicholson, global product management and marketing enterprise software specialist at ABB, and one of the speakers at the event, reinforced the difference between digitisation – taking information from analogue form to digital form – and digitalisation – the process of changing a business model “that creates value or new revenue opportunities that did not exist previously”.

“It’s much more of a transformation in the sense that the business is changing,” he said.

Nicholson also referred to where certain industries were on the digital S curve and the mining and metals industry was toward the lowest level of digitalisation.

Stuart Cowie, ABB head of division for industrial automation, reinforced the mining industry’s slow uptake of digital technologies. He explained that while some companies may have adopted digitally transformative strategies, the industry as a whole still lacked the rapid adoption seen in more digitally savvy industries like the information and communication technologies (ICT) sector.

“The adoption is very limited – it’s still right at the infancy stages,” he told Australian Mining. “We are witnessing the beginning of the fourth industrial revolution so there are some examples here and there but it’s not widespread.”

ABB senior director of Intelligent Mining Solutions, enterprise software, Tarang Waghela, said when it comes to innovation, mining companies invested mostly in technology, but should instead look at implementing innovative strategies throughout the whole company.

However, Cowie explained that one of the biggest challenges when implementing transformational changes across the board was deciding which specific area takes priority.

“It is for companies to collate all the ideas, have a look at the biggest bottlenecks that they have and then decide where to invest their time and money,” he said.

Will this take away jobs?

One often-held belief throughout the mining industry is that implementing innovative technologies will get rid of jobs.

Heinola dismissed this argument and explained that while some jobs may be lost, others will be developed.

Cowie reinforced this notion and said, “Innovating brings out these new careers, it opens a path for people to reeducate themselves and go for higher level jobs away from the dirt and the danger.”

Heinola added that individuals should focus on taking responsibility for their own development when it comes to retaining a job in the mining sector.

“We always say the government has to organise these and while the government should invest in these changes, individuals should also take the initiative,” he said.

“We need to learn and develop ourselves with the developing technology and developing environment. If we don’t want to do anything then it’s difficult to get a new job once you are outdated from your present job.”

The next step

One of the main aims of the event was the hope that delegates would leave feeling more encouraged about implementing digitally transformative systems or processes within their own companies.

When it comes to encouraging mining companies – particularly in an industry known for its slow uptake of technology adoption – Waghela used this analogy: “How do you change the temperature of an ocean? You put in droplets of lava in there.”

“We energise people (the lava) so that when they go back into their daily routines, they have an alternate thought, and start innovating and start looking at ways to make things better to add value for the company,” he said.

Waghela said that while there were several areas that could be improved on site, mining companies should not be overwhelmed.

“You can look at something as a challenge or as an opportunity,” he said.

Waghela also explained that one way for companies to address this wariness was through rapid experimentation.

“When you understand your challenges try to figure out how you can experiment a solution as quickly as possible. And failure is fine, you learn from it,” Waghela said.

“From my perspective, if organisations could do one thing to ‘change the temperature of the ocean’ it would be for the senior leaders within the mining organisations to encourage experimentation within the business.

“They have to make it safe for their employees to experiment. Experimentation may be seen as something no one wants to do because it’s risky or maybe the jobs are not going to be secured. But that is when you’ll start seeing innovation.”

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

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