Mining in a world of automation: is the supply chain ready?

The mining supply chain must act fast or miss out on the opportunities Industry 4.0 and automation offer, warns a new report. Andrew Tunnicliffe talks with METS Ignited CEO Adrian Beer about the situation in Australia, and what needs to be done to take full advantage. 

It’s a question that can be asked of any industry: what will the sector look like in the years to come? How will demands change, skills evolve and the technologies used advance? And what impact will that have? For the global resources industry – and particularly mining – that question has been asked but there are two very different answers.

Managed correctly, the sector could lead the way in innovation, harnessing the opportunities Industry 4.0 has to offer, but it has to act fast. If it doesn’t, the future might be very different. Speaking on the topic, Australia’s Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews said the country’s resources sector, vital to its economy, stands to benefit hugely if it adopts Industry 4.0 technologies.

“The use of analytics and robotics not only provides significant safety and environmental benefits, it is also rapidly increasing job opportunities. This kind of technology opens up new, unexplored opportunities for the resources sector,” she said.

She was speaking on the publication of a report which said Australia stood to benefit to the tune of A$74bn and 80,000 new jobs by 2030 if the resources sector adopted advanced analytics and robotics capabilities. Staying Ahead of the Game, co-authored by NERA and METS Ignited, said that if the industry, academia, policymakers and the technology supply chain worked together, all would stand to gain. However, it warned that the full benefit – economic, social, environmental and safety – would only be realised if a “globally competitive domestic supply chain is created to participate in this transition”.

More than half of the country’s coal mines are managed by pro-Russian separatist militia.Credit: DmyTo/Shutterstock.

More than half of the country’s coal mines are managed by pro-Russian separatist militia.

Credit: DmyTo/Shutterstock.

The danger of a slow-to-adapt supply chain 

The report also warned that A$32bn of value, and 265,000 jobs, could be lost if the supply chain didn’t grow to meet the coming demand. “The purpose of the report is to size the opportunities and risks for our sector,” says METS Ignited CEO Adrian Beer. He argues the integration of advanced automation technologies has thus far largely been done by the mining companies, who have “paid a disproportionate amount of money to integrate their equipment vendors into an autonomous operation”.

He was speaking of the global tier 1 mining corporations in particular, but his point is valid industry-wide. “They have been able to pay more than most companies would be willing to integrate those supply chains, because they had an economy of scale advantage,” he argues. Companies without those substantial resources are left trying to integrate off-the-shelf technologies which were often not designed to be combined.

“Original equipment manufacturers need to move towards a “brand agnostic” mindset if collaboration is to take root.”

“We now need the technology vendor community to bring the products that are ready to integrate to the sector,” he says. It’s an area where collaboration creates opportunity; original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) need to move towards a “brand agnostic” mindset if collaboration is to take root.

This lack of interoperability is having unintended consequences says Beer: “In the mining sector, there are numerous suppliers of equipment with their own proprietary technology platform in that supply chain, they don't yet have a common set of standards that we can work from.”

One way of addressing the issue is encouraging OEMs to work together and with industry, through what the report says are “cross-industrial automation clusters to facilitate networking and talent development”.

AusProof is celebrating 25 years of business in Australia in 2019.

Taking a system level view – and quickly 

Recalling a recent trade show visit, Beer says he saw numerous technology vendors, each with a specific piece of advanced technology. However, from a mining company’s perspective it was simply not practical for them to buy any one of those individual technologies and try to incorporate it into their operations; put simply, it needed to be part of a system. “If we can get those technology vendors to see that system-level view of what they bring, and take that to the mining sector, this would be an industry growing. Mining companies are really looking for that kind of innovation to be applied,” Beer continues.

Australia, for its part, has recognised this need and responded. METS Ignited, like its counterpart NERA (National Energy Resource Australia), is part of a Department of Industry, Innovation and Science funded Growth Centre initiative to improve the global competitiveness of the industry supply chain. As well as encouraging greater industry-wide collaboration, it aims to upskill workforces in readiness for the next generation of technology.

“If you move out to those regional communities, there’s an abundance of skills, experience and resources.”

Beer says part of the inspiration for conducting the research was a realisation that the industry, and the skills needed to support it, are evolving quickly. “There was no doubt that we were going to need a different set of skills,” he explains. It also comes at a time when the sector is going through a dramatic change in its workforce; there is a group of individuals coming to the end of its professional career, whilst another is at the beginning. Beer says that the next generation brings with it an adeptness with technology, an opportunity Australia has to take advantage of.

The government and industry has begun to tap into this new skills market, introducing training courses and opening centres of expertise. While initially these were focussed in capital cities, it is now being now expanded into the regions, something Beer believes has great potential: “If you move out to those regional communities, there’s an abundance of skills, an abundance of experience and an abundance of resources all looking to take advantage of the next generation of technology.”

AusProof is celebrating 25 years of business in Australia in 2019.

Change is coming, automation is coming

International collaboration is also being viewed with great promise. Earlier this year Australia and Canada signed a memorandum of understanding aimed at supporting the development and later adoption of emerging technologies. The agreement covers technologies in all areas of mining, from extraction and transportation to waste and water management. However, it will notably focus on digitisation, analytics, artificial intelligence and automation and robotics, and the future role it will play.

Although there is much happening, the release of the report was a call to Australia’s mining sector supply chain not to be complacent. Beer recognises the country is “lucky”, thanks to its geology and level of technical expertise. But, he warns, that has its risks: “The problem of being a lucky country is that you can sometimes be a little bit complacent and not realise how good you've got it until someone else shows you how good it was. I think that’s our key message, don’t miss this opportunity.”

“The problem of being a lucky country is that you can sometimes be a little bit complacent.”

But, he adds, it’s time for the supply chain to play its part: “The vendor community is now where the responsibility lies to achieve automation in the mining sector. If it doesn't do that work and step up and create an off-the-shelf integration platform, the competitiveness of the sector is going to suffer to a point that it's not going to be sustainable.”

“Automation is coming, it's a necessity for the future sustainability of our industry and if we don't take advantage of the opportunity available to us, we'll miss it,” he concludes. He was talking specifically of Australia, its mining industry and those that supply it. It is, however, a point that can be applied around the world.

Australia sits arguably at the very top of the sector. Leading international companies are all active there, there’s a hugely skilled workforce, it is home to innovative technologies, and awash with resources. But if the message is don’t miss the opportunity the future holds there, it is a message that must surely resonate around the world. Change is coming to mining, and it’s the supply chain that needs to step up right now. The message is, be ready to embrace it or risk losing out.

AusProof is celebrating 25 years of business in Australia in 2019.

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