In this special series of articles, we asked some of our AusIMM professional societies and networks for their industry insights.
The following is a collection of thoughts from our professionals on how practices have developed over the past 125 years.
Is there a single event that defined the beginning of this technical discipline in Australasia?
In Australia, the discovery of gold in central Victoria by a veteran of the California gold rushes in the 1850s led to the establishment of the Ballarat School of Mines in 1870 and the Bendigo School of Mines in 1873 (since closed). The discovery of gold in the eastern goldfields of Western Australia in the 1880s led to the establishment of the Western Australian School of Mines in Coolgardie in 1902, which relocated to Kalgoorlie in 1903.
In New Zealand, gold discoveries in the Coromandel Peninsula and Central Otago in the 1850s led to the formation of the Otago School of Mines at Dunedin in the south, the Thames School at Coromandel in the north, plus several smaller schools.
What industry issues or problems has this discipline helped to address?
The Australasian industry has been a leader in the application of technologies. Mining is a mature industry with well-tested processes, where incremental improvement is part of the business. Curiosity and creativity, which are needed for ‘step change’, are traits that need support. As the real price of metals declined despite increases in demand, it forced the need for more economically efficient minerals companies, and more technically efficient mining and processing methods. The former drove consolidation and globalisation within the industry, while the latter maintained the need for well-educated mining professionals, capable of applying the latest technologies, such as information technology, for process improvement, optimisation and the application of best safety practices.
How has this discipline changed and how might it look in the future?
From the establishment of the first mining schools in Australia and New Zealand, the industry has evolved due to increased technical and societal expectations to meet the demand for the industry’s output. Safety and environmental performance have become a key focus in the mining profession. This translates to an industry keenly aware of its licence to operate obligations. This focus has been transformative for culture, inclusiveness and respect, but the industry must continue to communicate these achievements to the broader community.
In the future, data analytics will drive our understanding of orebodies, drilling, blasting and blending. In addition, the need to find and develop mineral deposits under increasing cover, requiring significant capital and the need to reduce operating and capital risk, will continue to challenge professionals.
What are the big challenges or opportunities facing this discipline?
The industry 125 years ago was a collection of high-grade, near-surface, narrow vein operations. As technologies improved and demand for the industry products increased, there was a move to large, low-grade surface operations. Going forward, the industry must grapple with mining low-grade, deep orebodies under considerable cover.
An immediate issue the industry faces is ensuring the attraction and retention of mining engineering talent. The cyclicality of the industry, combined with questions regarding social licence to operate, has increased the difficulties the industry has in this area.
There are currently eight mining schools across Australia and none in New Zealand. Some of the Australian schools are associated with significant research institutes, such as the Julius Kruttschnitt Mineral Research Centre. As for the future, a number of Australian universities that host mining schools have active reviews underway to assess sustainability of their participation in mining education. As a result, changes in the delivery of mining education in Australia are almost certain.
What has AusIMM’s role been in advancing professional practice in this discipline?
The AusIMM Mining Society has played a significant role in facilitating access to current industry knowledge, and the definition of good practice across a range of discipline areas relevant to mining. This is through its involvement in conferences, and the publication of monographs and spectrum series volumes. The Mine Managers’ Handbook is a recent example. The Mining Society has advocated, within the AusIMM, on matters such as mining education in Australasia and arguably can – and needs to – do more in this area. This is required to sustain the contribution to industry made by mining graduates.