June 2018

Digital mines: the need for restructuring university courses

  • By Emeritus Professor Odwyn Jones AO FAusIMM

A look at how universities and mining schools might address the need for modernised curricula to ensure properly qualified resources industry professionals for the 21st century

There is an increasing groundswell of opinion that universities need to urgently redesign their undergraduate curricula to meet the changing needs of the digital age. This article attempts to address the specific challenges facing the mining sector and university mining schools responsible for educating and training future resources professionals.

The digital transformation of mining

In this rapidly changing era of globalisation and digitisation, the mining industry is struggling to keep pace with the increasing developments in digital technology.

The introduction of automation and digital monitoring of myriad sensors requires engineers to have a sound understanding of digital tools, including cloud computing, big data analytics and the internet of things (IoT) (Long, 2017).

These tools include:

  • Visualisation of data using cloud computing and IoT technology. This enables engineers to visualise the data from mine to market, thus allowing them to use this information to make better decisions to increase productivity and reduce costs, etc.
  • Analytics and machine learning algorithms using real-time and historic data. This can provide engineers with insights to performance and mineral characteristics, thus enabling them to use dynamic scheduling, etc, to proactively make better management decisions.
  • An immersive virtual environment whereby virtual ‘what if’ scenarios can be used to test new methodologies and predict and prevent failures, etc.
  • Integrating automation across the value chain. This can enable mining companies to make better business decisions and make them faster and more intelligent.

In light of this, it’s becoming obvious that a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education is going to be the first essential step for a career in the mining industry. Beyond that, pursuing digital mining-focused studies at a TAFE college or university will further develop collaborative, analytical and problem-solving skills.

Challenges and possible solutions for mining schools

During the transition period from traditional mining technology to the era of digital mining, tertiary education institutions (TAFE colleges and universities) face unique challenges, including:

  • Ensuring there are clearly defined career pathways for school leavers through to TAFE colleges or universities to achieve the skills and knowledge required for careers in mining in the digital age.
  • Coping with the requirements of the widening gap between small and medium-sized brownfield mining operations with ageing infrastructure and the increasingly digitised large-scale open cut mines at new greenfield operations.
  • Having academic staff with sufficient knowledge and experience of digital technologies and their implementation at digital mines to help redesign curricula and lead innovation in teaching practices using digital tools such as the IoT, blockchain and artificial intelligence (AI).
  • Combining with the curriculum a new set of service subjects around the core of mining technology including data analytics, modelling and associated statistical tools, sensor signal processing and sufficient knowledge of information and communications technology (ICT). This should be complemented with experience of how to interrogate and/or integrate various data sets to arrive at optimal management decisions.
  • Cyber security is an ever-growing issue in the mining sector, as emphasised by Michael Rundus, Global Mining and Metals Robotic Process Automation Leader and Oceania Advisory M&M for Ernst & Young. As he states in 2015, there were 250 reported cyber incidents in the USA against operational technology supporting critical infrastructure and the mining sector shares similar cyber threat profiles.

Mining companies and corporations will also look to university mining schools to upgrade the digital knowledge and skills of their employees. This will require developing a range of appropriate programs from short professional development courses to Graduate Certificate and/or Diploma courses as well as course-based Master’s programs.

In all of this, courses will need to include a healthy balance of online delivery, face-to-face tuition and interactions between students and industry practitioners. It is also worthwhile exploring the concept of establishing a more effective partnership with industry practitioners based on joint academe/industry appointments. Such appointees could be mining company personnel who are committed to deliver specialised services to a mining school to ensure the curriculum is enriched by up-to-date industrial practices.

Action being taken by university mining schools

Mining schools in general are suffering from a global shortage of qualified and experienced staff, and it is difficult for them to compete with industry for suitable staff.

One solution is to use relatively low-cost online courses and webinars to help fill the gaps and supplement normal face-to-face tuition and tutorials, or to adopt block teaching sessions using globally recognised subject experts.

There is a wide range of online courses and webinars currently available including those by Mining Education Australia, University of British Columbia Mining Engineering and Edu-Mine, and most, if not all, are prepared by qualified and experienced industry specialists and academics.

Many highly reputed mining schools use this means of supplementing their curricula, including:

  • Universities of Arizona, Texas, Pretoria and Saskatchewan
  • Mackay School of Mines
  • Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Below are some examples from various mining schools and universities showing how they are dealing with the current challenges faced by the rapid rise of digitalisation.

University of New South Wales

The University of New South Wales (UNSW) has committed $77 million to rebuild 600 ‘large student cohort’ courses over five years (Ross, 2017).

UNSW will revamp all subjects so that they can be delivered online, albeit academic staff will decide whether the subjects will be taught online, face-to-face or a combination of the two.

To assist in this work, faculty-based curriculum teams involving around 50 staff including some recent PhD students are being set up.

UNSW plans to redesign 80 courses in 2018 and continue thereafter with increasing momentum.

University of Queensland School of Mechanical and Mining Engineering

As Dr Mehmet Kizil, mining engineering program leader at the University of Queensland (UQ), stated in an industry newsletter, ‘change needs to come in the way we prepare mining engineers’. Kizil is keen to see mine automation and data analytics being introduced into mining curricula while acknowledging that ‘Big Data’ emanating from myriad sensors in the ‘internet of mining things’ presents the biggest challenge (Abbey, 2017). We must teach students how this data can be stored and analysed to provide useful decision-making information and knowledge.

This continuous flow of data is produced in real-time, and to analyse it in real-time presents a huge challenge requiring machine/neural learning algorithms.

Universities should prepare undergraduates for this rapidly developing digital revolution while still ensuring they have a sound knowledge of their core earth science and related technological subjects.

The University of South Australia

The University of South Australia has defined its ‘Digital Learning Strategy’ for 2015-2020 with the intention to:

  • support students to become industry-engaged professionals with digital competencies for their
    future careers
  • support staff in developing digital literacies and capabilities to evaluate and introduce new digital technologies into their teaching
  • provide increased opportunity for face-to-face interactions between staff and students and between students and industry practitioners
  • improve utilisation of digital technologies to provide authentic experiential learning experiences.

It also defines its strategic priorities as:

  • delivering engaging and digitally enriched curricula
  • supporting students to become productive professionals in the digital age
  • developing its academics as leaders in digital learning (University of South Australia, 2015).

The importance of ‘work integrated learning’ in educating and training resources professionals

Mining is both a science and an art, and I believe the technologies associated with mining are best taught when class-based lectures and tutorials are coupled with field, mine or plant visits and practical experience. Within the last decade or so, ready access for undergraduate students to mine sites has become problematic, especially for large groups. Consequently, the learning experience for students, even at mining schools located in close proximity to mine sites, has suffered.

This is an issue worthy of being vigorously pursued in discussion with mining companies.

However, modern digital technology provides a variety of tools to serve as a supplement to classroom teaching, such as websites with videos and virtual reality, both of which can help to overcome the lack of access to worksites.

Industry examples of digital mining operations at Rio Tinto and BHP

University mining schools have a responsibility to educate and train a new breed of mining professionals to cope with the rapid digitisation of mining operations. To do so quickly will require upgrading and retraining programs for existing academics, as well as recruiting new staff with the necessary expertise. However, to be successful, universities would be wise to seek the advice and guidance of leading mining corporations such as Rio Tinto and BHP and to work in partnership with them to develop their new curricula.

Rio Tinto’s ‘Mine of the Future’ program was launched in 2008 and the company has become a leading organisation in developing and implementing automation and other aspects of digital technology, predominantly at its Pilbara iron ore operations. As Chief Executive of Rio Tinto Energy and Minerals Bold Baatar states, the mining engineer is increasingly as specialised in software development as in mine planning. Air-conditioned cabs on their haul trucks are no longer required since they are fully automated and remotely controlled, while maintenance personnel often plug in a tablet before seeking a spanner (Rio Tinto, 2017).

Rio Tinto is the largest owner of autonomous haulage systems in the world and most of its digital mines are in Western Australia. Along with other major companies, Rio Tinto continues to invest heavily in university partnerships worldwide, including at Curtin University, Murdoch University and UWA.

In her keynote presentation at IMARC 2017, BHP’s Diane Jurgens emphasised the need for the mining sector to push the boundaries that conventional mining imposes and highlighted two areas that will create the future of mining: integration and automation.

Integration is achieved through the IoT, which connects all sensors within a processing network. BHP’s new operating model applies system engineering to work with its assets to analyse mine life cycles, identify constraints and prioritise investments.

Recently, ‘smart caps’ were trialled at the Escondida mine in Chile to measure driver fatigue by analysing brain waves. At Area C in the Pilbara, AI is used to choose which crusher trucks should be used to minimise queuing, thus reducing costs and idle time. Advanced sensors and real-time process control can also improve quality and grade of ore delivered to the processing plant.

BHP is also trialling electric vehicles at the Olympic Dam underground mine in South Australia to minimise miners’ exposure to toxic diesel fumes.

Integrating all these technologies to manage BHP‘s operations as a single system will reap huge benefits.

But as stated by Jurgens at IMARC, one of Australia’s biggest challenges is the shortfall in STEM candidates. By 2030, half of the workforce will need high-level programming, coding and software skills. The BHP Foundation has committed more than $55 million over five years to the Australian STEM program.

University mining schools must embrace the digital revolution

Every unit within undergraduate engineering courses must be justified on the basis that its contribution is essential to the prescribed holistic learning experience of undergraduates. Graduate mining engineers, for example, have always required a sound understanding of the industry’s entire value chain – from exploration to the definition and modelling of the orebody or deposit, its safe and economic extraction, production of the final marketable product and mine closure. It is only their understanding and knowledge of the entire value chain that engineers can assess the economic viability of proposed mining ventures.

Nowadays, computing power, modelling tools and the mass of detailed information gathered in real-time from myriad sensors provide an integrated information base to mining professionals hitherto unsurpassed. Hence, it is vitally important to produce graduates conversant with 3D and 4D modelling, optimisation software, automation and robotic technology and the ability to integrate the various data sets in order to achieve optimal design and management decisions.

Subjects like theory of machines, power in mines, mine transport systems, occupational health and safety and industrial relations take on a new meaning in this digital age, not to mention the impact on the hardcore subjects of mine planning and design, orebody modelling and mine valuation, etc. As stated recently by Steven Walsh, Deloitte’s National Consulting Lead for Energy and Resources, ‘digital application in mining is maturing rapidly and it soon will be expected of every mining organisation’ (2017). Quite suddenly, the nature of both the industry and its workforce is changing with increasing rapidity.

Conclusion

It’s important to emphasise the urgent need to make future careers as mining professionals attractive to the best and brightest school leavers, and especially those with demonstrable interest and skills in IT. As stated in January 2018 by the Minerals Council of Australia, ‘the mining engineering pipeline has been rapidly declining, with projected enrolments dropping from 171 in 2017 to 98 in 2018, 69 in 2019 and 47 in 2020’ (Byers, 2018).

One wonders how soon digital mines will become the norm. Current predictions suggest this will occur within the next decade, although implementing digital technology at existing mines with ageing infrastructure will be challenging and possibly uneconomic, depending on remaining reserves and grades.

There is therefore a great urgency for Australia’s universities and mining schools to reorganise and redesign their curricula to meet both the demands and challenges facing the industry.

Unfortunately change occurs slowly at universities, if only because it takes a minimum of four years to produce a graduate mining or minerals engineer. Consequently, the sooner curricula changes occur the better. However, it’s imperative that it is done correctly.

In the short to medium term, there will also be a growing demand from mining companies for professional development and refresher courses in various aspects of digital technology for their staff.

Finally, it is most appropriate to close by emphasising the need for mining schools to have guaranteed sustainable budgets that do not follow the ups and downs of mining cycles. Otherwise, the quality of tuition will tend to follow the same pattern with staff reductions etc, occurring during periods of industry downturns.

References

Abbey E, 2017. Digital mines: on the pathway to mining without miners [online], Spatial Source. Available from: www.spatialsource.com.au/company-industry/digital-mines-pathway-mining-without-miners.

Byers D, 2018. Australian mining education summit to help build tomorrow’s workforce [online], Minerals Council of Australia. Available from: www.minerals.org.au/news/australian_mining_education_summit_to_help_build_tomorrows_workforce.

Long G, 2017. Digital Transformation in Mining [online], Accenture. Available from www.accenture.com/au-en/insight-resources-digital-transformation-future-mining#visual.

Rio Tinto, 2017. What will the mining workforce of the future look like? [online]. Available from www.riotinto.com/ourcommitment/spotlight-18130_22976.aspx#.

Ross J, 2017. UNSW reboots curriculum with eye on the digital age,
The Australian, 5 April.

Rundus M, 2017. Industry Q&A: Cyber Security in the Mining Sector [online], Austmine. Available from: www.austmine.com.au/News/industry-qampa-cyber-security-in-the-mining-sector-1.

University of South Australia, Digital Learning Strategy, 2015-2020 [online]. Available from: www.unisa.edu.au/About-UniSA/University-of-South-Australias-Digital-Learning-Strategy-2015—2020/.

Walsh S, 2017. Miners need to embrace the digital revolution [online], Deloitte Australia. Available from: www2.deloitte.com/au/en/pages/media-releases/articles/miners-need-to-embrace-the-digital-revolution-010317.html.

Image: Rio Tinto iron ore operations centre, Perth. Copyright © 2010 Rio Tinto.

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