An exploration of the role of collaboration in the adoption of technology and innovation in the mining industry
The advancement of technology and innovation in the mining industry has underpinned the evolution of civilisation, facilitating greater efficiency and safety in the extraction, refinement and application of the minerals that are fundamental to society.
The mining industry continually strives to find safer and more efficient ways to extract valuable resources. The challenge is to remain profitable in the face of depleting mineral resources, lower grade deposits and the challenges that come with location of new deposits or abandoned ones that previously were deemed inaccessible or uneconomic.
Technology and innovation part in market strategy development
Growth in the mining industry is tied to cost and revenue. Costs are normally associated with mining, processing, waste disposal, environmental rehabilitation, refining, transport, marketing, government, community and external stakeholder engagement, while revenue is a function of output and commodity price. Many companies focus their strategy on developing leadership in cost of production.
Investment in technology and innovation can provide a competitive advantage and provide new growth opportunities and resource development. The role of technology and innovation in strategy formulation to date has focused on short-term gains, productivity improvement and safe operations.
These are important focus areas; however, with the increased accessibility of digital innovation and more rapid and democratic research and development (R&D) processes, leadership in the industry arguably needs to more strongly make the investment case for collaborative, long-term planning and adoption of technology and innovation for greater safety and sustainability (including environmental and community safety), competitive advantage, smarter exploration and resource development opportunity, and business and industry growth.
The challenge to pursuing technology and innovation
While it would be rare for any mining company today to not give consideration to a technology and innovation strategy, there is no place for ‘silo’ thinking when it comes to pursuing technology and innovation across the mining industry. Collaboration and team work across company departments, and across the industry, are essential to realise the opportunities present in the burgeoning R&D era.
The mining industry needs to move away from independently evaluating growth opportunities to realise its full potential. Instead the industry needs to assess how current opportunities or solutions to issues will impact or be impacted by future technologies. Moreover, by developing a mindset that transcends the current paradigm of using today’s technology to solve immediate challenges, we open the industry’s mind to the horizon, toward and beyond the things that are impossible to solve today and to overcoming the challenges of more broadly and collaboratively pursuing technology and innovation in a coordinated, long-term way.
Surfing the wave of technology and innovation
There is industry consensus that technology and innovation is key to the step change required to evolve the industry to being one made up of sustainable, safe and productive operations.
The adoption of technology and innovation goes beyond the headlines on artificial intelligence (AI) used in the automation of driverless trucks, drills and trains for transport. It involves both economic benefit and the underlining idea of pursuing a reduction in human exposure to dangerous environments and work stresses. The more we can, as an industry, reduce our people’s exposure to interaction with huge machinery and high energy events, toxic chemicals, confined and other high-risk spaces, we can continue to reduce work stress, injuries and fatalities.
The adoption of technology and innovation also means there are broader functional, workforce and ‘people’ issues to consider. For example, our ability to achieve full autonomous mining operations also means we will be able to operate our mines hundreds to thousands of kilometres away from where mines are located. This reduces the stress and the cost associated with flying people in and out of remote operations. However, this requires the industry to operate collaboratively and start the discussion around workforce evolution and human capital development.
Battery technology is an emerging field that the mining industry can adopt from the automotive industry to improve safety from reduced emissions. This, however, will challenge the status quo that bigger is better and will require scaling down mining equipment sizes while maintaining similar or better production rates. This adoption may also realise additional benefits, such as environmentally friendly alternatives to fossil fuels.
A more coordinated commitment to a technology and innovation agenda for the industry stands to benefit operational areas such as: continuous mining technology with its application in hard rock mining, 3D printing technology with its application in developing mining consumables, technology geared towards minimising diluted mill feed, geological modelling and real-time orebody knowledge, AI and automation in mill operation, mine design, waste, transforming mine tailings into beneficial products, biodegradable options for chemicals/consumables used in the industry, digital transformation, as well as developing safe, autonomous and efficient operation of mine equipment in unsafe, challenging or currently impossible locations.
Collaboration – where and what form?
With an understanding of why and where technology and innovation is required in the mining industry, and how collaboration will play a major role in its pursuit, there is a realisation that mining companies don’t need to start every new technology and innovation from scratch. Mining companies will be restricted in their development if they only look in-house to develop and implement innovative solutions.
If technology and innovation is nurtured as a core competency, and embedded in the overall company strategy, different modes of collaboration will help unlock value for companies and the industry.
The mining and non-mining industries
Tapping the broader external industries’ pool of knowledge and innovative approaches is an obvious avenue for collaboration.
One emerging form of this option is harnessing ‘crowd sourcing’, such as using organised ‘hackathons’ and other online competitions to find solutions to unique operational and/or industry challenges that require immediate solution. This process can operate across multiple geographies, time zones and combine different technical or knowledge capabilities. An example of this is the Newcrest Crowd, a collaboration between Newcrest Mining, innovation incubator for the mining industry, Unearthed, and international teams of solution-proposers, drawn from the global ‘crowd’.
Mining companies and suppliers
There is opportunity – if not need – for greater collaboration between mining companies and their suppliers to develop the innovative and technologically advanced alternatives to both consumables and systems on which the industry currently relies.
This is important for sharing the upfront capital investment required, but also for the assurance that mining companies are ready to adopt these new technologies with minimal switching cost, enabling easier system integration into current and future operations.
This collaboration should extend to partner research and academic organisations as well as start-ups and other SMEs (small-to-medium enterprises) that are enthusiastic to solve current challenges. There should be opportunity offered for testing and trial at suitable mine sites in the development of these technologies to ensure operational readiness during development.
Peer-to-peer (between mining companies)
There is a strong need for more direct company-to-company collaboration either through shared interest to develop capabilities for the future or to solve current common problems across multiple jurisdictions.
Every day, thousands of innovative ideas are discussed across mine sites and company offices around the world but only a small percentage are implemented. This is not a measure of how effective or excellent an idea is, but for the most part the reasons the innovation is not pursued are as follows:
- it does not sit within the short-term plans of the company
- it is expected to be expensive (when considering the immediate cash investment required rather than the benefit it may bring in the long-run)
- it does not solve the current challenge faced (no consideration is given to the later application opportunities offered by developing such technology or innovation)
- the absence of a favourable environment to test and trial this technology.
Through a longer-term perspective on collaboration, more of these ideas might be progressed and developed into efficient solutions. Leadership at the highest level is required to drive a change in perspective, but the benefit of this collaboration is expected to be significant.
Another form of this collaboration would involve engaging with third-party organisations to facilitate the collaboration and development process around these potential technologies and innovations, for the benefit of the mining companies involved.
Strategically and sustainably defining the future of the industry
Greater adoption of a collaborative agenda on technology and innovation is an enabler of building a sustainable mining industry – beyond just financial growth and competitive advantage. It is also about safer (for people and the environment), efficient and economically viable operations that will explore and exploit the minerals increasingly needed by a growing world, but which are becoming harder than ever to find and unlock.
There is no shortage of economic and social uncertainties and inhospitable conditions that hinder exploration and exploitation of minerals, and this underpins the need to take full control of the future. Through leadership that steps up to concertedly embrace the opportunities of technology and innovation, we stand to revolutionise the industry into one that more strategically and collaboratively defines its future.
Feature Image: Kletr/Shutterstock.com.