April 2018

Looking to the future of the resources sector

  • By Peter McCarthy HonFAusIMM(CP), Chairman Emeritus and Principal Consultant, AMC Consultants

Mining has come a long way since 1893, and there are even more challenges and exciting opportunities ahead

The resources industry has changed greatly over the last 125 years. While many principles remain the same, current developments provide exciting opportunities for resources professionals. Given the high demand for minerals and metals for many technologies and building materials, our industry is vital for modern society, but there is much work to be done. The measure of success will be how well we are accepted and integrated into communities.

When the AusIMM was established 125 years ago, it was during a period of great innovation, with steam giving way to electric power and cyanidation being applied to challenging gold processing. Problems with lung disease and treatment of sulphide ores had emerged and demanded research. Economies of scale were beginning to be appreciated, particularly in open pit mining. Stamp mills were being replaced by crushing and grinding. Graduates from schools of mines and universities were displacing the old mine captains and improving safety and productivity.

Data published by IBISworld on Australia’s new and lost jobs in the five years to September 2017 shows mining as the worst performer of any industry sector. As the 21st century continues to unfold, will automation increase or reduce the need for resources professionals? How will we attract young people into the resources professions and how will they be educated? What challenges will they face? What opportunities will be presented to them?

Attraction

In the past, many resources professionals grew up in mining towns or came from mining families, often from generations of mining people. A lot of resources professionals were the first in their family to study at university. They may have even been unaware of opportunities for careers outside the resources industry!

Others may have taken a general science or engineering first-year university course and then discovered minerals courses. The courses were linked to attractive on-campus social activities, and offered adventurous excursions and vacation experience.

A third group responded to publicity about ‘booms’ in uranium, nickel or gold. The mining industry was an opportunity to earn a high salary with (at the time) good job security. The mid-twentieth century was an era when a job with a major mining company could be a job for life. The reality for many, of course, has been multiple employers and periods of unemployment.

A fourth group had a genuine passion for geology in particular, which led them into exploration or mining.

Another attraction for some people was that the courses were seen to be less theoretical and more practical than some other engineering and science streams. The course content was more descriptive, requiring less demanding mathematics and analytics. Students struggling with fluid mechanics or organic chemistry might choose mining or geology. Extractive metallurgy was mainly about machines and processes – one could get by without an advanced understanding of chemistry.

If we want the brightest and the best to join our professions today, how do we attract them? High-achieving school children today may aspire to be doctors, lawyers, veterinarians or computer programmers. These ideas come from teachers, parents and the media. The mining industry is perceived as dirty and dangerous and part of the environmental problem, not part of the solution. We need to change this image, but we can only do that by continued exemplary performance, not by propaganda.
It will take decades.

Parts of the industry have always been technology leaders. We were early users of computers, process controls and analysis. We played with geophysics and large, high-tech mining and comminution machines. We need to promote the facts to teachers in primary and high schools. There have been successful programs for teachers in the past that may be worth revisiting.

Education

The role of a resources professional has changed greatly over the past 50 years. Mine surveying was once a core skill for mining engineers – now an automated station, a robot or even a drone can do the job. Those devices need skilled operators, but not engineers. Many geologists sit at computers all day and seldom – if ever – touch rocks. Metallurgy is vanishing, becoming a specialty within the broader discipline of chemical engineering. Still, the challenges of finding, evaluating, mining and processing resources remain fundamentally the same.

Complex software is essential for designing mines, selecting equipment and preparing mine plans and schedules. Today’s geological models would have required a supercomputer only twenty years ago. Future geologists will deploy drones and inspect prospects using augmented reality. Now technicians design production blasts using software – and soon robots will drill, load and fire them. These processes are being standardised and automated. In the future, many professionals will not work on mine sites. They will apply their skills from the city or from their own home offices.

University education will focus on the things that computers and robots cannot do. An undergraduate degree will likely be a generalist degree, opening a broad range of potential careers. Career directions may change several times in a working life. University education should teach students how to become lifelong learners and graduates must be able to both define and solve problems.

In the future, specialist undergraduate degrees will give way to generalist science/engineering programs. Core subjects will include business knowledge as well as environmental and social issues. An appreciation of the history of technology in society will be important. Graduates will need good communication skills and the ability to work in teams.

A postgraduate degree will be essential for those pursuing a career in the resources industry, though it might be undertaken online a few years after graduation. It will include both technical and management subjects, and likely be valued by industry more highly than a research PhD. For most people, practical experience in the industry is more valuable than the ability to conduct research, although new ideas in geology and processing will require research skills and creativity.

Field experience

While many professionals will work on computers in city offices, experience in the field builds competence and credibility. Five years in field exploration or at a mine or processing site should probably be the minimum, though there are exceptions. Those starting out in city roles may gain that experience over time through site placement or working in site study teams, as is common in the civil and mechanical engineering fields.

The need to be inclusive

In the 19th century, the Chinese were significant players in the Australian industry, sometimes outnumbering European miners on the goldfields. In many ways, they were more efficient and innovative, working to lower cut-off grades. Resentment led to punitive taxes and restrictive legislation. There were groups of English, Cornish, Scots, Irish, American, German and other technologists who contributed to the growth of the Australian mining industry. The Americans were influential in the early 20th century, while the Japanese were important commercial partners in the later 20th century.

Women were largely excluded from the industry early on. Until the 1970s, the NSW Mines Inspection Act prohibited women and Chinese people from working underground. We have addressed these prejudices and are reversing them, but must guard against backsliding. Chinese involvement has renewed with engagement as owners and operators, and India will increase in importance, as will Australia’s other neighbours. Women are still not properly represented in employment numbers, and improvement is painfully slow.

At a professional level, the industry has always been multicultural and this will continue. The AusIMM has members around the world and their mobility will increase even further. Services and communications must adapt to this reality.

Networking and information sharing

In the past, professional knowledge came from published conference papers and peer-reviewed journals. New textbooks were eagerly sought. Networking happened at AusIMM meetings and at conferences. Sometimes the AusIMM organised site visits, either at a local branch level or as part of a conference. Mining companies sent senior staff on technical tours of mines around the world.

These activities will continue, but bookshelves full of technical literature are disappearing. In the future, there will be greater emphasis on online research, networking and publications. Knowledge of a new technology is insufficient – successful professionals will need to know how to apply it in the real world. Successful companies will employ those professionals.

Mark Twain described a mine as ‘a hole in the ground with a liar on top.’ There have always been deceivers in mine promotion and there always will be. At the junior end, there is a danger that unprofessional conduct in fundraising, safety or environmental management will reflect on the whole industry. In large corporations, accountants and lawyers have displaced many technical professionals in management. These new managers often fail to understand the value of retaining corporate knowledge and technical experience when making strategic decisions. This can lead to poor performance in operations.

The AusIMM and its members can guard against these problems through ongoing development of Codes like JORC and VALMIN and by discussion and communication of the issues. We should encourage senior managers, whatever their professional discipline, to become members of AusIMM and participate in the discussion.

Travel

Mining has always been a global business. One hundred years ago, even the busiest mining people travelled by ship and might spend weeks at sea. Mining engineer Herbert Hoover travelled and read a lot. He lamented that there might not be enough books in the world to keep him entertained while onboard ship. With the coming of air travel, Australian leaders like Sir Maurice Mawby and Essington Lewis had schedules that were constant and gruelling. Yet it was still possible, when travelling by air, to use that time for relaxation. Today, wireless connections and devices make it difficult to escape the office.

In the future, personal time management will be more disciplined. Self-monitoring devices will ensure that we live more balanced lives. We will get reminders to exercise, to unwind and to get sufficient sleep. Employers will insist that we do.

Many Australian towns and cities began as mining towns, with roads, railways and ports to service them. Low-cost aviation and the Fringe Benefits Tax marked the end of most residential mining sites. In the future, fly-in, fly-out operations will likely give way again to local employment, particularly where towns and infrastructure already exist. This will be better for families and for local communities. Remote living will become more practical and attractive using broadband communications. Online education and medical consultations are just two areas that help make this possible.

Safety

An old saying went ‘A mining engineer does for fifty cents what any damned fool can do for a dollar’. Mines worked to a fixed product price, and had to manage costs or go out of business. Miners took shortcuts and safety often suffered.

Today, in the developed world, mining is among the safest industries. Safety professionals argue that this also reduces costs, but the statistics suggest otherwise. Unit operating costs for comparable activities have risen. Productivities have fallen. It is easy to see why. Where we once barred down bare rock tunnels, or used random rockbolts, today we use pattern bolts and fibrecrete.

Open pit mines have clean, wide catch benches and haul roads. Geologists no longer spend weeks in the field beyond radio contact while acting as their own mechanics to keep vehicles moving. Metallurgical plants have isolation switches and lockout procedures for maintenance. We take time for toolbox meetings and step-backs and we don’t take shortcuts.

We must preserve and improve upon the safety benefits already achieved. So how can we improve the efficiency of working? Probably through increased automation and use of robots, with more attention given to identifying productive activities and less rework.

An exciting future

Future success will be measured by more than just the return on shareholders’ funds. There is a need for a new paradigm involving the community and the environment. Future mines will be designed accordingly or they will not be approved. More mines will go underground – there will be few places in the world where large open pit mines will be acceptable. Selective mining and ore sorting will greatly reduce the size of tailings dams. Impacts on water resources will be minimised. International trade in waste products will become more restrictive, forcing industries and communities to develop local solutions.

In some ways, we are coming full circle. Sir Maurice Mawby sought, in the late 1930s, to establish ‘the green belt’, and engaged Albert Morris to regenerate flora and fauna in the arid, dusty country surrounding mines in Broken Hill. Other mines and the local council followed his example. Mining then was highly selective, with skilled miners able to follow veins and, if necessary, sort ore from waste underground. Tailings dams were built high, to minimise dust and their geographic footprint, even when plenty of land was available.

A revolution is coming, and is not far off, in areas including:

  • discovery of economic mineralisation under deep cover
  • application of electric batteries to mining equipment
  • machines to break hard rock from the face
  • on-stream selection of ‘ore’ from ‘waste’ at high production rates
  • hydrochemical processes to replace pyrometallurgy
  • extraction of valuable products from recycled waste.

Even as these technologies are realised, there will still be many challenges for professionals. Here are some of the big ones:

  • educate the next generation to do better than we did
  • build community support for mining and processing through exemplary operations
  • confidently reject geophysical targets at minimal cost (we generate too many targets)
  • develop new techniques for selective mining, to minimise the amount of waste rock and tailings on a mine site
  • develop new underground mining methods to supersede open pit mining and thus avoid the need to move and dump overburden while reducing energy requirements
  • reduce the power needed for comminution
  • eliminate tailings storages
  • apply alternative energy sources such as solar and wind to mining and processing
  • greatly reduce water consumption and generally improve environmental performance.

Some of the more speculative technologies are listed below, although people are actively working on them right now:

  • extensive sea floor mining
  • mining in space – the moon, Mars and asteroids
  • in situ leaching in low-permeability and hard rock.

These developments provide exciting opportunities for resources professionals. Our industry is vital for the requirements of our modern society, but there is much work to be done. The measure of success will be how well we are accepted and integrated into communities as the 21st century continues to unfold.

Image: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock.com.

Share This Article