Sustainable technology and changing social perceptions of mining

  • By Michelle Ash, CEO GEOVIA, Dassault Systèmes

This article is based on a presentation given by Michelle Ash as part of AusIMM’s 2020 Thought Leadership Online Series

Australia’s high level of economic growth, from the gold rush in the 1840s to the present day, is on the back of mineral and mined resources. From mining, the country earned, on average, AUD$17 billion from 1974 until 2020, reaching an all-time high of AUS$42 billion in the fourth quarter of 2019 (Trading Economics, 2020).

Mining is one of the oldest industries in the world and has been a major social and economic force throughout history. As builders of society, the mining sector underpins economies and transforms communities.

Transformation of the mining industry

The industry itself has transformed dramatically in the last century, including –

  • Adopted technology: Many mining operations are now able to extract minerals and metallic ores, with more accuracy, less harm to the surrounding environment, and without endangering the lives of miners. 
  • Improved health and safety: Annual mining related fatalities are at a record low as compared with 50 years ago.
  • Improved environmental footprint: Newly-developed machines used for grinding and crushing can extract minerals from the earth with less energy than ever before.  
  • Made strides in workforce diversity: While the proportion of women employed by mining organisations is only 15 percent (Doku, 2019), we have made tremendous strides since I first started in the industry.
  • Transformed society: At its zenith in the early 20th century, the iron, steel and coal industries of Britain employed more than 10 per cent of the working population and fueled the industrial revolution. In Australia, mining today employs approximately 233,300 persons accounting for nearly two per cent of the total workforce (Australian Government, 2020) and is a great builder of communities across the country.

Societal expectations are the greatest challenge faced by the sector

However, we face a big challenge. We are architects of the future. But society sees us very differently. Society’s perception of mining is still from that of the 1920s – when miners used primitive tools for digging and accidents were common. The biggest challenge to the mining industry today and in the future is changing opinions, changing expectations of society, of people, and of citizens.

Our performance as an industry and the rate at which societies’ expectations are changing is actually widening. This does not mean we are not transforming. As an industry, we are adopting new technology, innovating and doing things differently; however, society’s expectations of us as an industry are so much higher than in previous generations. This is simply the result of seeing ongoing dramatic change in other sectors and expecting the mining sector to change as fast and as radically. This means that not only do we need to increase our rate of transformation, we also need to fundamentally rethink some of our processes.

Learning from other industries

The aircraft and automotive industries experienced something similar in the last quarter of the last century. Both industries have fundamentally changed from leveraging emerging technology of the time and adopting radically different ways of doing things.

For example in the aircraft industry, technology has helped in a 91 per cent reduction in development time, 71 per cent reduction in labor costs, 90 per cent reduction in redesign and dramatically reduced design and production flaws, mismatches, and associated errors (IndiaCADWorks, 2015).

The auto industry has also developed into a segmented network in the last 50 years. For example, no car company makes windshields or rear-view-mirrors anymore – they are always purchased from windshield makers, and rear-view-mirror makers respectively. This division of labor across the automotive ecosystem enables suppliers to be agile and innovative. This also means that auto-parts can be quickly and easily sourced and suppliers empowered to design and produce new parts quickly and efficiently.

The advantage of mining companies

To quote the former United States Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, ‘We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.’ Both the aircraft and automotive industries invested in technology that helped them better understand their customer’s needs – the known unknowns. Both industries were then able to integrate their manufacturing to be flexible in a planned way, enabling the industries to reduce waste, and save time from constant planning changes.  

On the other hand, we as a sector do not invest enough on our known unknowns – geology. Without this knowledge, we are forced to be flexible in an unplanned way. This leads to waste. This is where there is opportunity for the industry to work collaboratively across the ecosystem – from mining companies themselves, to suppliers, academics, governments, and even startups and more.

For me, there are four major problems we need to solve as an industry.

1. Global ore body intelligence: We need to be able to find ore bodies faster, cheaper, and more completely. We can use satellite imaging to detect ore bodies and use physical geospatial and hyperspectral technologies to provide additional data to a geologist.

2. Automation and electrification: We need to understand performance, and optimise performance in real time and optimise planning in real time.  

3. Precision extraction: We need to be even more precise in extracting the metal that we are interested in without creating excessive waste and subsequently being able to process the metal efficiently. This means using digital twins to create simulations and what-if scenarios before building in real life with sensors in place for analytics. This not only minimises risk but also reduces errors, and waste.

4. Creation of social value: We need to better use technology to create and distribute value to our communities. 

Mining companies’ real competitive advantage is the speed at which they can adopt technology into their business that solves a business problem, while continuing to create value to society.  This is where mining organisations need to look at solutions that are already available in other industries and their ecosystem of competition and collaboration in order to build a sustainable future.


Dassault Systèmes is a Major Partner of AusIMM’s 2020 Thought Leadership Online Series. Register now for the free events.   

For more information on going beyond digitalisation to embrace transversal business transformation and rethinking your organisational processes across your value chains, download the Go Beyond Digitalisation with Business Transformation eBook from Dassault Systèmes.

References

Australian Government Labour Market Information Portal, 2020. ‘Regional industry data: mining’ [online]. Available from: https://lmip.gov.au/default.aspx?LMIP/GainInsights/IndustryInformation/Mining

Doku L, 2019. ‘Why The Mining Industry Needs More Women’ [online]. Available from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/woodmackenzie/2019/05/24/why-the-mining-industry-needs-more-women/#1af89799585c

IndiaCADWorks, 2015. ‘How CAD has revamped product development?’ [online]. Available from: https://www.indiacadworks.com/blog/how-cad-has-revamped-product-development/

Trading Economics, 2020. ‘Australia GDP from mining’ [online]. Available from: https://tradingeconomics.com/australia/gdp-from-mining

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