June 2016

The critical role of the mining technology professional

  • By Kirby Johnson MAusIMM, Mining Technology Consulting Partner, Wipro Ltd

As automation and technology become embedded in mining, the mining technology professional has come of age

In 2016, commodity prices have collapsed and the industry is facing tough times. Within mining companies, a fierce internal battle for capital is underway. Australian mining is desperately seeking ways to re-invent itself and remain cost competitive. The ‘third wave’ of cost cutting is now biting deeply (Figure 1), and mining is increasingly turning to re-engineering for solutions, including automation and technology.

Figure 1
Figure 1. The three waves of cost cutting (click to expand).

Technology tsunami

In the meantime, technology is exploding. Technology innovation across the global economy has gone into overdrive, and almost every aspect of our personal lives has been impacted. Ranging from online commerce and new payment systems to social media and ubiquitous smart phones, the list is long and seems to grow daily.

Naturally, mining has also been heavily impacted. Technology is rapidly changing the day-to-day work of every professional in the mining industry (every single reader of this article) and affects all disciplines, including geoscience, mining engineering, metallurgy, geotechnical engineering, environmental science, management, health and safety, community, investor relations, finance, procurement, logistics, IT, human resources and marketing. Is there any aspect of mining that isn’t impacted in some way by technological change?

The technology tsunami has well and truly hit mining – you need only look at driverless trucks, trains, port operations and drill rigs. Yet more technology-enabled change is coming in the form of artificial intelligence, technical and operating excellence centres, data analytics, integrated operations, remote operations, drones, advanced geological software, faster mine planning software and metal recovery simulation software.

The opportunity for Australian mining technology

Australia is arguably ground zero for modern mining technology. For example, Australia hosts the world’s largest integrated robotics program in history (Rio Tinto Iron Ore operations) and the world’s first fully automated underground mine (the Northparkes block cave). In addition, Australian mining is the foundation of the fast-emerging mining equipment, technology and services (METS) sector. METS is a more than A$90 billion per annum sector that serves the Australian mining industry and exports to the world (Austmine, 2015). Australia is also home to a wide range of world-class mining research institutions, such as CSIRO, AMIRA, ACARP and CRC Mining.

Australian mining is already recognised as a leader in many aspects. The JORC and VALMIN codes are utilised widely across the mining world, and safety operating standards are widely regarded as best practice. There is an opportunity to build on these achievements to lead the world in mining technology.

The perception of technology in mining

Australian mining technology is already a success story. However, perhaps every single mining professional has a ‘war story’ of a disastrous technology implementation that carries with it plenty of emotional baggage. Were these examples poor technology, poor implementation or the wrong situation/timing, or is this just ‘tea room trash talk’? Perhaps there are elements of all these aspects.

One thing is certain: technology is evolving so rapidly that it is hard to keep up. It pushes our ability to absorb change to the limit. Technological change can be deeply frustrating, and we have all experienced ‘technology rage’ at some point. It is the same in mining, and the rate of change seems to be accelerating. All of us have probably lamented at least once ‘why can’t we just do it like we used to?’

Resistance to change is a very normal human reaction, and the faster the change, the greater the resistance can be. The rate determining progress should be the human ability to absorb change, not the rate of technology development. Therefore, the technology adoption challenge must address both technical and people aspects in equal measure.

The technology adoption challenge

The list of readily available, adoptable, high-value and feasible technology applications goes on and on. However, mining is slow to adopt. Given the burning platform of lower prices, why isn’t the adoption of technology accelerating?

Part of the problem is that mining is characterised by very high capital intensity (ie very large fixed and mobile operating assets), which restricts the degrees of freedom to change operations. In addition, in the current economic environment, capital is scarce and technology projects are competing with other uses for capital, including returns to debtholders and shareholders and stay-in-business capital.

However, perhaps the key challenge is cultural. Experience shows that it is nearly always better to sacrifice some of the technical excellence (ie implement a 90 per cent technical solution) but achieve full engagement (ie a 100 per cent people solution) to ensure success. Some mining professionals may perceive that sacrificing technically on a project is akin to compromising their personal technical professionalism. It has been well documented that mining executives tend to be characterised by low personal adaptability and are reserved by nature (Zarris and Rye, 2016).

There is therefore a need for skilled and experienced mining technology professionals that are able to find the right balance. Technology projects must consider people, processes, technology and equipment to be viable, but excellent people engagement coupled with senior management support is what will ensure that the changes deliver sustainable value.

Technical skills are critical

Successful adoption of technology requires a deep and intimate knowledge of the entire mining value chain. Sustainable business improvement requires a strong understanding of the impact on people, processes, technology and equipment. Some examples include the introduction of an automated truck fleet, a pit-wide driver dispatch system, enterprise resource planning software or an enterprise-wide data management system. These initiatives require high levels of insight into the economic, technical, organisational and practical implications of the technology solution.

People skills are critical

The change management challenge is proportional to the breadth and depth of impact of the technology project. However, even the simplest of changes to a mining system requires change management. Ignore change management at your peril. Change management needs to address the implications for many people at a range of levels. For example, the concerns of individuals need to be considered (‘what’s in it for me?’). Likewise, there may be an impact on teams, senior management, the whole organisation and a wide range of external stakeholders, including unions, the community and shareholders.

The introduction of enterprise-wide technology initiatives is clearly the toughest challenge, simply due to the breadth of impact. But even the simplest of technology adoptions, such as a single software application for one person at a mine site, can encounter resistance. Engagement is often the critical missing ingredient. The technology adoption process requires deep mining value chain knowledge to be combined with applied psychology.

The critical role of the mining technology professional

As the industry is transformed, mining technology professionals are already playing a critical role. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a ‘mining technology champion’ is vital. For example, Jordaan and Hendricks (2009) argue that a technology site champion is the single biggest determinant of success or failure at the mine site level. Technology site champions must have the following characteristics:

  1. deep technical knowledge of the mining value chain
  2. expertise in change management practices
  3. experience with integrating mining technology to solve problems to generate value
  4. seniority and the necessary credibility to champion the technology initiative.

Therefore, technology site champions contribute a different skillset than conventional mine management and technical personnel.

Mining technology transformation requires professionals with a somewhat unique combination of technical skills, people skills, experience and seniority. As the implementation of technology accelerates, so does the need for specialist technology mining professionals with this combination of skills. What are the professional development requirements for this group of people now and in the long term?

Where are we now?

Arguably, every mining professional is now also a mining technology professional to some degree. However, there is a growing band of professionals that are being asked to take their skills to a deeper level. We are now seeing the birth of a new professional group, nominally called the ‘mining technology professional’. This is a critically important group of mining professionals that will be key to propelling Australian mining into the 21st century – the digital century.

But if you are a mining technology professional today, was this an ‘accidental stop-over’ or a purposeful objective for your mining career? Is mining technology a valid ‘destination’ that is on par with other professions such as geology, mining engineering, metallurgy and finance? Anecdotal evidence suggests that the industry does not currently recognise mining technology professionals as an important, standalone specialist function.

A call to action

The AusIMM is the peak body for Australian mining professionals. To date, it seems that mining technology professionals have been under-recognised. There has been a recent massive focus on innovation in mining, which is further supported by the federal government’s recent National Innovation and Science Agenda. The missing ingredient has been capability development.

A key development objective should be to change perceptions such that being a mining technology professional is considered a destination in its own right and an endeavour worthy of the long-term personal commitment of the best and brightest in the industry. Other possible areas of action include:

  • initiatives that recognise mining technology professionals as critical contributors to the success of a modern mining enterprise
  • targeted courses that contribute to professional development accreditation
  • conferences or sessions within conferences devoted to sharing best practices, tools and techniques through case studies and personal experiences.

Conclusion

In the current difficult operating environment, it is easy to forget that mining in Australia is a fabulous success story – the industry is double the size that it was ten years ago. However, there are serious challenges in terms of economic, technical, social and environmental pressures. Technology is playing an increasingly important role in mining as the industry seeks to meet these complex challenges. In fact, there is a technology tsunami sweeping across the mining industry. Every mining professional is impacted, such that we are all becoming mining technology professionals in some shape or form.

However, as an industry, we also know that corporate and mine site-based technology champions are critical to the success of technology implementation. Mining technology professionals require a unique set of skills and experiences that must be developed over time in the same way as a geologist, engineer or metallurgist.

This article urges AusIMM to recognise an important and fast-emerging group of professionals and provide for their short- and long-term development. Australian mining is already regarded as a world leader in mining technology. However, maintaining that leadership will require a sustained investment in mining technology professionals.

Do you regard yourself as a mining technology professional? What is the best way to foster the long-term development of a body of professionals interested in and passionate about the value of technology for mining? Leave a comment below. 

References:

Austmine, 2015. Austmine Annual Review 2014/15. Available from: <www.austmine.com.au/About>.

Jordaan J T and Hendricks C, 2009. The Challenge of Technology Adoption and Utilisation in the Mining Industry – A Focus on Open Pit Mining Technologies (The Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy Base Metals Conference 2009).

Zarris P and Rye G, 2016. Identifying and building leadership capability (The AusIMM Bulletin Magazine, February 2016, The Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy).


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  • Rex Berthelsen
    26 Jul 2016 at 2.56pm

    Kirby, I read your article this morning and found it very relevant. I think if you look at all of us, almost regardless of discipline, technology is a big part of what we need to do our jobs. What we must do is find smart ways of utilising the available and emerging technologies without falling into the trap of “its new, it must be good” and becoming blind adopters. Thanks again, a good idea well written.

  • Terrence Medhurst
    28 Jun 2016 at 10.07am

    I have been involved in providing technology to the Australian mining industry for 30 years, the first 10 in research and the remainder in consulting/research. And yes champions are critical both in head office and at site. Often immediate benefits are demanded of a technology solution or it can be deemed a failure; or a longer term solution may be imposed on an operation but economic or production considerations are not included in the project, leaving it to die. Short term benefit projects therefore often prevail. This is economic reality. The best solutions are often developed with full economic considerations including strategic value, cost benefit, taxation, etc. The mining industry loves precedent experience, and for good reason, risk minimisation. That’s why champions are so important, as they are prepared to take on the responsibility to manage the risk. A possible broader industry model may be to formalise the role of the champion into a process, as is done in some industry bodies.

    • Kirby Johnson   •   30 Jun 2016 at 4.14pm

      Hi Terrence – excellent commentary and insight. I totally agree with your comment about formalising the role of the technology champion. Interestingly, BHP Billiton have recently reorganised with a new ‘Technology’ function. This appears to be a step toward full “IT-OT Convergence”. The new CTO (Diane Jurgens) comes from a auto manufacturing background.

  • Luis Martinez
    24 Jun 2016 at 3.18pm

    Yes, I do regard myself as a Mining Technology Professional, though I am still in the process of learning. I agree in that technology is the key for the Australian mining industry to keep at the vanguard in generating and producing work and resources in a sustained fashion. The importance of recognising the value of Mining Technology Professionals is key in order to achieve this because they are able to provide assistance to the mine supply chain by complementing it with new (cool) and valuable technology that has arisen these last years, e.g., data science, optimisation, simulations and advanced risk and option analyses.

    It is for this reason I strongly believe the recognition and support (in the short and long term) of these new group of professionals will be of great benefit for the future development of the mining industry, in special the Australian mining industry.

    • Kirby Johnson   •   30 Jun 2016 at 4.22pm

      Hi Luis – terrific, thanks for the comments. Some practical development suggestions thus far include: MBA (Mining Technology); Conferences; Targeted training/formal qualifications; ‘dedicated think tank’; Briefing and generic Position Description for AusIMM; Briefing and generic PD for the Australian Mine Managers Association. Do you have other suggestions?