February 2019

The future of innovation in mining

  • By Hedley Widdup MAusIMM Manager, Lion Selection Group

We have no idea what new challenges the future holds, but we do know the resources sector needs to be prepared for innovation

According to 1950s sci-fi predictions, we should have colonised the Moon by now and be driving flying cars. But we haven’t; cars don’t fly, and of all the fanciful futuristic predictions made of the era we now live in, one of the most impactful innovations to take place was almost completely unanticipated – the internet. Innovation takes place to adapt to challenges as they emerge or to manage future challenges, and sometimes these challenges, or the opportunity to try a new way are complete surprises. Whilst miners innovate with an eye to the future, most people who work in the industry are probably aware that problem solving in mining is more ‘needed it five minutes ago’ than ‘let’s think ten years from now …’, so as much as there have been some wonderful instances of planned innovation, a great deal is also reactionary. As a backdrop, the mining industry and the world which it operates within has changed dramatically over the last 20 years – a result of emergent challenges, new developments and inventions. We cannot hope to forecast what the industry will look like 20 years from now, other than to say it almost certainly will have changed just as dramatically as it has in the 20 years up until today.

Oh, how the world has changed

Over the last two or three decades, the world has become more connected than ever before via the internet, interfaced by devices that have increased in memory and processing capability at an amazing rate. This has had consequences for communications and media, and the progression of battery technology has enabled miniaturisation and portability of many computing devices. References to a ‘drone’ or ‘the cloud’ now have vastly different meanings to 20 years ago.

The world economy has grown immensely due largely to China, which drove a once-in-a-lifetime commodity boom that rippled through the mining industry as every able-bodied company raced to feed China’s voracious appetite for minerals. This was a boom for the industry and resulted in huge investments directed toward project expansions and developments.

Miners have innovated

In mining operations, greater computing capability has provided for numerous technological innovations. There has been the advent of autonomous machinery and extrapolation of remote-control operation from line of sight to thousands of kilometres. Surveying has benefited from reflector-less laser surveying and drones as survey platforms. Ore sorting relies on remote sensing of physical properties of rock, which is not particularly modern, but the ability to apply detection and physical segregation many thousands of times per minute at run-of-mine rates has only recently become possible and enabled removal of waste from crushed rock prior to grinding and further processing. Most mining and processing plants can now be monitored in real time owing to the ability to gather and process immense amounts of data, which has implications for malfunction diagnosis, maintenance, process control and flow-on efficiencies.

Steady evolutionary improvement of existing practices includes increased size of surface mining equipment and more mobile underground equipment, which have both driven efficiencies. Mineral exploration has particularly benefited from miniaturisation of x-ray fluorescence  (XRF) analysers to enable hand-held devices, which are now a rapid, in-the-field arbiter of the economic interest of a specimen. 3D seismic is the adaptation of existing technology to aid complex and field-scale geological interpretations.

On the human front, mining salaries have increased – the steepest gradient occurred concurrent with the peak of the China boom. As in-your-face as high-vis is, it has crept in steadily. Fitness for work has been wholesomely adopted and women have not just entered the mining workforce but are playing major roles throughout, and there are now various champions of diversity across the industry.

This is probably a very limited summary!

Innovation is necessary …

Innovation is driven by overcoming challenges. Specific to mining, there is fair consensus around a selection of challenges the industry already anticipates for the future that will require innovation. To pick just a few: lower grades of production, deeper orebodies, higher cost of people and energy, dependence on fossil fuels, exploration under cover and a declining rate of exploration discovery, maintaining social licence to operate, and maintaining gender diversity.

… But predicting future conditions is difficult …

But this won’t be all – there will also be opportunities and challenges provided by unexpected events or breakthroughs. People tend to expect the evolution of a trend without anticipating significant events, which in hindsight may appear quite obvious (more of a revolution). How we have extrapolated trends and reacted to surprise events in the past is a pretty reasonable indication of how we will respond in the future. So, in determining which areas of innovation to work on for the future, it’s more likely to be that we plan around our perception of the evolutionary events, rather than revolution.

… And people tend to resist change

The real revolutions (events and breakthroughs) will probably not be expected, and newly developed technologies will likely be treated with caution. History is littered with examples of people’s broad initial scepticism to innovations that are now mainstream as we tend not to intuitively embrace audacious change immediately, such as motor cars (1890s), or more recently, the internet (1990s). Reflect for a moment as if you were being told in 1998 about a pocket-sized device that would perform all of your personal communication needs (telephone, email, oh yeah – and there will be Facebook), store and play all your music, take 12 mega pixel digital pictures that can be instantly shared with thousands of people at once and then connect you to potentially any other person on earth. It could handle all your banking and shopping if you allow it to, especially if you have a smart refrigerator that helps detect what food is running low. Even if we imagined such an immense technological advance to be possible, we might think it were distal, and it’s likely many of us would then expect it to be prohibitively expensive or limited by some other factor such as battery life. In the 1990s some of us expected hover boards, but even so, we’re all well used to iPhones now.

What do we know of the future?

‘Nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes’ (Benjamin Franklin, 1789). As it stands, the outlook for tax rates is murky, but the concept is here to stay. Without taking an overly morbid view, we are all getting older – I am prepared to remain firmly sceptical around the likelihood of successful anti-aging solutions. As for the mining industry, in coming decades:

  • It appears the industry will be more gender diverse (and here is to hoping).
  • At some stage, the industry will be run by Millennials – a generational group already bringing about changes in the workforce as a result of their differing interests and lifestyle preferences.
  • ‘Robotics’ and ‘machine learning/artificial intelligence’ were topical buzz words in 2018, and they are tantalising concepts. But anyone who has stood in front of an 800 T face shovel
  • instantly grasps why we don’t really want a machine to be able to think entirely on its own.
  • There may never (in my lifetime, anyway) be an economy like China that affects the commodity market like it did in the early 2000s. However, markets will need to maintain an incentive price for lower-grade ores to be economic. Best guess on any commodity price in the future will be wrong, probably very wrong – price forecasts from 1998 substantially underestimated 2008 actual prices.
  • It is very hard to imagine that permitting and environmental assessment processes for mining projects will become any less cumbersome.

History is an excellent guide – whilst it doesn’t tell us what will happen, it does provide a template of how we will behave and react when the future comes. Miners have always innovated to improve or survive, and this is unlikely to ever change. We will plan around evolution, and not expect revolution. In 20 years, the industry will have innovated dramatically, we just don’t know how yet!

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