As the world of mining broaches new technologies, and moves further and further into the realms of what just 50 years ago would have been the stuff of science fiction, mere humans are in danger of being left behind. At least those who have been around for a while and aren't necessarily quite so adaptive may be!So what is an enterprising mining employee meant to do in the face of rising technology?
The short answer – accept the 'join em or leave em' challenge of course!
This is where enterprising governments and industry organisations can step up to the plate, as the Australian government has done.In the middle of 2019, the government there announced they were providing $12.5 million in AUD to fund 2 special training centres for the industry. One will be at Adelaide University in South Australia and the second at the University of Sydney in New South Wales. The aim of the centres, which will operate from 2020 to 2023, is to help bring mining people up to speed with the latest and greatest in the world of emerging technology as it relates to mining and exploration.
Whilst it's tempting to assume most of us involved in mining and exploration are keeping abreast of the rapid advances being made in our industry when it comes to smart technologies, that's often not the case at all. Sure, those with access to mainstream media know about Rio Tinto's 'largest in the world' fleet of automated pit vehicles operating in their Pilbara iron ore operations across Western Australia. And their self-driven rail infrastructure that transports ore from those mines to their port facilities on the northwestern coast of Australia. Then there is the example of South Flank, BHP's mega iron ore operation, also in the Pilbara, which will be an operational example of everything uber modern and technologically advanced.
However, those are just the tip, albeit a rather large tip, of the proverbial iceberg. Bubbling away beneath the surface are plenty of other technologically innovative ideas that are already, or will in years to come, make a huge difference to how our industry 'works'.Literally and figuratively!
With all the publicity, and the clear examples set by Rio Tinto and BHP in full view, it's perhaps easy to assume that the industry as a whole is fully aware of the considerable benefits of automative and artificially intelligent solutions. And how to incorporate these technologies into their current infrastructure and systems.However, this is not necessarily the case. Smaller operators for example may not have the IT resources available to keep abreast of these developments. Or an ageing senior and middle management used to, and comfortable with, doing things the 'old way' not be sufficiently 'interested' or motivated enough.
The new training centres though will change that, at least for those interested enough. According to the Adelaide University's Professor of Mining Engineering, Peter Dowd, the centres will ensure "that the sector is properly prepared for emerging technologies and how they could change the future of mining." As he points out, all stages of an operation (both mining and processing) must be correctly and fully integrated if true automation is to occur. It's only when this happens that intelligent solutions across the entire value chain can be produced, supplied, and fully utilised.Partial automation will only reap partial benefits, although that's still probably better than no automation at all!
Why is this important?
The ability to make 'real-time decisions', which requires technology that can produce 'real-time' data, facilitates implementation of the right systems and processes. This in turn can save money that may have otherwise been spent on equipment and processes that weren't ultimately required, or turned out to be not suited for the job at hand.
Australia is ideally placed to run such a centre not the least because of its huge mining sector, which is already well equipped with modern mining equipment, services, and technology. The country is also well placed when it comes to the necessary infrastructure to operate advanced technology ie high speed Internet and good network connectivity.
Those who attend the training centres will be able to take better and more effective advantage of the 'enabling tools for automated, integrated and optimised mining' available. This will include exposure to the many benefits to be had from incorporating technologies such as data analytics, artificial intelligence, advanced sensors etc into a mining operation. Organisers say they expect the industry to receive 'significant benefits' from the program as participants take what they've learned and apply it to real world situations with commercial outcomes. As the official press release
from the Minister's Office puts it – "These centres will help Australia's mining industry better use data to make evidence-based decisions that lead to more efficient operations."