Financial margins will always be low and the increasing requirements of regulators and communities mean significant innovation is a must.
If you put the themes of Blue Sky Future and mining together, many people will automatically think of the Midnight Oil song from 1990 – “Blue Sky Mine”.
This song about the disaster of mining blue asbestos at Wittenoom provides a good reminder of the significant changes to the Australian mining industry over the past 50 years, as well as the challenges that must be addressed over the next 50 years to ensure mining remains an acceptable and significant contributor to the Australian economy.
Australian miners are known for digging things up and shipping them overseas. We do it at scale, and in many cases at lower cost than our international competitors.
However mining in Australia is becoming increasingly difficult. The large, low-cost, Tier 1 deposits are in some cases nearing depletion and the limited discoveries of replacement resources are bringing challenges of deeper, wetter and lower-grade ore.
Financial margins will always be low as most are true commodities, early in the value chain, with minimal leverage outside periodic supply shortages to argue for prices much above cost plus margin plus sustaining capital. Combine this with a need for new commodities to support technological advances that are likely to be geologically rarer and more distributed, as well as the increasing requirements of regulators and communities, and significant innovation is a must.
The industry represents itself as innovative, and while there are impressive examples, many opportunities are handicapped by the on-again-off-again investment strategies of the industry, its investors and financial backers, due to the swings in commodities prices.
There is also a big difference between the ability of the majors and the small to mid-tier miners to access the latest innovations. This critical block to adoption of industry interoperability standards or shared platforms – to enable the industry to achieve its equivalent of the Internet of Things (IoT) – is currently preventing the mass use of technology, inhibiting adaptations from other industries and preventing removal of significant entry barriers for new technology suppliers.
Australia is up to this challenge, with some of the best minds working in Australian research organisations, mining and the supporting mining equipment technology and services (METS) sector to make this happen. The shared vision for mining should be one of an industry that is physically invisible to the community, but at the front of minds for the contribution it makes to the economic and sustainable supply of raw materials necessary for a modern economy.
Delivering on this vision will require major change in four areas.
Mining will be considered an integral part of the community, with shared accountabilities that cross lease boundaries. This integration will be at a deeper level than just the infrastructure. Mining will become truly integrated with its neighbours to ensure efficient management of resources (including air, water, and energy), minimisation of waste and sustainable ecosystem management.
High engagement will deliver net environmental and community benefits as regular markers of mining projects. We will take advantage of opportunities to link thinking about things coming out and things going into the ground – such as geothermal energy (heating and cooling), storage of non-mining wastes in mine voids (including carbon/CO2 sequestration, nuclear waste and current land-fill waste) and upgraded mine planning strategies, all of which will be enabled by increased data analytics capacity for complex modelling of these systems as well as the technologies to deliver repeatable performance.
This will be vital to maintain the confidence of stakeholders. Failure to do so is likely to result in more resource nationalisation agendas, so is not an option for the industry.
Mining will be optimised and integrated as a result of collaboration across the Australian value chains. This will come about from deeper connections with more of Australian industry – building on the relationships with the innovative METS sector and establishing new connections with the advanced manufacturing developments so that the smart technology products manufactured in the future Australia are matched with resources mined in Australia.
We will have learnt from the Lithium experience, where it took a while for Australia to match its exploration and metallurgical development activity to the foreseeable growing demand. The “old” bulks such as iron ore, coal and alumina that are the basics for economic development won’t be the core source of GDP in a sustainable future economy.
Australia doesn’t have big enough local markets to ensure competitive scale, and the tyranny of distance is another handicap to new industries. Manufacturing will be revitalised by new industries such as biotech, that create small, expensive components or items, that will potentially need new raw materials that will be sourced from Australia.
This will create a high value-adding opportunity for secondary and tertiary processing in addition to the mining of the commodities of the future – all of which are likely to be at smaller scale than the current bulks.
Within the industry, knowledge will be more integrated with reduced lease boundary limitations. In the case of geological knowledge, this will be facilitated by State and Federal Geoscience agencies, enabling extensive, complex modelling of geological and mineralogical systems for more effective exploration.
Cooperation to develop industry-wide step-change solutions will be facilitated through an increased role of METS-Ignited (the Mining Equipment, Technology and Services Industry Growth Centre), AMIRA (the minerals companies and suppliers’ research organisation), ACARP (the coal industry’s research program), the Cooperative Research Centre program and similar initiatives.
Sensor arrays on machines and in the ground, automation, UAVs, virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR), robotics and big data analytics, often adapted from other industries, will all be widespread. These changes will be linked to the other dimensions, reflecting the move to more selective recovery of the most valuable ore, and fundamentally reducing the scale of many operations.
These tools will eliminate human involvement in dangerous tasks, and guarantee more environmentally responsible and cost-effective performance by removing the variability inherent in people. Issues of interoperability and shared infrastructure, especially communications and data, will be overcome, with many tools developed using open-access software.
Mining applications will be a sub-market of more global strategies for technology companies. The equipment will be remotely controlled and either remotely maintained or self-maintained enabling the workforce to live anywhere, providing more family-friendly conditions.
One of the double-edged sword consequences of this change is that the high salaries of the last decade will be gone forever.
The required skill set of future miners will be as deep in STEM knowledge as any other. Much of this innovation or adaptation will come from multi-disciplinary efforts, with the tools such as VR/AR complemented by data analytics allowing geologists and other professionals to explore options in every sense of the word.
How we mine will be different. New metallurgical and mineral processing technologies that support fundamentally different flow sheets will be developed to respond to our unique geological and mineralogical differences as well as the need for new products and lower water and energy consuming methods that will leave a smaller global footprint.
These will be complemented with entirely new methods for in-situ chemical or biological recovery of specific elements that eliminate the need to mine large volumes of waste to access the valuable reserves.
All the foundation pieces are there for Australia to achieve this vision for mining.
The biggest barrier to achieving the vision is not the technical or innovative capability of our people – it is the lack of the belief that such a vision is both possible and desirable.
Making the mind-set change starts with our ability to convince the younger generations at school that mining is a high-tech, challenging opportunity for them to contribute to.
Engaging with young minds while they still think “how”, not “why not” will help us make the collective paradigm shift.
This editorial has been reprinted courtesy of ATSE Focus magazine.
Ms Denise Goldsworthy FTSE is a non-executive director and advisor on research, technology and innovation. A former senior mining executive, she is experienced in manufacturing, mining and the technology and innovation sectors. She is currently Chairman of ChemCentre WA; a Director of the Export Finance and Insurance corporation (EFIC); a member of the Edith Cowan University Council and its Commercialisation Advisory Board; a trustee for the Navy Clearance Diver’s Trust; and a judge for the Prime Minister’s National Science awards. She was named the 2010 Telstra Australian Business Woman of the Year, is a member of Chief Executive Women (CEW) and was inducted into the WA Women’s Hall of Fame in 2011. She chairs ATSE’s Minerals forum.