Mining industry goes digging for innovation FEATURE

Mining may not be the most technologically advanced industry in the world, but now it's embracing innovation.

The scene is a large open-plan control room. Each desk is dominated by up to a dozen big screens bringing images, video, and real-time data to the watchful eyes of technicians. Could this be the CIA? NASA? The Googleplex? Not at all: it belongs to a mining company.

The control center, clearly visible in a video interview with Andrew Harding, CEO of Rio Tinto Iron Ore, is a clear example of how a growing number of mining firms are ditching the industry's dirt-and-shovel image in favor of a much more technology-led approach to business.

Winning ideas at this year's Minehack in Perth, Australia, for instance, ranged from a system that does away with the need for manual conveyer-belt inspections to a tool which lets mining operators cut dust problems by advising on the machinery to use in given weather conditions.

Elsewhere, the Internet of Things (IoT) is helping miners recover extra gold reserves and mining giants such as Rio Tinto, Fortescue Metals Group and BHP Billiton are using drones to monitor and survey sites across Australia.

See also: For mining companies, digitization is the next gold rush

This interest in the application of technology is not down to a whim. It's partly a strategy for survival.

Faced with a decline in mineral assets profits, mining firms are looking to make their operations more cost effective. In many cases, automation and data analysis can streamline their operations and cut costs.For the mining sector, says Richard Tonthat, associate director of corporate finance at financial advisers Grant Thornton UK LLP: "It's been a very difficult couple of years because of low commodity prices. A lot of companies are struggling to generate free cash."

Faced with a decline in mineral assets profits, mining firms are looking to make their operations more cost effective. In many cases, automation and data analysis can streamline their operations and cut costs.

"The merging of IT and operational technology is perhaps the biggest opportunity for innovation and productivity improvement within the mining industry," claims Ash Bosworth, director at Pulse Mining Systems, an Australian software developer.

"Much is already being done in this space," he says.

Developments range from the high-end like autonomous vehicles and remotely located operations facilities, to improvements to behind-the-scenes corporate technologies such as enterprise resource planning systems.

These are increasingly being linked to IoT technologies to develop real-time and near-real-time data capture, insight and reporting. But not everywhere, according to Tonthat. "Within the sector there's a huge variety of cases," he says.

"You've got major companies with almost unlimited financial power and small companies which are very cash-constrained."

As a result, he notes: "The majors are generally embracing new technologies, but if you're looking at the junior end, it's too prohibitive to embark on IT projects, and any available funds are generally being allocated to exploration and development."

See also: There's never been a better time to automate the world's most dangerous jobs

Even for mining firms with cash to spend, implementing technology projects is not easy.

"Mining has specific challenges arising from temperature extremes, dust, lack of connectivity, underground locations, proximity to explosive and dangerous substances, and other environmental considerations which can make networking problematic," says Bosworth.

The challenges are not just environmental, either. "Within the mining industry the primary barrier to further innovation stems mainly from an inherently conservative mindset and culture," Bosworth says.

"The unchanging essence of the industry seems to also manifest itself when it comes to innovation, which is often seen as being more akin to quality improvement than involving any ideas of disruption."

As a result, says Bosworth: "The notion of 'step change' seems to be understood as incremental change... perhaps along the lines of 'one step at a time', rather than in its true context of being a 'game changer' or a change that is larger than usual."

Despite these challenges, the accounting firm Deloitte believes the mining industry is finally waking up to the need to embrace change through innovation.

In Australia, says Deloitte: "We've found a local industry well-placed to lead the world in mining innovation, and with a consensus that it is true innovation that will drive the next wave of productivity gains and financial growth."

To what extent cash-strapped minor players will be able to participate in this process remains to be seen, but at least it has begun.

Bosworth says: "One would hope that in the future a far broader appreciation of the power and possibilities of 'disruptive innovation' for the sector will come to the fore, and that an understanding of the potential for innovation will lead to the embedding of [it] in mining culture."


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About Jason Deign @DeigninSpain

Jason Deign is a Barcelona-based business writer, journalist and author.