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Unman the Site: The Rise of Autonomous Mining [opinon]

If I had to pick one characteristic of modern mining I’d love to change, it would be the industry-wide “fast follower” strategy that’s slowing down our evolution. In my opinion, cautious “fast follower” strategy has resulted in mining lagging other industries by two or three decades in business practices. 

That’s not my opinion alone: it’s exactly what Mark Cutifani, chief executive of Anglo American, told
The Australian newspaper not long ago.

On the surface, “fast follower” – letting the other guy take a great leap forward, and if it works, copy it quickly – looks like a canny, low-risk strategy. 

Proponents point to the success of Samsung in fast-following Apple’s breakthrough smartphone innovations. But what creates success in consumer electronics won’t work for mining, because in mining industry cycles are much longer and more pronounced, and being late with a technology could mean missing a whole profitable upturn cycle, with dire consequences for mining sites and mining people alike. 

The future of mining belongs not only to better machines and software, but also to better people and to safer work-for those better people.

I believe the ultimate goal of modern mining is to “unman the site” – to put as few people as possible inside the mines, especially as autonomous mines are developed in increasingly remote and forbidding locations. 

The day of the completely autonomous mine is just five or ten years off. The people who will work these mines will do so remotely – and safely – using the most advanced operational and technological innovations. 

These are the people who will define success or failure in mining, and the greater their talent, job satisfaction and dedication, the more the needle will point to “success.”

How will we attract and retain this cohort of outstanding professionals? Not by fast-following. Show me a fast follower and I’ll show you a follower, competing for second-place at best. Organisations with their eye on second place will not win the competition for global talent. 

That’s why right now is a great time for mining to abandon the cautious strategy that’s held us back and accelerate into an all-out race for operational and technology innovation leadership as autonomous mining becomes more widespread.

This may sound unreasonable against the current backdrop of conditions in the industry, which can most optimistically be described as guarded. The boom of this century’s first decade has turned into retrenchment (and wilting stock evaluations), with mines closing, all but the richest new projects abandoned and a new focus on efficiency and maximising the productivity of existing assets. 

Yet, there’s really no conflict between racing ahead in innovation and “doing more with less” – innovation actually
enables doing more with less, cost-efficiently, while creating work environments that attract the top-drawer people autonomous mining requires.

Innovation in mining is being driven by the convergence of operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT). 

On the operational side, more and more valuable data is flowing from connected equipment and devices reporting to operational systems in real time – the Internet of Things. IT’s business intelligence, analytics and financial applications then integrate, analyze and refine this data into actionable intelligence to deliver the best answers to myriad business questions.

For example, in some leading-edge autonomous mines this OT/IT integration is currently addressing one of the biggest value bottlenecks: optimizing grinding and flotation systems for the current ore properties, in real time! Using autonomous OT/IT integration, these mines track ore along the entire value chain, knowing not only what grade of ore is coming in for processing, but exactly when it will arrive at the plant. 

The integration allows grinding and flotation systems to optimize in advance, planning for ore that’s about to arrive. Mines currently in production with this system expect efficiency improvements of 5 percent to 10 percent in recovery, results that drop right to the bottom line.

The more mining “unmans the site” through proliferation of autonomous or semi-autonomous mines, the more important the skills and capabilities of the remaining workers become. 

We’ll attract and retain the best-and-brightest people we need by giving them the most powerful and efficient OT/IT technology to do their jobs. Our industry will break out of our current doldrums quickly once we understand how important it is not to fast-follow the leader, but to be the leader. Now’s the time.

Eduardo Gallestey is Senior Principal Engineer for Advanced Process Control at ABB. This article originally appeared in full on Ventyx.

To read more of Gallestey’s comments on the IT/OT convergence in mining, click here.

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