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How digital tools will pave the path for mining expansion

Australia has witnessed remarkable growth in its mining industry in recent years, but the path to future expansion is not without its challenges, especially in embracing a digital future.

The significance of the mining industry is unquestionable, as it underpins numerous production chains and sustains nearly half of the world’s economic activities. Consider, for a moment, the indispensable role mining plays in enabling the existence of everyday technologies like phones, computers, and microwaves. In recent years, the Australian mining sector has undergone a noteworthy transformation, driven by technological advancements and a growing emphasis on sustainability. However, this journey hasn’t been without its bumps in the road. Progress in one aspect of mining often reveals lags in another. Nevertheless, recent strides in digital technology have triggered faster adoption rates, increased investments, and innovations poised to reshape the industry's future.

The technological revolution in Australia

The Australian mining sector has enthusiastically embraced cutting-edge technologies, with automation, digitisation, robotics, and artificial intelligence (AI) all taking centre stage in recent years. While these advancements have undeniably bolstered efficiency, safety, and productivity in mining operations, they haven’t been without their challenges. According to Steven Wainhouse, Head of Oil, Mining & Gas at Pickles,

“The push toward digitisation has gained momentum recently, primarily due to technological advancements, but now it’s accelerated due to our labour shortage. Finding skilled operators has become increasingly difficult, and when we examine the labour market in light of upcoming projects over the next four years, the projection is that there will be a need to create an additional 27,000+ jobs. Given our already tight labour market, recruiting staff poses an ongoing challenge, and this situation is only poised to worsen until skilled migration returns to pre-Covid levels. For now, the impetus behind digitising various aspects of mining work is driven by labour shortage challenges.”

Changing of the guard

Automation isn’t a new concept in mining, but it’s the major mining companies that are taking the lead. Steven notes,

“There's a notable emphasis on automation among owner-miners, especially in Western Australia’s iron ore industry. Companies like Rio Tinto and BHP have heavily invested in creating a more autonomous workforce, and the most significant advancements have been witnessed in the operation of off-highway trucks and to a lesser degree dozers and graders They’ve established hubs both onsite and in control centres in remote locations with teams overseeing full circuit production assets whilst reducing the need for human labour at the coal face.”

While the prospects of digital transformation sound promising, the real challenge lies in integrating technology into existing systems — a challenge mining is no stranger to. Steven further explains,

“When older haul roads are involved, and autonomous vehicles share space with other operators, there are substantial costs for mining companies, including rising labour expenses. Remote FIFO rosters are a response to this challenge, and it’s no surprise this is the primary driver. However, newly developed mines, where autonomous operators can be implemented from the start, will likely reap the greatest benefits. An exception to this is dozers because they often operate away from the main mine site traffic and, consequently, are removed from the digger circuit. Managing auto dozers is considerably more straightforward since their primary task involves moving earth back and forth.”

The future is bright

With autonomous vehicles, remote-controlled machinery, and data-driven analytics, the vision is to achieve streamlined operations, reduced human risk, and enhanced employee satisfaction across the board. Nevertheless, questions linger about how this technological leap will impact the mining workforce in the long run. Amidst a prominent labour shortage, roles within the industry are bound to evolve, and the demand for skilled workers capable of operating and improving the implemented technology will soar. Steve believes that Australian mining companies will need to employ the right individuals who can adapt and evolve with changing times in order to thrive. While automation has the potential to improve production, technology still requires skilled workers capable of operating and maintaining technology.

18 Oct