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Up until now, the mining industry has been fairly conservative in implementing new technologies in comparison to other industries. This week BHP Billiton followed in Rio Tinto’s footsteps when they announced the opening of their remote operations centre in Perth. We had the chance to speak to Citigold Corporation’s CEO Mark Lynch about the opportunities and challenges of automation for mid-sized mining operations and the long-term impacts of automation on the mining industry.
Do you think Australian mining is approaching a new era of automated operations? If so, what is causing the shift in mind-set in your opinion?
Mark Lynch: Yes, we are approaching a new era of automation of operations. The two imperatives of reducing operating costs and improving safety are the key drivers. It is interesting that the ore processing plants are state of the art and very automated, yet surface and underground mining operations have evolved at a slower pace. Processing plants, being one connected unit, were easier to automate. Mining operations, the mining and moving of rock, used to be all disconnected steps that can now be digitally connected using technologies that have evolved over the last 5 to 10 years. With automation comes big gains in productivity and machinery output which leads to cost reductions. Safety is substantially improved because operators are removed from some hazardous areas. Also operator error is reduced by removing what are often boring repetitive tasks that are now done by algorithm guided computer’s.
What does this change mean for mid-sized mining companies such as Citigold? To what extent do you see ‘remote operation’ being adopted for mid-sized mining operations and why?
Mark Lynch: From Citigold’s perspective, as a project about to undergo substantial expansion, this is an opportunity to build a “Google” era mine that has high productivity and low operating costs. The challenges of retro-fitting other existing high cost ‘old world’ mines are enormous. Citigold has spent the last 5 years investigating and researching technologies suitable for its mine. Each mine is different and a whole of system approach is essential. Just fixing one area, as was often the case in the past, means the particular technology has failed because output of the mine did not change. The whole mining system has to change and this is where smaller operators will struggle because the change will require substantial capital and a learning curve.
Mark Lynch: The biggest benefits are overall increased efficiency of the mining process, a focus on mining and processing quality ore rather than just tonnes and improved safety for personnel involved in the actual digging of the ore or waste. For example a laser or GPS guided haul truck will follow the designed road exactly every time and always travel at optimal speed. So cycle times are improved, tyre wear is reduced and the machine always operates at optimal engine revs. In the underground scenario, when we ‘blow up the workface’ every shift, it is very difficult to automate that area. That is why the medium to large companies are trying tunnelling type machines to remove the drill and blast process.
Considering long-term developments, what impact do you think automation will have on the mining workforce?
Mark Lynch: As with other industries there will be more specialisation of skills. Machinery will need to be maintained so that it does not break down. This will involve specialist technicians real-time monitoring and analysing data to bring the machine in for service before it fails. Machines will be driven by sophisticated computer algorithm’s rather than an on the job trained miner. Interesting is that diesel fitters will probably still be in big demand but more and more the on-board computer diagnostics will tell us what is wrong, similar to modern motor vehicles. It is also interesting that the BHP and RIO ‘control centres’ are in a capital city which acknowledges that the clever IT people are essential to modern automated operations but are less likely to want to work or live in remote locations.
Mark Lynch: In the past new technology has been ignored because often those that tried failed to achieve productivity gains. This was often due to fixing part of the process and the bottleneck just moved to another spot. Therefore it is essential to take a ‘whole-of-system’ approach and design a tailored system for your particular mine. Each mine will need an innovation champion to start thinking about how change to the whole system can be brought about over time.
Hopefully this event will have many of the people and suppliers there that are doing and thinking about interesting and innovative things that can improve productivity.