Industry Q&A: What Role will Technology Play for Mining in 2016?
As 2016 kicks off, the focus for the year ahead seems to mirror that of the past 12 months for the Australian Mining industry: re-engineering of processes, embracing of technology both existing and new, and tight cost management. Austmine caught up with Martin Boulton, Director at Minera to find out how they were viewing technology's role in improving the fortunes of mining in 2016.
How have you seen the relationship between IT and OT shift over the last 2 – 3 years in the mining industry?
Information and operational technologies have found common ground in embracing a “Cloud first” platform approach. Cloud technologies have matured in the last 2-3 years providing all industries, including mining, affordable access to advanced capabilities that were previously only the realm of NASA, CSIRO or Governments.
Mining companies and their key technology vendors are starting to work together to address many of the challenges associated with systems’ interoperability, integration, security and reliability by exploiting Cloud platforms. The old systems integration approach propagated business silos, as the technologies were not compatible. Cloud eliminates these issues by offering an almost boundless integration layer. This means that data can be captured, stored and analysed in real time from any system or device for use by any other technology, whether that be information or operational.
What are the biggest mistakes made when a miner invests in a new piece of operational technology?
We often see mining companies make two mistakes that are easily avoidable.
The first is when companies try to change their business process to match technology. This is putting the cart before the horse. Technology is a tool and when used correctly, it supports people and process, not the other way around. The value lies within the way you use technology, not the actual technology itself. Many of the large miners have invested millions in standardising their systems, forcing users to standardise their processes to suit. The theory was that extreme standardisation would assist in lowering support costs and improving productivity across their operations. The reality was that any savings in support costs were overshadowed by a significant reduction in productivity. Many of these companies lost valuable knowledge that was built up over years of experience, as the new technology was not flexible enough to allow operators to come up with innovative ways of using it.
The second mistake we see involves miners duplicating common functions, such as reporting and analytics across operational systems. This creates operational silos within an organisation, as the technology effectively builds data walls between teams. Each team can run its own version of a report, based on data from their own operational systems that supports their needs and key performance measures. Reporting and analytics functions must be removed from operational systems, data needs to be accessed from devices, sensors and external sources and stored centrally for consumption by common analytics and reporting tools such as Excel. Users should be able to generate the report they need using the software they are comfortable using on their device. The data they access should be a single source of truth across the organisation. Operational technologies are then relegated back to control systems that are used to execute an agreed action.
How do you interact with all stakeholders, from OEMs, to miners, to technology providers, to help improve integration of new systems?
A customer once told us people in technology are like dolphins; very smart, but unable to talk to humans. Business people are like goldfish; attracted to shiny objects, with three seconds of memory. We bridge the communication gap by understanding both sides, as our consultants come with strong industry experience. They have worked in engineering, operations, OEMs and technology vendors.
The key is positioning technology as just a tool, not the solution. Technology vendors oversimplify complex business problems in an effort to sell their products as solutions. This causes great confusion between technology providers, OEMs and mining companies, because they are starting the conversation without a common understanding of the problem. After we spend time understanding what the challenge is, it is often a customer not needing a new system. Rather, they are in need of some good advice around making use of technology they already own, capable of delivering the outcome they are looking for.
What role does technology have to play in the future of the Australian Mining industry and its ability to remain competitive on a global scale?
Technology does, and will continue to play an important role in our industry, but it is just a tool and like any tool; the value is in how we use it to our advantage. Technology is an enabler of innovation, but the innovation lies in finding new and better ways to use it. Globally our industry is respected because of our smart people and the clever mining methods we have developed over years of experience. We need to make better use of what already exists in technology, rather than investing time and effort in coming up with something new and unique.
The term “bleeding edge” is used a lot in technology circles. I have a problem with the term because the blood always comes from the lead adopters, not the technology inventors. In the current market our industry cannot accept the risk of being on the bleeding edge of technology, instead we need to focus our innovation on better ways to use what we already have.