Will COVID-19 Put Mining on the Fast-Track Toward Automation?
This was originally published by Davey Bickford Enaex.
The rise of automated mining technology has sparked a lot of healthy discussion. On one hand, you have the concerns of shareholders with a bottom line to protect. The volatility of markets has clearly shown the need for innovation in core mining processes. Automation appears to be maturing at the right moment.
On the other hand, you have the concerns of individuals whose jobs could go away, and communities who rely on mining operations as a source of employment. How will operators maintain social license if more and more jobs are performed automatically while surrounding communities benefit less?
Because automated mining is still in its early stages, and because most mining operators have been cautious to invest in early offerings, these questions have not been urgent. But the suspension of mining operations around the world due to contagion risk, and the possibility of further disruptions, could change that.
Will the pandemic strengthen the case for automated mining, speed up its development, and compel operators to be more aggressive with new technology?
Questions of safety
The risk of contagion adds a new dimension to mining safety – particularly in the context of underground mines, where workers are clustered together in confined spaces.
It’s worth pointing out that several important safety innovations were on the way before the pandemic. Movement tracking and health sensors don’t strictly fall into the ‘automation’ category, but they have the potential to help teams maintain distance and identify risk.
The biggest frontiers of automation (i.e. drilling, hauling) can make mines safer by reducing the number of personnel required on-site; but their biggest advantage is to make operations more efficient and less susceptible to disruptions.
Variations in process
Rio Tinto’s automated transport in the Pilbara region, and Resolute Mining’s automation processes at the Syama gold mine in West Africa, are two frequently cited examples of automated mining in its early stages.
Observers have pointed out, however, that not all orebodies are conducive to the automation tools that now exist. The long-distance iron-ore supply chains in Western Australia make automated hauling easier to achieve. The nature and position of the orebody at Syama, which is about 1 km long and 200m deep, also lends itself to repetitive processes.
Due to the fact that orebodies are highly variable in their composition and accessibility, any automated technology – whether it’s drilling, crushing, hauling, or any area of the production chain – could be well-suited to some sites and poorly suited to others. There is also considerable doubt that meaningful automation techniques can ever be achieved in certain parts of the chain – notably excavation.
A delicate balance
In theory, it’s reasonable to say that coronavirus will lead to a more aggressive uptake of existing automation technologies across the mining industry, and a more strident approach to R&D in METS and manufacturing circles.
In reality, it won’t be so clear-cut. The need for innovation will compete with a cautious instinct to stay afloat, ride out the storm, and wait for technology to evolve. In this environment, manufacturing itself could face new barriers in the development and marketing of new automation tools. Mining companies could shy away from major technical overhauls, opting instead for safer and incremental changes.
How will the right balance be found? The pandemic has highlighted the importance of collaboration in medical and scientific communities. Key commercial activities like mining and manufacturing will also benefit from increased transparency and partnership, which could produce a quantum-leap in automation.
Meanwhile, strong partnerships that add immediate value could become even more important as operators bring their employees back, turn the heavy machinery back on, and prepare to face the challenges ahead.