An innovation plan

Greater standardisation, less emphasis on intellectual property and government’s increasing their marketing efforts. These are some of the key findings from a round table into how to best boost innovation in Australia’s mining equipment, technology and services sector. By Noel Dyson
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How is this for a slogan? The technology to mine on Mars will be invented here.

Noel Dyson

The round table brought together Fortescue Metals Group Christmas Creek Mine general manager Jim Herring, Austmine Western Australia CEO Cameron Bowden, METS Ignited general manager industry engagement Peter Clarke, Unearthed co-founder Zane Prickett, Global IO integrated operations specialist Stef Pienaar, Orinoco Gold chairman Brian Thomas and HLB Mann Judd partner Brad McVeigh.

Standardisation of data is one of the key issues facing the METS sector. 

Being able to design for just one common standard would open up the market enormously and allow mining to enjoy the sort of benefits the software and financial technology industries already have.

That leads to the issue of collaboration and the resulting intellectual property. 

While miners are often playing a key role in developing the technology they end up using, is it really in their interests to own the IP to it?

And what of governments? Should they be playing a bigger role, and, if so, what should it be.

On the standardisation front, access to data and the use of that data is becoming increasingly important. 

What if all of the machines reporting that data reported in the same way using the same language?

“I think there’s a huge opportunity for open standards,” Pienaar said.

“If any future comes through with the big miners I would be pushing hard on standards for data and for interoperability. 

“This – this is weird in mining, coming from oil and gas and coming into mining and seeing how closed all the data standards were.

“It just didn’t make sense, as opposed to oil and gas where – when you look at a data file, a geological data file, it’s standard open format.

“And everybody uses the same. So the interoperability goes way up and that means that the time waste goes down. 

“So there’s huge potential just pushing that space.”

Thomas said the oil and gas experience was the result of there being only two to three really major global players in the oil and gas service space.

“Once they adopted a standard that was it,” he said.

“In the mining space you don’t have that. You don’t have the global players that can pressure industry … whatever commodity, whatever size company you’re dealing with sort of adopting a particular standard.”

Pienaar said he was surprised the likes of BHP and Rio Tinto, which had so much clout in the global market, were not pushing for that.

Bowden said there was certainly a recognition from miners and the METS sector that common standards maybe the way forward.

“I think ISA 95 is a platform that is being looked at the moment in terms of data.”

The problem, it seems, is that the mining companies are not fully convinced of the benefits of being the first to push to standardise.

As Herring put it what miner was going to put all the time and effort to standardise everything so every company had to use what it used?

“What’s the value driver for that particular company?” he asked.

“I mean autonomy, maybe, for example, if you want to be able to run multiple autonomous pieces of equipment from different manufacturers on the site, they have all got to speak the same language, a bit like the automotive industry. 

“But to get a mining company to drive for standardisation, I think you will find it very hard. What’s the point?”

Clarke admitted there was little view for mining companies to drive the standardisation which was where the Global Mining Standards and Guidelines Group came in.

Pienaar agreed, saying it would be a huge opportunity lost if data standardisation was not brought in.

“If there’s a standardised format across the industry, then it’s an open playing field and that means it goes faster,” he said.

“It means people are more worried about competition.

“Look, I don’t want to lock in the things that shouldn’t be fundamentally be locked in like all the suppliers and the METS companies, okay, should be on value that they deliver, not because they have got a locked in format that you can’t get out of.

“That was what was weird about mining.”

Clarke said METS Ignited saw interoperability as a key issue.

“And we are seeing a lot of interest from developers, particularly in the software space,” he said.

“Anyone dealing with data is – it’s sort of top of mind, to be able to try and pull data from various parts of the whole process so that you can look at that data, use your historical data, link your various programs together, make some decisions about what it is that you should be doing, and then push that back upstream, maybe to affect your blasting practices or maybe to affect something that’s coming down the line.

“You know the mine-to-mill processes have been known about for probably almost 20 years now.

“So the way you need to operate your drill and your blast and your crushing and grinding, etcetera for maximum efficiency, the theory is there.

“What is preventing that from happening is the fact that the data is not available, or if the data is available, it’s in different formats and you can’t really pull it all together simply and easy and then make some really quick decisions, because you’ve got to make the decision before the next blast.

“So there’s a lot of work being done now on trying to streamline that and the common standards would make that a hell of a lot easier.

“But there is still a fair bit of work that is being done on it.”

Herring said moving to a remote operating centre did force a degree of standardisation on an operation, however, that could come at a cost.

“So if you’re going to run all your mines from the same operating centre, essentially your expectation would be you would have to run it all under the same fleet management system, for example,” he said.

“So you sort of force yourself to standardise there and then, once you’ve locked in to it, they can then – for want of a better word, hold you over a barrel.”

Part of the problem here is to move from one platform to another.

Then again, standardising the platforms would make that much simpler.

So what can government do to make the life of METS players easier?

According to the panellists, actually not much.

Prickett said governments were particularly bad at picking winners.

“If they could just brand and market this as a place to come and work with large industry and huge opportunities and WA – like, that would be it,” he said.

“Queensland did great. WA missed out. 

“So Advance Queensland, which is that initiative around entrepreneurship and innovation – is part of the reason why we have the accelerator in Brisbane is Advance Queensland.

“They [the Queeensland government] actually just kind of brought together about four or five programs, university development and a few others, only created a little bit more money to do specific start-up stuff, but then they branded it Advance Queensland.”

That marketing is important because all too often mining loses out on attracting the best and brightest because it is seen as a dusty, dirty industry.

However, as the panellists pointed out, the actual opportunities within the industry were amazing.

People get to handle some of the largest pieces of equipment on the face of the planet. 

They are working in incredibly alien environments.

There is actual cutting edge science being conducted just to get these machines to operate in those environments.

Prickett had a suggestion for a slogan the WA government could use to help boost its METS credentials.

“The first mining on Mars, the technology will be built here,” he said.

“That’s it. We’re putting a punt out.

“We’re going for it and we’re going to get the right institution and we’re going to make it happen. Why not?”

Clarke said METS Ignited was an example of what government could do for the sector.

METS Ignited was one of the six growth centres the federal government set up.

In this case the government really is trying to pick winners, focusing on the industries where it felt Australia had a competitive advantage.

METS is one.

This is possibly one area where the government got it right.

Clarke said one area METS Ignited was trying to address was regulated reform.

“What we’re focusing on is, in fact, regulated reform can in fact drive innovation,” he said.

“It can in fact drive us forward.”

Clarke said Australia’s governments were, in their own way, leaders in some of the regulatory areas and this could become a fertile business area for the nation going forward.

He said managing native title and indigenous land claims was just one example.

Collaboration has long been held out as a way forward for the mining sector.

However, one glaring issue that rises is intellectual property.

Sure, people say. I can see exactly how you can solve that problem but if I tell you then you will benefit from it and I will not.

Herring said that was an issue FMG was facing.

It has worked with Caterpillar on its autonomous haulage solution.

That technology has reached the point where it has been made available for commercial release.

This, Herring saidm had led to an IP issue. Should Caterpillar be delivering a FMG version of the software because FMG had suggested many of the changes that had made the software more effective?

Bowden said he had encountered similar problems when he worked for Rio Tinto.

“IP, I think with miners and suppliers – there will always be an ongoing issue,” he said.

“How they deal with it, each to their own, but it can definitely stifle that innovation side of things.”

Pienaar said it could be detrimental to both parties.

“To think that one company is going to sell all the products or come up with all the great features, I think might not be to the benefit of the entire industry,” he said. 

“Because, if you’ve got other mining companies using it they can, again, find different uses for it.

“They will spot things they can do better.

“For a mining company, surely IP is not the core business.

“So use the tool to do what you do best and let the whole industry improve the tool to improve it for the entire industry.”

Prickett said he took an even higher view on IP.

“The world’s changing faster than ever,” he said.

“Technology is changing faster than ever.

“There’s new and continuous improvements that are going faster than ever.

“So my opinion is the velocity in an organisation or in a company is what matters and so how do you optimise for a velocity, for a change, how do you incorporate new technologies, new techniques, new data standards, all that.

“That comes through your organisation faster and so I want to optimise for velocity. I won’t usually optimise for IP.

“So, in general, I wouldn’t be as worried about IP and want my outside organisations to be moving faster to keep up with me, so they can own their IP. They can drive it forward.”

Prickett said with companies there were probably 100 challenges and probably only the top 10 were strategically important enough to the business to own the IP on.

Besides the IP issue, another problem that seems to be undoing collaboration is an industry mindset.

Pienaar said, particularly in WA, the state’s frontier mentality sometimes stood in the way of collaboration.

“I wonder if that also means that there still is this belief that we have to fix the problem ourselves,” he said.

“Therefore, if you did have that collaboration among iron ore miners or among different commodity types, maybe things that will then accelerate in that innovation space.

“Certainly when we engage with mining companies we definitely don’t bring all of the answers.

“So as an initial engagement we will assess, you know, where that mining company is at and then, as part of that requiring different solutions, and then we partner with other companies within the METS sector so – and that has been our model overseas.”

  • Thanks to HLB Mann Judd for playing host to this discussion.