Scale matters, miners told

TECHNOLOGICAL advances reshaping mining have been put under the spotlight at Austmine 2019 in Brisbane, Queensland.
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Orica chief commercial and technology officer Angus Melbourne highlighted the benefits of better blasting.

Matt Ogg in Brisbane

Accenture resources lead for Australia-New Zealand, Ann Burns called on miners and mining equipment, technology and services players alike to adopt fresh ideas and build social trust, while the technological leaders of major listed companies gave attendees a taste of game-changing practices already underway.

"Explore the next wave of technology but don't tinker with it - do it at scale, assume it's going to work," Burns said.

"If somebody comes to you with a pilot or a prototype, have a think and say, ‘you know what? What would happen if we did that at three times the scale?' Be brave, take the risk, what could possibly go wrong?"

However, that does not mean the industry had to approach innovation with reckless abandon.

"I would ask though that before you think about any more automation that you really look at the visibility of losses in your business across the value chain," Burns said.

"Have a clear and distinct purpose that drives you, your stakeholders and the communities that we serve.

"Transformation I think is a conscious choice to embrace big ideas, and with big ideas and a clear purpose, great things happen."

Burns cited inspiring examples such as a project set up by Vale in mid-2018 to extract quartz-silica sand in iron ore tailings to replace natural quartz in products such as benchtops, as well as electrolyte leasing for batteries from Pangang Group Vanadium Titanium & Resources.

Orica breakthroughs in automated blasting

Orica chief commercial and technology officer Angus Melbourne highlighted the industry's rapid move towards an automated and digitally integrated future, which is becoming increasingly relevant as mines go deeper and orebodies become more remote.

"The downstream impact of variable and poorly controlled blasting outcomes can impact as much as 80% of the total mine processing cost," Melbourne told the Brisbane conference.

"Despite the rapid advances made in other parts of the value chain, blasting today remains a largely manual exercise."

However, Orica aims to change that through a range of technologies and partnerships, including collaborations that have harnessed its WebGen wireless initiation system launched last year.

"WebGen improves safety by removing people from harm's way, enhances productivity by removing constraints imposed by wired connections, and is fundamentally changing the way blasting in mining is approached by enabling new blasting practices," Melbourne said.

He noted since its release more than 130 WebGen blasts had been executed globally across four industry segments.

"In the past 12 months we've co-developed more than seven new blasting techniques enabling WebGen that are revolutionising the way customers are planning and executing their mining operations," Melbourne said.

"CMOC Northparkes have recently converted their entire sub-level cave to wireless initiation, a world and Australia first."

Melbourne also shared details of a collaborative development in the automation space, working with MacLean Engineering on a technology underpinned by WebGen.

"We've successfully developed and tested the first fully mechanised drawpoint hang-up blasting solution capable of drilling and charging up to eight blast holes remotely without the need to tie in detonators, removing people completely from harm's way," he said.

Melbourne also discussed products such as OreTrack, which traces rock material from the blast right through to the plant with the help of hardy tags with RFID sensors, and FragTrack, which captured 2D and 3D blast fragmentation imagery and data with in-built analysis capability.

The technology alone will not be enough though, with Melbourne emphasising a continuous fostering of talent and relationships because "people make technology happen".

"The challenges are not just technical," he said.

"Delivering on this vision will require unprecedented levels of collaboration between miners and METS players alike.

"If Australia is to lead the mining and METS sectors we have an obligation to revive the industry's brand as an exciting, forward-thinking, collaborative and sustainable industry, and to capture the imaginations of the next generations."

This will be vital if mining is to shake off what OZ Minerals chief executive officer Andrew Cole described as its perception as an "old world industry".

"We need to be more transformative than incremental," Cole said.

 Staying agile and open-minded

Woodside Energy head of robotics Shawn Fernando gave METS professionals a view of how "intelligent assets" had been applied by his company in a different sector, with augmented reality and robots changing how operations are run.

"We run an agile type system, so you all would have heard this before - think big, prototype small, scale fast," Fernando said.

"It really is the case. You have to do that - you find things out that don't really work and you get around it. You do need to have a clear vision though whether that's adding business value."

Newmont's vice-president operational technology and innovation Mark Wundenberg told the conference a lot of technology deployed across a company needed to be tied into a cohesive strategy.

"What we did is we took the approach almost two years ago now that we actually conducted what we call digital assessments," he said, noting these took place at Newmont's Boddington site in Western Australia and Twin Peaks in Nevada, US.

"We really wanted to delineate what digital would bring us. We learnt a lot out of that.

"As an organisation we also don't want 20 different versions of a digital strategy."

BHP's vice-president global transformation Rag Udd gave a presentation that was referenced frequently throughout the day, mentioning how more than 400 people were retrained to take roles at BHP's integrated remote operations centre.

Of these people, about half were former truck drivers who were in control of monitoring fully autonomous fleets.

"Now they're remotely driving our east coast coal business from pit to port," he said.

Udd pointed to collaborations where BHP and METS organisations could work together as one, removing barriers to doing business with the company.

"There is no doubt that one of the greatest contributions we make in our communities is engaging local suppliers to solve challenges and in turn stimulate innovation," he said.

"Excitingly we've already begun some great work in the space with our supply innovation program that started up in Chile. The program has seen us create an open platform to connect our unique mining challenges with local suppliers and innovators.

"We provide the problem, they come to us with the solution - it was this ingenuity that recently delivered a new kind of maintenance robot, the first of its kind created by a local Chilean business," he said, adding the robot was being piloted at BHP's Olympic Dam mine in South Australia.