Edmand’s comments were later echoed and expanded upon by Rio Tinto group executive, technology & innovation Greg Lilleyman.
Australia is in a unique position to capitalise on a burgeoning METS sector.
However, as Edmands points out, the nation faces some issues – not least that it is a high cost economy.
Basically, Australia needs to become more competitive and make the most of every competitive advantage it can get – through the enabler of technology and innovation.
“Leveraging technology and innovation will require that Australia address some cultural issues,” Edmands said.
“Amongst those are low levels of collaboration and a history of research that is technically excellent but often lacks an eye to commercial application.”
Edmands said Australia’s educational system was not emphasising basic science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills and when people were highly trained, it was often to focus on technical excellence rather than on practicality.
One of the problems facing the Australian METS sector is that the bulk of the companies in it are small, or, at best, medium-sized enterprises.
They have great ideas. They have great potential solutions. But they lack the wherewithal and networks to break into mining supply chains – particularly global ones.
On the global front the METS space is dominated by those large players that have dominated it for some time.
Australia’s METS sector has been growing though.
Edmands is a supporter of the Australian government’s Growth Centres concept that brings together participants so they can do some strategic thinking about how to promote business opportunities so collaborative platforms can be created.
But he also sees the limitations of the approach including the need for one or more physical locations where researchers can get together.
“There are cities that have critical mass in the METS sector – for instance Brisbane or Perth, or indeed, Melbourne,” Edmands said.
“The METS Growth Centre the government is pursuing will presumably be located in one of those cities with necessary critical mass.
“But then there needs to be a matching exercises – ie collaboration – and it needs to speed up.
“Currently it takes five years between idea generation and practical application. This is too long.
“We need buyers and sellers to be linked, researchers to be linked with one another, finance providers to link with those that need finance, and those with strong technical and research expertise to be linked with providers of commercial services to develop and market their ideas.
“And we need all this to happen more and more quickly.”
Edmands suggests a virtual METS Innovation Hub – something akin to the Infrastructure Hub being created in Sydney for sharing world’s best practice in infrastructure.
He proposes a small secretariat that would monitor and maintain this METS Infrastructure Hub.
Ideally the METS hub would have the endorsement of state and federal governments, mining companies, the METS sector itself, universities, commercial service providers and financiers.
Researchers wanting to conduct commercial relevant research could review problems posted on the hub.
“A Rio Tinto would not have to decide whether to meet them following a cold call,” Edmands said.
“Rather, because it would be a supporter of the hub it would have someone monitoring everything posted on it, and, if it saw something of interest, it could follow up.”
In some ways this already exists with the work being done by Resources Innovation through Information Technology. It runs four “hackathons” a year where industry problems are put to a group and they try to come up with solutions to them.
Newton Labs came up with a solution to the problem of how to detect oversized product being placed in the back of dump trucks from the very first one.
Edmands said for the hub concept to work protocols would have to be in place to protect proprietary information.
He also called for business to become involved in encouraging students to take on STEM courses.
“We need to engage more with educational institutions in curricula development and in work experience opportunities,” Edmands said.
“We also need to advocate for development of STEM skills learning and we, as an industry, need to partner more with the tertiary sector in developing METS applications.
“And more than this, we need to make our sector attractive. The image of the mining and therefore the METS sector is under serious challenge.
“Yet METS is an area where Australia really can promote and offer high end, high technology manufacture and services.
“But we need to attract the best minds to our sector. And if mining has a poor image, they will be reluctant to come.”
Rio Tinto has certainly been promoting the high technology side of the industry – the sort of thing Edmands believes mining has to do to make itself more attractive.
Lilleyman also spoke at the conference about how technology could help improve productivity and create value.
“The Australian mining sector must continue to embrace the challenge of innovation and productivity if it is to gain a competitive advantage about some of this work,” he said.
Lilleyman then went on to outline some of the benefits Rio Tinto has received from its Mine of the Future program.
The most obvious example of that is the autonomous haulage system using robot trucks on its Pilbara mines but there is also the AutoHaul, driverless heavy haul long distance rail system, Autonomous Drilling System and the Rio Tinto Visualisation system.
RTVis, as it is known, creates a three dimensional image of the deposit in real time to match the geological model inside the pit o the GPS-controlled block models to mine the ore down to metres and centimetres if necessary.
The system is in use on four Pilbara sites and is also be trialled by Rio Tinto’s Coal and Copper group.
Those are just some of the toys in Rio Tinto’s box.
The thing to note though is that Australian thinking has had a large hand in the creation of some of those systems.
It is an example of how far the METS sector can progress if it is allowed to.