Training up for the future of automation

Rapid development of automation technology is not only catching mining companies, original equipment manufacturers and training providers off guard but could hit longwall mine workers who lack the necessary skills within 5-10 years.
Training up for the future of automation Training up for the future of automation Training up for the future of automation Training up for the future of automation Training up for the future of automation

Image from MISC's Automation for Success report.

Blair Price

Published in the June 2010 Australian Longwall Magazine

The Mining Industry Skills Centre’s recently completed Automation for Success report predicts a chronic automation skills shortage ahead, with automation implementation expected to peak in 2020.

While there is not an over supply of engineers developing automation technology, the real concern lies with the amount of electrical mechanics and technicians required to maintain and service the equipment once the development engineers move on.

To meet this challenge, MISC is starting to consult with education providers and the mining industry to set up a new job position – the automation technician.

The proposed skills for the Automation Technician build on the Certificate III in Electrotechnology Electrician.

MISC’s first goal is to investigate the current training capacity to develop automation technicians within the mining industry.

MISC research and development manager Debra Jones said another goal was for the industry to invest in electrical apprentices.

“If we don’t start now, [well] it takes four years to train a tradesman then we are going to be behind the eight ball from the start,” she said.

“By 2015 we will see a rise in automation and then by 2020 we believe there will be a lot more.”

But the steady march to the goal of a manless face will also change the make-up of a longwall workforce.

Jones said mines will need to work on change management as people move out of some roles into new ones.

“We’re going to have to transfer the skills of those people to be able to move into the diagnostics and maintenance of the machinery,” he said.

Central Queensland associate professor of mining Col Greensill is expecting a lot of the low-level skill jobs to disappear over the next decade or so because of automation.

For low-level skilled longwall workers looking for career advancement, he suggested gaining skills in high-pressure hydraulics,PLC control equipment, or to become an electrical fitter.

Greensill said conventional longwall mining still had a fair bit of life in it but it would take a few years to get the skills needed for automation.

“If you’re at a low skill level, it would be wise to start skilling up now because automation will be phased in, in that sort of timeframe.”

University of Queensland’s head of division of mining engineering Peter Knights is also a researcher at the Cooperative Research Centre of Mining which undertook the key research behind MISC’s report.

While he did not work on the project, he is involved with research issues around longwall systems.

“Autonomous operations will bring new challenges to maintainers, especially around knowledge of sensor systems and what canbe modularised in the autonomous systems,” he said.

Knights said this was because it was much easier to replace whole modules than smaller low-level components in autonomous systems.

Automation will also change the mine planning undertaken by engineers.

“From an engineering perspective, our interest is how to adapt the mine plan to take advantage of the capabilities of autonomous equipment,” Knights said.

“It is very difficult to retrofit automation to existing systems and existing mine plans – you need to plan the mine in advance of the autonomous system.

“From that perspective we’re beginning to work through our curriculum in terms of what are the capabilities of autonomous systems, and how you need to adjust panel designs to cater for autonomous equipment.”

Greensill recently inducted two more academic staff to help him develop course work to produce instrumentation technicians and control systems engineers for the upcoming boom in automation.

He said one of the biggest developments for the mining industry was the recognition that automation was inevitable.

On whether coal companies should foot the bill for the extra training, he would like to see the unions concentrate more on a possible education plan instead of bargaining mainlyon wages.

“It helps the workforce planning for the company and it also aids in retention because the workers can see that their job is going to evolve and be long term with some security in it.”

MISC estimates that 190 automation staff will be required each year to deliver 1500 staff across Australia over the next 15 years.

This was based on the assumptions thereare 500 sites around the country that will employ a higher level of automation during this period and each site requires an average 3-5 staff to provide 24-hour coverage and meet service demand.

Other assumptions include a 10% attrition rate typical of the electrical position and that the national mining industry could absorb150-200 people immediately.

“Start thinking about it now,” Jones said “Otherwise the investing in automation won’t work for the industry because they won’t be able to support it.”

Automation technicians are expected to have skills in computer networking, RF data communication, control system principles, PLC and SCADA systems, fieldbus technology, sensors and actuators and functional safety.

Companies taking part in MISC’s study include Anglo Coal Australia, BMA, Bucyrus, Peabody Energy, RTCA and Xstrata Coal.