Op-ed: Automation: How far have we truly come?

Automation in the mining industry is still at a very early stage. Many people will think it's probably further along than it is, but very few companies are running automated equipment today. Mostly automation is within the haulage fleet of large open pit operations.

Joe Carr
 Automation will be crucial in upskilling mining’s workforce

Automation will be crucial in upskilling mining’s workforce

The key example here is the Pilbara in Western Australia and within the large iron ore operations there: Rio, BHP, FMG and Roy Hill. To a large extent, they have been the technology drivers with the big Original Equipment Manufacturers, CAT and Komatsu.

Over the last 15 years, these companies have pioneered automated trucking fleets and spent money to develop the technology. For example, Rio Tinto's autonomous train is estimated to have cost around  US$1bn to build. However, the savings for these companies from the efficiency gains have been significant. They have managed to lower costs for production from $20+/t in the early 2000s to just above $10/t today and increase production rates at the same time. 

These advances have made wider industry automation more possible, and as the cost of the technology reduces, smaller and midsize companies especially can begin to take advantage.

An open pit operation will always be the easiest location for automated technology. Simple communication systems will be the backbone of this. Whether it's LTE, Wi-Fi or 5G, you cannot have automation without an effective communication system. Underground operations will be the last area to automate, given its more complex working environment. However, the benefits of automation will be significantly larger underground than in an open environment. 

Benefits of automation 

Automation has a range of benefits, including the cost efficiencies of an autonomous fleet over a manually operated one. 

For example, the average truck will have 2.5 drivers per day. These will work day and night shifts with some spare capacity for holidays and leave. They do not work a whole 12-hour shift - they stop for shift changes, break times, lunch, dinner and, to simply go to the toilet. 

An automated truck also does not stop for any reason beyond fuelling and maintenance and therefore gets two or more hours of production per day. 

Lowered operational costs - an operator no longer needs to sit in a truck. One person can operate multiple trucks, meaning we need fewer people. 

Safer operations - automated vehicles do not get tired or distracted. People are also removed from the site - resulting in lower costs, less impact on people, and lower turnover, and it eliminates the chance of injuries. 

Then there are the ESG commitments and workforce benefits - moving operations from a site to a city or town provides the chance to hire a more diverse workforce and gives the flexibility to work around family life. This kind of flexibility is not possible on remote mine sites. 




There is also upskilling the workforce - people are no longer sitting in a truck. Now they are involved in networks and computing.


Companies are more focused on work-life balance for staff. It's impractical and costly to take people away from their families for extended periods. Given the continual skills shortage, automation offers a way to attract and retain talent. 

Technology is getting cheaper, and internet speeds are faster than ever, allowing for the efficient and quick movement of large volumes of data when needed. 

On the other side, automation in domestic road vehicles means that LIDAR and other technological components are getting smaller, cheaper, and more widespread - allowing smaller players to move into a market and driving retrofit adoption into existing fleets.

Obstacles to implementation

 Even though automation has many benefits, it is still expensive and complex. There are a few significant reasons for this. 

Companies have to choose between shareholder payments, reinvestment, or exploration. The scars of 2008 still exist, and most mining firms are still committed to paying shareholders rather than spending more on operations.  

A specific vision and skill set is required to make automation work. Currently, there is no true off-the-shelf automation system a mine can buy, have delivered, and will work immediately. There are several areas which need to be reviewed, assessed, planned for, and then executed. When building a new mine, you can include automation in the planning. But most mines are not new and therefore require a refit of existing fleets. 

Staffing issues - an automated mine needs fewer workers. Many workers are therefore hostile to the change in their jobs or job losses - whether true or not, it is still always a key cause for pushing back.  

Many remote mines will face ESG issues from the local population around jobs or with unions. These communities rely on work, and it's often part of the company's licence to operate that the mine generates jobs (skilled or unskilled). 

The jurisdictions we see leading in automation. In Canada and Australia, over 80% of the companies we surveyed in our latest Metals and Mining Innovation Forecast are deploying automation systems, compared to Africa, where that figure is below 20%. 

A lack of skills to make these things happen. Many mines struggle to recruit operators and engineers. Once you add data science, networking and automation talent into the mix, it's clear the industry will face issues in recruitment and retainment.  

Should mining look elsewhere?

No one can question the success of large iron ore operators with automation over the last decade and the advances we are now seeing in other operations, especially in underground.

However, mining should look to other industries for a future roadmap. Until the mining industry moves into fully autonomous operations - where decisions are made on the vehicle and not a server - we will not achieve a true scaling of technology. 

Current communication and knowledge limitations, although not game-ending, are barriers to adoption that to some, mean autonomous operations will not happen. 

Looking towards the automotive sector, we can see what mining should be, and is, moving towards. Mines, although complex, are less so than the outside environment. We have defined working locations, patterns, and routes. Autonomous passenger cars have to operate in far more complex environments, and yet they are more advanced and widespread than mining vehicles. Being able to buy an off-the-shelf vehicle and run it with minimal setup must be an industry goal. Ideally, with retrofit control to the existing fleet. 

Finally, we must decide what the mines of the future will be. Many believe the ultra-class truck will be a thing of the past, with new mines opting for a higher number of smaller trucks - each being battery-powered and autonomous. It would allow for significantly smaller infrastructure and a lower cost base. 

Ultimately automation in mining is now inevitable, much like the tractor replacing the horse on the farm. We will see more and more automation coming into the market. It will always begin with trucking fleets, drills, and dozers. These are simple, repeatable tasks, usually confined to a fixed working area. 

The big question will be the pace at which we see that transition and the impacts on the industry.  It's easy to imagine a world where high-cost jurisdictions are almost entirely automated, and lower-cost mining locations are not - whether because of unions, social licence issues or merely a lack of need due to lower-cost skills available. In 50 years, we may see physical operating machinery all but extinct in certain countries.

The impact on the skills within the industry and its consequences are unknown - but it's coming, and we need to be ready for this new exciting era of mining.  

Joe Carr is Mining Innovation Director at Axora

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