The machines are coming!

Automation in mining has been very slow to catch on. The reason is that much of the present batch of automated machines follow a sequence rather than think for themselves. When a sensor detects something out of line, safety protocols intervene and the sequence stops, undermining their cost effectiveness. Mining is a very dynamic environment and little things like rocks on the road present a complex challenge for a pre-programmed machine.

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What drives innovation?

Since the federal government has been bombarding us with political messages about innovation, I started to reflecting on what really drives innovation. I can’t speak for other industries but I would like to tell you my story. Everyone knows that the mining industry is tough right now. Back in 2012, MEC (my consulting company) collectively decided that we needed to be innovative to remain competitive as the mining boom slowed down. So we held some “blue sky” sessions to come up with ideas and started working towards commercialisation. We put on more staff than we needed to make it run day to day, admin people to free up some time and managers to look after the day to day so that we could collectively invest time into developing innovations. We held innovation sessions where we asked the staff to share their ideas. We asked people to work on their ideas and present them as a pitch for funding (Shark Tank style). We worked on cultures and values putting extra weight on thought leadership.

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From the Director’s chair

I’m writing to you today from my my new desk in our open plan office. It’s quite a cosy layout, with everyone effectively sitting on one great big long centre desk. Prior to our move I had an enclosed office, which at the time I thought was great because nobody hear confidential phone calls or see my screen when. Well now I’m fully converted to open plan. It can get a little noisy as we don’t have any policies about silence and making phone calls in quiet rooms, and in fact, a little banter is encouraged. The brilliant part is that now everyone knows what is going on with everyone else’s work. Collaboration has really lifted and the time we spend in meetings has declined because you can just yell out. Everything seems to happen faster in this environment.

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Why grads don’t operate equipment anymore

I started my career 18 years ago on a salary of $50,000 which was good money at the time. Mining was in a downturn and there weren’t too many jobs around. I sent 85 job applications and got one interview which thankfully went well and I got the job. Throughout the early part of my career a truck operator would get paid around $85,000 and most grads aspired to operating equipment for 6 months, motivated in large part by the extra money. Senior engineers in the 90’s were also actually mostly senior, many had aged enough to go a little grey or bald so it was understood that career aspirations would most likely take a while to play out.

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The cost of high mining intensity

During the mining boom years, the focus was on producing as much as possible from the resource to take advantage of higher prices. OEMs did very well selling the addition machinery required to achieve the extra production. So now that commodity prices are low and capacity is already installed, the main game of late has been to drive economies of scale by pushing production even higher. This approach carries a penalty that might not immediately be obvious.

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