Driving innovation with confidence

THE opportunity for miners to innovate their operations at a faster pace will come from an increasing amount of more reliable information becoming available for mining operations, according to Rio Tinto’s Andrew Shook. He said that armed with good information mining operations could innovate with confidence.

Rio Tinto Australia’s general manager of Surface Mining & Automation – Technology & Innovation presented on the topic ‘Innovation in Mining: Are We Really Different?’ at this year’s International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC) in Melbourne.

Innovation in mining is different, says Andrew Shook, and although the mining industry is often criticized for being slow to innovate, which he argues there is good reason for, he also stressed that armed with good information – and using it well – mining operations can reduce risk and complacency.

“Mining is a risky business and by its very nature you have to accept and deal with risk otherwise you’re not a miner,” he said. “We really don’t know what we’re going to get until we dig it out of the ground – that’s a fact – and we have no control over the prices of the materials we produce, we’re constantly exposed to those fluctuations, we’re constantly exposed to the unknown in the ground, and we’re often dealing in very remote places with difficult and dangerous pieces of equipment, so we need to minimize our impact on the environment and obviously protect our people and the people around us. Therefore risk is something that mining companies have to be good at managing.

“What I would say, however, is that we’re very cautious about multiplying risk. When a mine is valued and created you’re doing it on the assumption that it can be operated profitably with conventional technology. Now it’s not true of all mines, and certainly some mines have to innovate in order to exist in the first place, but in terms of risks to your shareholders you’d be delighted if you could provide those risks and returns without exposing them to the compounding risk of technology.

“Technological risk is something that the mining industry takes on very cautiously and only as absolutely necessary because it’ has got so much risk already in the ground and in the market. Proving something before it is deployed in the mine is actually a very wise thing to do and it makes a lot of sense.”

Andrew Shook added that along with the risk mining companies must factor in, complacency could also lead to slower technological innovation on site.

“The second reason I believe that mining innovation is different and is maybe a little less admirable, comes from success,” he said. “A profitable mine is often a comfortable place to be, and that’s not necessarily something that breeds innovation. Once something’s producing it’s a very human thing to kind of forget about it.”

Many successful mining companies, according to Andrew Shook, have adopted the ‘fast follower’ approach. Fast following is a method mining companies take when they observe new developments in other mining operations before taking it on board themselves.

Over the last seven years there have been a number of innovations that Rio Tinto has led in Australia in its quest to be the leader in mining technology and innovation. Andrew Shook believes that mining is going to go through a step change in technology, and the way to handle that is to increment through the step change.

“Every piece that Rio Tinto adds, adds value individually and is building towards our overall view of where technology is going in the mining industry as a whole,” he said.

He continued, saying mining automation and mining innovation is going to be about information. Rio Tinto’s Mine Automation Systems collect information from around a mine operation which can be visualized in one of its Excellence Centres.

“Rio Tinto’s actually constructed a machine for driving innovation that deals with risk and complacency head on – if we can see how the mines are going and we can combine that information through an Excellence Centre, and everybody can share that information, it’s very, very hard to resist improvements in the mines,” he said.

“A lot of the decisions that people make in mines today are actually made on the basis of information that is quite old. Those could be exploration holes or they could be development holes, or they could be information from an optimization of a mine that was done six months ago.

“I believe that that picture is changing significantly and what we’re seeing is that there is an increasing amount of information becoming more available for mining operations, and that means that the mining timescale is going to shift away from the older information and it’ll move to higher frequency more useful information coming at a higher volume and actually higher degree of reliability.

“And that’s an opportunity, but it’s also a commandment; if we’re sitting there as miners, awash in this sea of information, and we’re not doing anything with it, we’re not doing our job properly. Yes, it’s great, we’re going to be getting that information, but it’s essential that we do use this information and use it effectively.”

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