Smart Mining Conference 2019. Image: Institute for Advanced Mining Technologies

Mining innovation: a people perspective

When it comes to innovation in mining, the human element is often overlooked. However, this was not the case at the third annual Smart Mining Conference in November

I attended the Smart Mining Conference in Aachen, Germany, in November, hosted by the Institute for Advanced Mining Technologies (AMT) at RWTH Aachen University. The event explored some of the projects that the AMT is a part of, as well as new technologies and mining techniques (dredge mining in flooded pits anyone?).

In general, the presentations were all really interesting, but what pleased me the most was the underlying theme of people and the role they have to play in the future of the mining industry.

When it comes to innovation and industry 4.0, the human element is often overlooked in favour of more exciting, dare I say, ‘sexier’, equipment and concepts. Nevertheless, it’s incredibly important, and it was refreshing to see this aspect take centre stage for once.

“Innovation has a lot to do with people and competencies,” said Dr Elisabeth Clausen, director of the institute, in her opening address. “Culture, values and vision are all key enablers of innovation processes. Innovation requires people to develop a clear roadmap to help navigate companies through unknown territory.

“Trust, collaboration, curiosity and perseverance are all values that are needed for thriving innovation and transformation. It is therefore important that the human factor remains central in all our discussions about smart mining and the future of the industry.”

AMT's director, Dr Elisabeth Clausen, delivers the Smart Mining Conference welcoming address.
AMT’s director, Dr Elisabeth Clausen, delivers the Smart Mining Conference welcoming address. Image: Institute for Advanced Mining Technologies

Linking people & technology

As McKinsey & Co’s Otto van de Ende pointed out in his presentation, without people, there is no innovation.

“We need to get the most out of the technology that we are investing in and creating,” he said. “There is a misconception that the fourth industrial revolution will reduce the number of jobs available, but the reality is that GDP will grow and new jobs will be created.

“What it will do is create a different focus and a shift in people requirements; there is a need to remove people from harms way and automate some of the more repetitive tasks which changes the physical nature of jobs.”

According to research by McKinsey, overall equipment efficiency (OEE) and effectiveness in the mining industry is much less than in other sectors. For example, in underground mining, OEE stands at just 27%, open pit mining is slightly better at 39% and crushing and grinding at 69%.

These numbers are low when compared to oil and gas operations (88%), steel manufacturers (90%) and oil refineries (92%) which are much more digitally advanced.

There are also higher expectations on sustainable and responsible business practices. But, as van de Ende explained, despite the inherent challenges, there is still a significant opportunity to improve OEE and productivity in mining.

This is where digitization and tools such as advanced analytics and AI, robotics, physical automation and software automation, come into play.

Redistributing & replacing talent

As part of the move towards digital technologies and processes, there will be a shift away from physical and manual skills, towards higher cognitive skills, advanced IT programming, analytics and scientific R&D.

To meet this requirement, the industry needs to attract and retain new talent as well as upskill its current workforce and support them through change.

According to van de Ende, the impact of an ageing workforce will be felt greatly by the mining industry over the next 10 years. He cited another McKinsey survey which rated the perceived impact of potential talent loss to an ageing workforce over the space of 10-20 years. 26% of those surveyed rated the mining industry as at crisis level, and a further 26% rated it as a significant potential problem.

To exacerbate the situation, at present, engineering students are very unlikely to enter the mining industry. In a 2018 survey of the world’s most attractive employers, there were no mining companies among those most desired by engineering students. Over 50% said they would like to work for a technology company. However, as van de Ende pointed out, mining companies and vendors are tech companies these days!

To counteract this, the mining industry needs to make its workplaces more attractive to a diverse workforce and rethink its recruitment and retention practices.

High quality talent is difficult to find in today’s market, and this means that success requires a thoughtful and robust approach which encompasses: digital talent acquisition and strong HR practices, continual professional development, fair skills evaluation and compensation for employees, plus career progression; all of these elements play a role in talent retention and workforce satisfaction.

Van de Ende mentioned companies like BHP which is working toward creating a 50% female workforce by 2025, and Rio Tinto which has introduced a global standard of 18 weeks paid leave for new parents. Newmont is another good example; the company has a board comprised of 58% gender and ethnically diverse members.

“Companies need to adapt their talent management processes and think holistically about personal and professional development,” he said.

Carly at the Smart Mining Conference 2019
Carly tries VR technology developed by the SIMS team at the Smart Mining Conference 2019. Image: The Intelligent Miner

Increasing diversity

Van de Ende also talked about gender diversity and the impact that increasing the percentage of women on a company’s executive committee can deliver. In 2018, only 14% of the global mining workforce was female and of this number, only 3% were in operational roles.

However, it has been demonstrated that companies in the top quartile regarding gender diversity see an average 21% increase in profitability and 27% difference in value creation compared to those in the bottom quartile

“Currently, we are not tapping into half of the population,” he said. “That’s half the potential talent pool we need to secure the mining industry’s future.”

The theme also carried over into a presentation by Epiroc’s Jan Gustafsson who helps lead the Sustainable Intelligent Mining Systems (SIMS) project in Scandinavia, part of the EU’s Horizon 2020 initiative.

One of the work packages at SIMS specifically addresses the workplace of the future and how technologies can be leveraged to make conditions safer and more attractive to the workforce.

Gustafsson also talked about SIMS’ outreach programme and the role that social media, the SIMS website and regular media updates can play, not just in keeping the general public informed and engaged with the project, but also in attracting younger people into the industry.

Another interesting presentation came from Jan Johansson of Luleå University of Technology in Sweden. Johansson discussed the potential for technology in enhancing and improving the role of mine operators, from exoskeletons that increase strength and endurance, to augmented technologies which reduce potential for human error, and wearables that monitor workers vital signs.

And these were just a small selection of the presentations delivered over the two-day period.

Still room for people

What struck me the most was that, in every scenario discussed at the Smart Mining Conference, there was space for people.

The roles might be different to those that we know today, but it is obvious that if people are open and flexible to change then opportunity awaits. The emphasis will be very much on employers within the mining sector to manage and support people throughout this journey.

In conclusion, digital technologies are not job thieves, they are a force for change. One that, if managed properly can enable the creation of an advanced and highly skilled workforce.

A workforce that talent, both old and young, will want to be a part of.

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