That having been said, the reality is there are few perfect ore bodies in the world and most of us have to deal with less than ideal products of nature and do our best to make them competitive. With the current downturn in commodity prices this has become a battle for survival.
So what will the new mining industry landscape look like?
To me there appears to be two different types of change that occur in any industry. There are those changes that take place because a certain piece of technology or practice becomes ubiquitous in everyday life and then there are those changes brought about out of necessity, or in some cases I am sure, out of desperation.
An example of the former is the use of mobile phones. These items are so useful to us in our personal lives that the integration into our working lives has been automatic and in many cases unplanned.
The adoption of robotics in the production of cars is an example of the second form of change. As new manufacturers; with lower cost structures, in particular lower labour costs, entered the market, traditional manufacturers needed to adopt new technology to remain competitive. This was perhaps not such an unfamiliar path for the motor industry, after all Henry Ford was the father of the production line and automation is a logical progression.
The mining industry on the other hand, appears to be more resistant to change, or at least slower to adopt new technology. There may be a number of reasons for this. For example, the life of a new mining project or remaining reserves of an older mine may be insufficient to justify the level of capital expenditure required. Whilst this may be true in some cases it needs to be carefully examined in those mines with a history of continuing to find more ore.
I have also heard it argued that the mining environment is a particularly harsh one and adapting technology designed for the controlled environment of a factory floor may not be successful because the conditions in a mine are not only normally more aggressive but also more variable. Personally I believe that this argument is spurious. Many technologies have originated in or been successfully adapted to military use, which in many cases is at least as harsh as any mining setting.
Whilst commodity prices were high the industry had a focus on maximising output. With the decline in prices the focus must come back onto cost effective production and it is now time that companies took a hard look at the technologies that are already available in the mining industry but not widely deployed, as well as figuring out how the most recent batch of technologies can be usefully applied in the mining environment.
At least 10 years ago I was made aware of a technology produced by ABB that would automatically adjust an underground mines ventilation circuit according to activity within the mine. Using remote sensors linked to a leaky feeder radio system the flows in both the primary and secondary ventilation circuits could be adjusted to account for the level of contaminants and temperature in the working headings. In the intervening period the technology has become more mature and capable. http://new.abb.com/docs/librariesprovider78/documentos-peru/presentaciones-primeras-jornadas-tecnicas-abb-peru/pa/abb-smart-ventilation-patrik-westerlund.pdf?sfvrsn=2.
Over the course of a year the use of this system could make a huge difference to the cost of ventilation by only drawing sufficient air through the workings as required at any point in time. The spin-off in terms of OH&S benefits are obvious as the ventilation flows are adjusted to maintain the air in all working areas at safe temperature and contaminant levels.
Yet despite the availability of this technology, I am not aware of its use at a mine in Australia. In a country where electricity is expensive, particularly in remote locations where many power stations are diesel powered, it appears crazy not to have deployed it.
ABB has also developed a tagging system using RFID that could reliably tag every man entering a mine whilst sitting in a 4WD driving at 30 km/h. By deploying further RFID readers around the mine, the location of individuals; at least within sections of the mine, could be detected.
Whilst some might cling on to retention of a manual tag board as a failsafe system, duplication of the managing computer system would actually render such a backup unnecessary. After all, many of us travel thousands of kilometres on aircraft where the only connection between the controls in the cockpit and the control surfaces is via an electrical cable and three independent computers!
Everyone is now talking about the Internet of Things (IoT) where small, connected devices can turn your lights on or off from your mobile phone, where an App will allow you to check whether or not you left the gas on and where a fridge magnet can be used to scan the package of the cheese you have just finished and add it to your shopping list, which of course will be delivered to your mobile phone.
With all of this technology available there must be opportunities to apply these or similar devices in a mining environment. Many of them may only make small contributions to cost savings or efficiency, but as the old saying goes "take care of the pennies and the pounds take care of themselves".
Gold Fields office in Johannesburg, is so far the only place where I have seen lights automatically turn off in offices when there is inactivity for a set period of time, indicating either that the occupant has left the room or has fallen asleep! In either case the lights are no longer required and energy is saved. This type of technology should be incorporated in new mine site buildings as a matter of course and consideration given to retrofitting in older sites.
Does a mine store need to be manned any more, except for restocking of course. Scanning an item as it is removed from the store should enable proper inventory control. So long as the employee withdrawing the item scans a personal ID card or job code, the cost can be allocated to the appropriate operating area. If one is concerned about the theft or simply laziness, then RFID tagging can at least provide a backup for inventory control even if the cost area cannot be assigned.
Technology is already at a stage where production can be monitored in real time with managers and supervisors able to view progress remotely via an app on their mobile phone, tablet or PC. There may well be examples of this type of technology already in use in Australia but they are, at present as far as I am aware, limited.
Those companies that are destined to survive will adopt as many of these new technologies as are useful and assist in reducing costs. The deployment of each, must of course be economically justified but I think that as an industry we need to open our thinking to embrace change more rapidly rather than find obstacles to slow down change and keep the landscape familiar.
Hopefully in the future we might talk about the Internet of the Mine!