To combat declining productivity, miners, researchers and technology companies need to come together to develop technologies that allow real-time, whole-of-life management of our resources, writes Jonathan Law, Director of the Minerals Resources Flagship.

Jonathan Law, Director of CSIRO Mineral Resources

Jonathan Law, Director of CSIRO Mineral Resources

Directors comment from resourceful: Issue 6, March 2014

It is clear that as we grapple with challenges relating to grade, quality, depth and safety we have reached, or are about to reach, the limits of traditional technologies deployed in the mining industry.

Australia’s mining productivity is declining and the reasons for this are complex.

However one truth that we cannot escape is that many of the next generation of deposits are lower in grade, more complex and more challenging to mine than ever before.

Fortunately, there is a new wave of technologies born out of the global digital revolution that are bringing together the real and virtual worlds in ways that we have not seen before.

These technologies will enable the mining industry to manage inputs and outputs in a much more structured way, as real-time information becomes available throughout the mining process via new sensing technologies, cheap and efficient computer systems and an ability to deal with interconnecting, complicated datasets.

This real-time data allows us to think about the flow of materials, from resource to product, in much the same way as manufacturers think about their process, from raw material to manufactured product.

The mining industry hasn’t been able to make full use of these digital technologies because they, and the integration platforms, are only now being developed and commercialised.

Those that already exist have to be adapted to be resilient enough to withstand the harsh mine environment and they also need to be better integrated, rather than be ‘point solutions’ for specific issues – this means shared data standards and control systems.

This will dramatically change the way we mine – in terms of optimising performance of individual unit operations, but more importantly, for optimising a whole system, from the orebody through to mining strategies, process control and environmental outcomes.

Miners will increasingly take a holistic view of the resource and the downstream implications.

It will drive an iterative mine planning process that will assess the triple bottom line benefits to provide better productivity, better long-term outcomes and new opportunities to manage evolving risk profiles through the life of an operation.

Areas where these sensors will be most crucial are in process productivity, rapid resource characterisation, and intelligent mining and ore management. This issue of resourceful focuses on each of these three areas.

Of course, these are all sequential parts of the value chain, but the real opportunity is integration across all three.

Once we have this whole-of-life, real-time view of a mine, then we can start questioning the fundamental technologies that we currently use.

This may mean a move towards new mining technologies, more sophisticated processing techniques or alternative sorting strategies that, in turn, allow different transport and waste strategies.

So what does this mean for Australian productivity?

In the short term, a new ‘forensic’ approach to system optimisation will have a positive impact on productivity. In the longer term, it could drive a whole new approach to mining that is lower in impact, more productive and, most importantly, allows us to mine resources that can’t be mined today.

Australian companies are already the largest supplier of mining-related software in the world and organisations such as the Deep Exploration Technologies CRC, CRC Ore, CRCMining and CSIRO are leading the way in developing the necessary tools, sensors, data systems and process understanding.

The momentum for change is unstoppable – all of the enabling pieces are there but they need to be brought together, focussed and applied.

To do this we need collaboration at every level. Necessity will compel the industry to work together in the development of technology, which they have traditionally done in competition.

Real competitiveness lies in the use of these technologies to drive optimal outcomes rather than in a multitude of protected, poorly integrated solutions.

One thing is certain, the necessity for change is here today and Australia is well placed to lead the revolution.

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