Although the industry works in a competitive world, some challenges need to be faced together, writes Paul Dowd, Non-Executive Director, Oz Minerals.

Paul Dowd, industry leader and chair of CSIRO Mineral Resources Advisory Council.

Process productivity article from resourceful: Issue 6, March 2014

It’s a well-known maxim in most industries that whatever competitive advantage one company thinks it may have at any point of time, it will eventually lose at another.

This holds true in mining.

We work in a competitive world, but some challenges need to be dealt with cooperatively.

Increasing energy waste and declining human and technological productivity in the mining sector is now a problem we all have to share.

Australia is the number one mining nation, but productivity has slipped faster and further than many of our competitors.

It was recently estimated by the Productivity Commission that our ‘cost of inputs’ required to get product out has increased 300 per cent in the past decade.

Why is this?

Energy costs are the easy explanation, but the problem is more intrinsic to our methods.

We lack ore-targeting intelligence.

We have not developed our manpower base strategically and we have limited means to deal sustainably with the mountains of waste our processes create.
Efficiency per se has not dropped, just outcomes.

Traditionally, comminution – the energy we put in to crush and mill rock – has been expended more on ‘brute force’ than ‘finesse’ and with continued declining grades, comminution energy efficiencies will continue to decline without greater focus on finesse.

We need to jointly invest in nanotechnologies that better discriminate between waste material and mineralised rock.

We have to make greater use of smarter geology using in-situ leaching of minerals.

High speed ore sorting technology will more efficiently classify ore material product into various streams, which can then be assessed for appropriate energy input.

We also need to reduce the substantial amounts of water we currently use to sift through material.

What about workforce dynamics? Much of the industry has evolved from a two weeks on, one week off ‘fly-in, fly-out’ work schedule towards an ‘even time’ roster.

The prerequisite additional shift of workers further burdened the productivity challenge.

I am highly supportive of an appropriate work–life balance, but something has to give.

What we have now is a poach and pay system.

When the going is good, we pay beyond our means to get skilled people.

When times are tough, we squander our investment in people through retrenchments.

What about proactively developing a skilled workforce that can be trained, efficient, across industries and available when cycles are up and collaboratively redeployed elsewhere when demand wanes?

Right now, poach and pay is responsible for a level of wages we can’t sustain – not just in monetary terms but in the greater productivity of human capital.

We know there are uses for waste material – in areas such as specialised pre-cast/pre-stressed concrete products and for road-making.

If we worked together with local councils to find commercial solutions for both the use and transport of the massive waste materials we generate, we would enhance sustainability.

This is about proactive thinking and planning.

There are sector advisory councils and we know that bodies such as the CSIRO not only work reactively to clients but proactively to find solutions for the problems of today and tomorrow – not as cost centres, but as essential innovators for competitive productivity.

We need to think more intelligently and strategically about the future needs of Australia’s most important export earner.

This is a matter of industrial survival, so let’s make sure we share – and embrace – the intellectual load.

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