Keeping pace with rapid technological change and disruption is an emerging challenge that the mineral resources industry and research sector need to pay attention to, says industry leader and chair of CSIRO’s Mineral Resources Advisory Council, Paul Dowd. Interview by ADAM COURTENAY
What are the greatest challenges the mineral resources industry is facing today?
Many of the great challenges relate to lower grade orebodies, more complex metallurgy, exploration under cover and community acceptance. They remain the big challenges and are well known.
But, there is one challenge that is only just emerging. We used to be able to consolidate technology and that's not possible now. Change is happening so quickly and the period of consolidation of technology is no longer linear, but exponential. New technology creates redundancy in some previous developments and therein lies one of the great challenges. Things are becoming redundant so quickly. Before we know it, there's a better system out there.
Understanding the probability of ranges of disruptive technologies and research outcomes, by using auditable processes, could significantly manage the risk of wasted research and other investment resulting from premature technology redundancy.
From your perspective, what needs to happen to solve these challenges?
There are two things we need to think about. Firstly, nanotechnology. A fighter jet may cost $200 million because it has so many safety measures in the system to protect the pilot. Take the pilot out of the aircraft and use a drone, and then there's no more need for costly protective systems. We need to think the same way in mining – rather than larger pieces of equipment with large development to get them in and out, we research from a nanotechnogy perspective. We must go from big is beautiful to small is beautiful.
Let's not lose site of the fact that CSIRO discovered WiFi. Everything we've seen in disruptive technology would not exist if WiFi had not been discovered by CSIRO. — Paul Dowd, industry leader
The other thing is energy viability. As the trucks, loaders and dozers get bigger, they all use the same sort of energy – liquid hydrocarbons. We need to look at electric energy which is 95 per cent efficient compared to diesel combustion, which is at best 40 per cent efficient.
Then there's energy storage. It's still in its infancy and it's clumsy, but we now have to be looking at storage in the mining industry – not the least because we're operating in very isolated areas. Now, if there were some way to have adequate storage then we could seriously consider renewables and a whole range of associated technologies.
Additionally, with the emergence of new demand for particular minerals and elements, there is likely to be a "re-balancing" of other minerals within a possible completely new era of energy.
What do you see as the main role of CSIRO, Australia's innovation catalyst, in working with the industry and solving these challenges?
The main role of CSIRO is to continue with the culture it has been so good at adopting – working in tandem with industry. CSIRO has virtually reinvented itself and adopted a far more commercial-facing culture. It's training people to understand the commercial reality of getting ideas from concept, through to research into verification and then onto market.
It has also developed a new operating paradigm "fast to fail". Failure can be one of CSIRO's most important tools. Proving quickly that something doesn't work opens the door to those ideas that will. This concept is far more appropriate in this era of rapid technology disruption. In research terms, CSIRO is ahead of the game in this area. It has to help the mineral resources industry to get to a "fail fast" mentality.
What value is CSIRO creating for the mineral resources industry in Australia and globally?
Let's not lose sight of the fact that CSIRO discovered WiFi. Everything we've seen in disruptive technology would not exist if WiFi had not been discovered by CSIRO.
CSIRO still needs to have the backroom boffin – the person who looks over the horizon and sees the next WiFi-like breakthrough. That said, CSIRO still has to keep focused on the disruptive technology era and learn to manage it better.
What we need is a recognised process or processes deployed before we start spending on research. If we understand the probability of a certain number of ranging outcomes, we are not just betting the farm on any one thing.
CSIRO can be scientific in selecting which directions it heads in and, in doing that, it'll come up with something nobody expected.
How do you see the organisation supporting industry growth in Australia?
It's all about CSIRO being at the centre of the minerals value chain, which goes from exploration through to the marketing of various products.
In the past 10 to 15 years, we have treated each of the processes separately, albeit, with some minor integration. We need to go beyond that now, by putting together real data with different probes, measuring devices and instantaneous measuring that is then sent to big data computers. We'll then start to see relations that we can't currently identify along the value chain. That may alone be one of the big breakthroughs.
In data management terms, the chain will be fully integrated. But, there may be adverse consequences. Once you have all the data coming in and analysed instantly, it probably makes you more prone to cyber attacks than ever before. It could hold a company to ransom. This is a real problem we have to face up to.
How essential is collaboration to industry innovation?
Collaboration is a good thing. We still find that companies at the big end of town think they have a competitive advantage in technological developments and don't want to share that.
But, we can collaborate in the pre-competitive space, such as for cybercrime solutions. For example, the industry needs patches to stop cybercrime. If miners do this individually, there will be huge opportunities for cyber criminals to get in and knock each one of us off in turn. If we're together on this, there's a better chance to be secure against cybercrime.