Deputy chair of METS Ignited and managing director of leading Australian METS company Gekko Systems, ELIZABETH LEWIS-GRAY, shares her perspective on how Australia can capitalise on its leading METS sector to drive innovation and benefit the nation’s resources sector more broadly.
Why is Australia's mining equipment, technology and services (METS) sector central to mining innovation?
One of the most important factors of the Australian METS sector is that it is globally competitive and a world leader. It's one of our nation's core industries in terms of innovation. Unsurprisingly, Australia ranks like that in mining too.
Australian METS is central to innovation and it's not necessarily the research itself, but the commercialisation of it that converts and creates value in a monetary sense long-term. METS companies are really good at commercialising innovation, which helps create jobs and export opportunities for the Australian economy.
Australian METS are globally competitive and we can see that in the data. For example, 20 per cent of all mining equipment-related innovation by METS companies in Australia are exported. To export, a company must be competitive globally.
That correlates to the fact that the METS sector in Australia is worth $86 billion to the economy, and of that, $16 billion is in manufactured goods. Compare that to automotive manufacturing which is worth $9 billion. While we are, of course, sad about the decline of the nation's automotive industry, we have a globally competitive manufacturing industry in Australia in the METS industry that we believe can fill the gap.
How can Australia's METS sector create additional value for Australia?
When you have a globally competitive industry, you can also transfer capability from METS to other industries. If we don't have globally competitive channels, then we're not going to be able to maintain a world-leading status. Particular areas of importance for the future are data analytics, sensing, automation and artificial intelligence, for example.
How do you bring innovation to the Australian economy, unless you're operating at world-class level? Having world-class sectors like METS and mining are key to attracting talent and know- how to the nation.
For example, my company Gekko Systems is world-class at modular plants and we're transferring that knowledge to turn waste into energy technology. So, unless you're operating at a globally competitive level, it's hard to create new value for the economy that's sustainable long-term.
That is what the purpose of the METS Ignited Growth Centre is; to grow the METS sector's competitive advantage and productivity, globally, in order to grow business and jobs within the sector, as well as for Australia's mining industry.
What are some of the top innovations being born out of Australia's METS sector that we can offer the world, particularly in minerals processing?
Australia's national science agency, CSIRO, very much plays a role around sensing and analytics. CSIRO is particularly strong in this space and in many ways leading the world in this for the mineral processing industry.
Australia is also leading in mining contracting services, mine remediation and environmental services, as well as occupational health and safety. We provide a world-class service in these areas to emerging economies and nations, for example, helping operations understand how to best run their safety systems on-site and what the process should be for remediation.
Another top innovation example out of Australia, is the creation and export of mining-related hackathons, engineering, geological software, mineral processing, autonomous vehicles and remote operations.
Is the minerals and mining industry ready for disruption?
I think the mining industry is ripe for disruption and it's going to happen in the digital space first.
It's likely to come out of the technology sector with companies that have the market capitalisation and who may want to secure commodity supply, in particular a more socially-conscious supplier.
Social licence is one of the most significant factors at play, and arguably our industry's biggest challenge. Unless the mining industry addresses this head on, it will result in significant disruption.
What is the opportunity for Australia in the growing battery market?If we are producing battery materials like lithium and cobalt here, there's a real opportunity to firstly process, and then, lead the way in battery manufacturing. METS Ignited is working on bringing together organisations to realise this opportunity.
How can industry, government and the research sector come together to create more value for Australian mining and METS?
There is an enormous value to be made from collaboration. When we undertook our first industry sector competitiveness plan, collaboration was the single most cited factor and identified as the biggest opportunity.
Australia is ranked poorly globally on collaboration and it's certainly not a characteristic genome of the mining industry. Particularly in Australia, we like to do it alone. Greater collaboration is the big opportunity.
METS Ignited's Project Funds are designed to help teach researchers, METS and miners to work together and collaborate to achieve research outcomes.
The collaborative Project Funds involve finding a problem that a mining company is looking to resolve, working together to solve the problem, and splitting the funding 50/50.
What are the barriers to collaboration from your perspective?
In my view, one of the big factors is current procurement practices. Based on longstanding culture, miners tend to compete down to the lowest possible price, the standardisation of a product, and pay in arrears rather than in advance. Procurement systems do not encourage innovation or collaboration.
Most of the major western mining nations have very rigid and tight procurement practices, I don't believe that companies in China operate in the same way, for example. The risk is that we fall behind. The more flexibility companies have with pathways to purchasing, the greater capacity they have to innovate.
One company that is demonstrating speed of innovation and is making an impact in mining is Sumitomo. They are one of the largest companies in the world and are using lean principles. They've recently started to run their own operations rather than be a joint venture partner.
Another good example is Fortescue Metals Group who are driving costs down faster and getting faster results. They are not trying to strip every supplier of every cost, but rather, are finding the partners that add value and funding them to speed up innovation.
We want to encourage miners to benefit by working opening and collaboratively, without arrogance, with Australian METS companies. Our nation and METS companies have hands-on operational experience, long-standing knowledge and skills that they could leverage.