MICHELLE ASH is a mineral resources industry leader in innovation and transformation who understands that people and processes enable technology to be harnessed. She has 25 years’ experience in mining, most recently as chief innovation officer at Barrick Gold, where she established a reputation for driving a more open, collaborative industry. Interview by TONY HESELEV
You joined the Global Mining Guidelines Group as Chairman last year. What are some of the projects you’re working on?
We are an industry association working with our members on greater collaboration in technology implementations ranging from battery electric vehicles, artificial intelligence (AI), automation and short interval control to the changing nature of key performance indicators.
What are the main opportunities around digital and other innovation that the mining industry needs to embrace?
We need to transform mining over the next 10 to 20 years because of declining investment in the industry, especially in gold, and lack of engagement of young people.
This transformation hinges on developing digital and processing technologies to drive productivity, environmental and safety improvements. This will help us meet some of the social challenges we are facing.
Miners should at least be getting underpinning technologies, such as connectivity ("WiFi to the face") and smart devices into the hands of employees to obtain and provide more data, plus sensors and automation to reduce health and safety risks.
Predictive analytics tools – a form of AI – can utilise the data to better predict geology, lead to fewer drill holes and improve exploration outcomes. Knowing what material is coming in will help us manage processing plants and enable better recoveries.
How can mining companies work better together to optimise these opportunities?
The industry is starting to embrace these initiatives but still sees them as single implementations rather than integrated technologies.
Automation of heavy equipment is not going to transform mining. But once your maintenance and machinery are automated and combined with AI to know your geology, and you control equipment and update in real time your plans to optimise performance, you can fundamentally change mining – and capital and operating costs.
My view is that mining companies should not compete on technology development, as difficult and costly as it is. We should compete on how rapidly we can implement that technology into our business because the technology is only about 30 per cent of the problem.
How you implement a technology, change the behaviours of your people and processes, and drive the economics into your business is a huge piece of work.
What are some of the hurdles or threats that mining companies are facing in the digital and innovation space?
While there are plenty of examples of miners embracing change, there are companies and people who have done things the same way for 20 years and have the attitude that if it ain’t broke, don't fix it. That’s a challenge.
Another is de-risking the technology, using good scientific practice to implement what was successfully trialled and fix aspects that weren't. As an industry, we've been too quick to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and we've also been guilty of persisting with implementations that weren't working. We need to be better at making those decisions.
You've said that millennials have very negative views about the mining industry. How can this be turned around?
I love the mining industry, and it fundamentally develops communities and countries and takes people out of poverty. We've seen this time and again.
I understand some of the broader thinking about recycling, the closed economy and improving safety – and we must accept that some of the things millennials are saying are right and work harder and faster in these areas.
They tend to either think we’re dinosaurs and would never consider working in the industry, or that we've solved everything. We need to get out and engage young people, and explain that we've got interesting problems to solve and that we work in interesting ways.
This is also about fully embracing diversity, to the extent of making managers and leaders uncomfortable because we will be embracing views that are different to our own.
Turning around millennials' views about the industry is vital because we won’t have a future workforce without them nor will we have sufficient investment or political support without their assistance.
What specific challenges is the gold industry facing in this space?
Social views are changing and these are affecting gold mining in several ways. You've got to wonder if tailings dams and the use of cyanide in gold mining will be increasingly banned or difficult to permit.
While many in the industry support the use of cyanide in gold mining and believe the risks can be managed, increasingly the view outside the industry is that it is a scary and unacceptable chemical that affects the health of people and waterways. We have to respect these views and find innovative solutions.
But eventually gold as a desirable product could also be impacted. Some of the lustre has already come off, with exchange traded funds (ETFs) and digital forms of gold shifting investment away from gold mining itself.
How can technology improve safety and environmental performance, especially in gold mines?
In many ways, including alternative technologies to cyanide, looking for ways to make in-situ leaching work, powering mines using sources other than diesel and coal, and driving the confluence of sensors, AI and automation to the point where no people are underground or at the "coalface".
Can Australia play a world-leading role in the development of automation?
Australia is advanced in automation and remote operations compared to other countries, though it's taken a long time to get there.
We can play a vital role in exporting these technologies to the rest of the industry, but I'd like to see the development of more holistic automation solutions rather than the point solutions that we've got at the moment.
If we are seen as a leader, we will attract leading ideas at the same time as helping the rest of the industry. This is how the start-up industry has developed in the US.
Any practical tips on implementing digital technologies?
Get your processes right before you digitise them, focus on one thing that's practical and achievable and that’s going to make an impact to your business to gain credibility, and build from there.
Don't be over-ambitious, use agile techniques working with your customers, and know what things you want to keep the same and others that can change.
Design thinking is important because it can make the technology easier to use and this helps achieve what you really want: more rapid adoption. You don't really want the technology implemented; you want to enable behavioural change through the technology.