Monday, February 13, 2017

Riding the Boom and Bust in the Resources Industry

Will the next mining boom help or hinder our efforts to innovate and transform?

Last December, I wrote a short post on LinkedIn to point out that commodity prices seem to be bouncing back in a concerted way that may indicate the start of another resources boom.  I wondered whether that was this "Another dead cat bounce, or has the worm turned for mining? The latest RBA commodity price index has the weighted average (by value) of the prices for Australia's commodity sector clawing back to above the depths it sunk to post GFC".  (Note: RBA = Reserve Bank of Australia and GFC = Global Financial Crisis.)

The trend has continued since then, and we've now had seven consecutive monthly rises in the RBA commodity price index.  The latest version of this index (incorporating data up to end March 2017) shows the prices rising across all of the resource bulk commodities (iron ore, met coal, thermal coal, base metals, oil&gas).  In fact in the last 4 months the index has risen as fast as it did during the pre and post GFC periods, shown as two peaks on the following graph.  The index is now higher than it was at any time before mid 2008.

I've often used this index to illustrate price trends since it smoothes out much of the noise seen in the trends for the individual commodities.  The log scale also helps to take the focus away from the extreme peaks and allows exponential rates to be seen as straight lines.

If this trend continues through 2017, then we are definitely back into a resources boom.  Increased prices lead to increased profits (and taxes) which lead to increased investment in production expansion.  In addition, since we are now exporting more of these commodities than ever before, the value to the Australian economy is such that the current account deficit has turned around and is moving towards parity in the value of imports versus exports.

The economic impact in Australia of the previous boom was fairly obvious, and it has been widely accepted as the main reason for the lack of any serious post-GFC recession in Australia.  This is explained in detail in a study by the RBA published in December 2014, which shows that the impact extended across a range of economic indicators (household income, exchange rates, unemployment, inflation, interest rates).  This economic impact was predicted to have a positive effect well into the future even if prices remain low.

So despite several years of pundits and politicians claiming that the mining boom is over and that we need to transition our economy to new industries, we may now get back to the "good times".  The risk is that investment and capital spending will escalate and everyone will forget about all belt tightening and diversification.  Companies and governments will jump back on the gravy train and the resulting expansions in production will thereby set up the conditions for the future oversupply in the market and so giving rise to another bust.

Btw, I'm not saying the boom is definitely back, and in fact my previous predictions of the inevitable return of a resources boom have proven to be premature.  On one hand, long term demand trend for basic bulk commodities has to be onwards and upwards due to the continued growth in population and urbanisation in China, India and Brazil in particular.  On the other hand, the short term demand trend has been very flat in recent years, and there have been many explanations for the current price turnaround that suggest it may be only temporary, for example in recent news articles that quote the Citi Group.

My main point is that regardless of what happens this year, the underlying demand curve dictates that the boom has to come back sometime and this will inevitably lead to another bust.  The commodity boom and bust cycle has been evident since the industrial revolution, but has become much more extreme and much less predictable in the last 10 years than in previous decades.   This is inevitable when nobody is planning for any longer than two or three years.  In supply chain circles this boom and bust cycle is called the Bullwhip Effect due to how quickly the transitions occur.

This cycle has had the effect of disrupting long term efforts in improving the capability in the industry to make systemic change and hence transform to better ways of working.  The net result has been declining productivity, largely through having mined the best parts of the best orebodies without adequate replacement through exploration discovery.

Regardless of whether we're in a long bust or locked in a boom and bust cycle, they both add to a poor public perception of the mining industry.  Instead of a vibrant industry that is seen as smart, safe and sustainable, we have a widespread public perception that it's dumb, dangerous and dead!

I'm reminded of a talk given by Professor Bruce Hebblewhite  at the 1st Future Mining Conference at University of NSW in November 2008, where he argued that one of the biggest issues facing the industry was the "chronic shortage of skilled employees to serve both the needs of this industry growth, as well as replacement of what is typically an ageing workforce".  At the time, I had also been involved in a number of activities around addressing this issue, not just from an education perspective, but also from a knowledge management perspective aimed at making better use of available expertise and learning from both successes and failures in innovation.

This conference was held right at the peak of the initial boom and while the GFC had hit the financial markets in early 2008, it was not until the very end of 2008 that we saw a crash in the commodity prices.  As the history in the above graph shows, the GFC simply burst a short term commodity price bubble and it was less than 2 years before prices came back stronger than before.  So the trend can be described as essentially a long boom between 2003 and 2011, albeit with a pretty big speed bump.  Since then we've been in a long bust, perhaps with another speed bump happening right now.

During this bust, all of the activities around addressing the shortage of expertise lost momentum very quickly once it was obvious that more people were being retired or laid off than were being hired.  Many of those laid off by mining companies went into consulting and other services, so for a while there was no shortage of available expertise for almost any purpose.  The constant cost-cutting initiatives by the mining companies over the last 5 years have also led to significant job losses in the services companies.

I don't think the causes of the downturn since 2011 have been adequately explained, but it's clear that the shear number and size of the expansion projects during the boom have caused the bust to be much longer than anyone anticipated.  The 4-5 year lag between planning and first ore production means that we've been adding product to a depressed market in unprecedented volumes.  Perhaps the excess production has now been adsorbed, particularly for higher quality ores.

Professor Hebblewhite also said in 2008 that the problem for the research sector is that the mining industry has Alzheimer's Disease and keeps forgetting what has happened in the past.  The universities struggle with meeting the changing industry demand for graduates in this boom and bust cycle, since they also have a 4-5 year lag in responding to changing demand.  Just ask any head of a university Mining Engineering Department about how many new students enrolled in 2016 and 2017.

Mining Engineering graduates are like the "canary in the mine" since their only industry career path is mining.  With something like a tenth of the intake in boom times, I say good luck to those few students who have taken the plunge when almost everyone of influence was saying the industry was dead and buried).  They will likely graduate in a time of high demand for young mining engineers.

So it's not hard to predict that if the boom is back, there's going to be a lot of complaining about a chronic shortage of skills.  I expect it's going to be worst this time, because the length of the recent downturn will have driven many people from the industry permanently, particularly those who chose early retirement when they were laid off.  Others will have swapped careers and may not be tempted to return to such a volatile industry.  There will be some who have chosen to use the time to up-skill through post-graduate study and they will definitely gain from any turn-around in the market.  There will also be a migration from services companies back into mining companies.  The overall capability in the industry, however, will be significantly less than it was during the last boom, particularly in regards to people with an ability to innovate and implement change.

As we saw in the previous boom, the churn created by competition for expertise will disrupt the long term research and innovation programs in both industry and universities.  In addition, the change in the focus in innovation investment from topics relevant to cost cutting to topics relevant production expansion will also have a disruptive effect.  Much of the current research and development being conducted by mining service companies (the METS sector) will also be impacted by a loss of expertise and a changing innovation focus by their clients.  When mining companies change their focus, the existing research projects get stranded as the attention turns to other topics and hence moves to other research partners, who are then in direct competition with mining companies for the required expertise.

Some research and innovation areas will be able to readily adapt, for example the application of remote operations, advanced analytics and mobile solutions, since they first started to take off in 2007, so had already proven their worth in both boom and bust market conditions.  Nevertheless, demand for experts with both deep domain knowledge and technology skills will lead to problems in achieving success in these applications.  That is, expertise will be sought without this "double deep" capability and this will then lead to poorly defined and executed initiatives.  In addition, the limited pool of the best expertise will see a lot of churn as they get attracted into new jobs and have to start over.

There are also a lot of other issues that restrict the mining industry from developing the capability it needs to transform itself to a more modern digital future, and I gave a long list of these in an article in March last year, when I posed: Are we ready for the brave new world in mining?

This brave new world of the "Next Generation, Network Centric, Smart Mine of the Future" will come to pass regardless of the commodity price cycles, since the fundamental challenges for the mining industry are around deeper and lower grade ores, community demands for more sustainable operations, remote and complex supply chains, and (of course) the lack of expertise for both planning and execution of the required transformations.

I'm not confident that new innovation investment driven by a new boom will be wisely directed.  I am, however, hopeful that a turnaround will lead to more attention to how we as an industry and we as a nation can make sustained long term progress.  That is, progress in a way that can ride the roller coaster of this commodity price cycle.

Since most people in positions of influence have been saying for years that the boom is over, then they will get a surprise when it comes back strongly.  Their only excuse will be to admit that it's part of a macro-economic cycle.  So this may help get some attention on the systemic challenges around building sustained public and private capability to innovate and transform.

Rather than start from scratch, we should just dust off all the analysis and recommendations from a lot of good work done between 2009 and 2011 that were completely forgotten once the heat went out of the issue at the end of the boom.  If we wait until the heat rises to a sufficient level before we start to analyse the problem, we will likely just repeat history by getting overtaken by another change in the cycle.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Are we ready for the brave new world in mining?

Depending on an optimistic versus pessimistic outlook, we seem to be moving toward either A Modern Utopia of H.G.Wells or a Brave New World of Auldous Huxley.

The world is getting more connected with the continued expansion in the use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT).  This includes connecting people, processes, information and technology.

However, are we ready for the transition to this Brave New Utopia?

This connecting trend manifests itself in mining through an increased use of technology to seek to achieve a step change in performance, including better safety, environmental and community outcomes.  To respond to ever-increasing challenges, mining companies have been experimenting with new business models and new technologies to reinvent the way operational processes are carried out.  Different companies use different terms for their vision for the future mine, but all approaches are basically made of of the following key components:

 The resulting changes to mining business capabilities include:

  • Converting from largely mechanical-manual processes to various methods of automation.  This includes tele-operation of equipment through to almost fully autonomous vehicles.
  • Converting from batch to continuous processes.  For example, changing from truck-shovel operations to in-pit crushing and conveying systems, and/or changing from a drill & blast batch process to continuous mining using new rock breaking machines.
  • Implementing remote and/or integrated operations centres as collaborative hubs to monitor and control almost every aspect of the operation.  This includes providing the data and information necessary at different levels of the business and across different functional and organisational boundaries.
  • Reorganising the business processes to enable greater end-to-end integration.  For example, a coordinated supply chain for moving the ore through to a delivered product while providing visibility to all involved parties, including external parties.
  • Developing strategic partnerships with key suppliers to develop new technologies and/or to outsource key parts of the value chain.  Examples include partnerships to develop autonomous haulage trucks, handing off the blasting operation to explosive companies and using external services to monitor equipment health.

These improved capabilities are made possible through the integration of systems and processes that are enabled by the continued expansion of ICT into every aspect of mining operations.  This expansion is accelerating due to disruptive changes in consumer markets leading to media hype around terms such as cloud computing, big data, advanced analytics, social networking, mobility and the internet of things (IoT).

Behind the hype is the continued exponential rate of increase in the available storage, computing power and communication capabilities, which have now reached a level of change that helps unlock new ways of working in any industry, including mining.

These consumer-led ICT trends can sometimes lead to disruptive change, where completely new companies using new business models outperform and disrupt incumbent players.

These trends also create the opportunity for the “plug and play” integrated collaborative environment as depicted by the "connected systems & processes" part of the above diagram.  The barriers are no longer technical, but are mostly cultural.  It will be the ability of organisations to adapt to change that differentiates the leaders from the laggards.

This more widespread adoption of ICT provides opportunities for the Australian mining industry to improve it’s global competitiveness and in doing so these opportunities can also form the basis of growing a METS sector (Mining Equipment and Technology Services).

There are significant efforts by most Australian State Governments and the Federal Government (METS Ignited) to encourage the development of the METS sector, partly in response to both the decline in resources growth projects and the decline in traditional manufacturing industries such as car manufacturing.  These efforts for developing new METS innovation capability need to be well informed of the impact of the ICT enabled transformations in mining and the evolving eco-system of suppliers. 

Not only are all parts of the METS sector active in technology-based innovation, but the METS sector itself is being impacted by disruptive technology.  For example, there is an increasing trend of equipment vendors, technology vendors and engineering project companies developing a services business, often through partnerships.  This trend towards a services model is being accelerated by the proliferation of intelligent sensors in the field, improved data analytics and ability of distributed teams to collaborate and share data and information in a virtual manner, anywhere in the world.

The future of mining will see more technology savvy workers who will drive adoption of new processes.  The operations will shift from a relatively static and disparate set of functions, to a digitally aware, dynamic, automated, integrated and interactive environment, with increased agility, lower operating costs, higher productivity, improved safety and lower environmental footprint.

However, where will these technology savvy workers come from?

One of the foreseeable issues in transitioning to this new paradigm in mining is the likely shortfall in necessary skills and capability.  This potential shortfall was seen as a critical issue during the resource boom and led to a number of “industry skills” studies being carried out in Australia between 2010 and 2012.

It seems to me that this is still a very significant sleeper issue, and one that has been hidden by the recent attention given to "declining productivity", when in fact the productivity trend has more to do with declining ore grades and deeper mines than anything to do with human or equipment capability.

With significant staffing cutbacks in the resources sector over the last three years, along with the retirement of the baby boomer generation, there is almost certainly going to be a significant shortfall in required technology savvy capability when the industry returns to a growth mode.

Some of the issues raised in these studies in 2010-2012, most of which were never addressed in any significant way, are as follows:
  • What are the future industry needs in terms of skills – do we really understand what the industry needs in the next 10 years to properly position for automation and remote operations
  • With the changing nature of mining and greater use of ICT and automation, what changes can we expect to the ‘social license to operate’ between the mining sector, government and the community? Will the increased availability of data also lead to increased regulation? 
  • How much need is there for ICT specialists to understand mining and well as mining specialists to understanding ICT? Is this in addition to a need for dual professionals with T-shaped skills (both mining and ICT) who are at the centre of the “IT/OT Convergence”? 
  • Is there an emerging issue where existing work is based on specialist functional expertise (geologists, engineers, metallurgists, marketers, etc.) whereas the the trend is towards automated and integrated operations? Does this integrated world view need to become part of the training for both mining and ICT specialists? 
  • What are the ICT skills needed by the future site technicians managing automation equipment? 
  • The future remote operators will not have any first-hand experience in a physical mine environment, so how can that deficit in tacit knowledge be made up? 
  • What are the new skills required for the proper use of the future advanced analytical and visualization systems necessary to interpret the increasing amount and variety of operational data (Big Data / Advanced Analytics). 
  • How can we ensure that graduates of operational mining disciplines and ICT are properly equipped to have substantive conversations about the value that new technology can bring to the mining business? 
  • With the current state of the mining industry, are there enough new students starting in the core professional areas of geology, mining engineering, metallurgy and related disciplines?
  • What are the structural changes happening to mine operations and workforce – what template does the mining sector have for managing automation and ICT-centric operations? 
  • What sort of training is needed on well-defined technology futures (the technologies that exist today and which we could foresee as part of the solution) versus disruptive technologies (the technologies are on the horizon that may challenge current operational practices and embedded value chain models)? 
  • What is needed in training young people, who are already proficient at many of the enabling technologies versus retraining existing people in the industry? 
  • Are there different needs from the major mining companies and the SME sector?  Or are there different needs for the METS sector?
  • What are options for up-skilling – including traditional approaches (executive education, graduate courses, undergraduate courses, specialist training courses) and non-traditional approaches (remote training, massive on-line open courses or MOOCs)?  What role can ICT play in changing the way training and education is delivered? 
  • What is the training needed to understand the difference between project management and governance of mining projects versus large scale ICT and automation projects? 
  • Open innovation – who do you cluster with? What is the opportunity cost in corralling/protecting IP as opposed to the possible multiplier effect generated by open-source/crowd sourcing solutions? 
  • How can the business and higher education sectors collaborate better to ensure better students are attracted to the industry? 
  • What other industries (e.g. agriculture, petroleum, military) have similar challenges and may have some of the solutions? 
  • What are the key stakeholder groups that need to be involved and aligned around these questions? 
  • How can we maintain a dialogue on the shared challenges faced by the industry? 

So who is actually doing ANY planning around these topics?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Getting Data off Mining Machines

Yesterday I was in a teleconference of the GMSG Data Usage and Access Working Group

We covered few key topics that required a lot of thought.  This group is tackling a really difficult topic in an industry that in the past has not really put in the effort.  

There seems to be some issues on just getting off first base - i.e. agreeing on scope. There is an elephant to be consumed and it's difficult to know where to begin.


It looks to me that, after joining several calls with this group, the most compelling issue that keeps coming up is the willingness of the OEMs to provide the raw data from their equipment that mining companies need.  (OEMs = Original Equipment Manufactures - the companies who build and sell the mining equipment, such at Caterpillar, Komatsu, Sandvik, Atlas Copco, etc.)

The OEMs seem to think that the raw data being collected by their on-board monitoring systems, particularly that involving the health of the machine, is competitive IP and they do not want to part with it, even when the mining companies have purchased the equipment.

If the data is not even made available, then other issues such as data standards and transfer protocols are secondary.  Having said that, I do understand that we could indeed just work with the production related data, which the OEMs are happy to part with, and still do something very useful.   This includes things such as speed, weight carried, current position, etc.

However I think that we're seeing the rise of big data / advanced analytics solutions that are able to balance the reliability of equipment with the production task of the equipment.  Miners do this already with preventative maintenance aimed at optimised production.   They will need almost all the data to do it properly in the future.  

Furthermore, in the case of new drilling equipment, we're also seeing data that was originally aimed at machine health monitoring being used as measures of the physical properties of the rock being drilled.  Vibration data from trucks for measuring road conditions is another example.

Without naming names, I happen to know that a major OEM has been having this argument with their largest mining client.  However, because this client only represents 3% of their business, then there is not a lot of leverage that just one miner can have in this particular argument.
This issue has to be tackled through broader industry collaboration.  Perhaps there is a case that ONLY a group like GMSG can actually solve this problem.  The sponsorship of the professional mining societies might prove to be key, as it has in the ore reserve reporting area.


Where to begin eating the elephant?  So in terms of scope, I think that ALL data being collected on mining equipment is in scope, regardless of the purpose, but certainly some data is more important that others.  There is always some sort of 80/20 rule in place, whereby we should focus on the 20% that has the most benefit to mining companies.  

The less important other 80% of the data (with only 20% of the benefit) will just have to fit in as best it can.  Agreeing what is that magic 20% is the hard part, especially if we need to consider what's important for the future, i.e. data required for automated and remotely managed operations.

Another, point discussed yesterday was that unless we drill right down on an issue, we will not actually do anything useful.  I agree, and I believe this is often best done by what I like to call the pi shaped project.  It's a variant of the T shaped project (which is more often referenced in the context of the T shaped person).

In a pi shaped project, the scope covers a broad range at a high level (i.e. in our case: data access and usage across all mining equipment) and then we drill down on just two key areas to the level of depth required to actually get something done.  

By doing two of these at a separated scoping distance, we avoid just solving a specific problem in a specific way that cannot be easily translated to other areas (hence the scope looks like the greek letter pi).  That is, by doing two focus areas at once, we can see what issues are common to both as well as what is specific to each domain.


In this topic of data access and usage, I would suggest the best focus areas may be:

  • Open pit truck-shovel operations (not just trucks, but the shovels as well - i.e. two types of equipment that need to work together)
  • Underground drilling and shot loading (and/or rock bolting) - to again get machines that need to work together.

Some of the more recent areas of application are in M2M (machine to machine) like collision avoidance, as well as H2M (the needs of humans to control the machines, like Human Machine Interface issues) and M2H (getting data back to the humans who need it).  Sorry if I'm introducing unnecessary new terms, but that's just the way I think about the problem.  (This working group itself is a H2H process for solving the problem!)

There also is a sort of multi-variate scope distance between these two listed focus areas that contrasts a few different dimensions.  Open cut versus underground, earth moving versus drilling/blasting, low precision positioning vs high precision.  There is also something special about how the Scandinavians have gone after this issue (in the underground space) versus the way it's been done elsewhere.


Another topic often raised is that we should look at how other industries have tackled this problem and hence learn how they ate their elephants.

I would NOT recommend we look closely at either the defence or aerospace industries for lessons on how to approach these standards issues.

When I worked for CSC (a global IT services company with major contracts in mining), I was often chasing down what we did in other industries to see how it could be applied in mining.  Since the US Military forces together make up their biggest client, and NASA was CSC's oldest client, I ended up collecting many case histories from the defence and aerospace industries that were compelling and relevant for mining, including many that were managing lots of data from mobile equipment.  

However these industries are each actually very difficult areas to get useable lessons from because they will spend whatever it takes over a long period of time to solve these data issues. Getting data off their mobile equipment (vehicles and satellites) is absolutely mission critical, so they've been tacking this for decades.  So unless we want to spend lots of money over decades, then we can't follow the same path.  They have now reached a level of maturity whereby the clients dictate the data and interface standards to their supplier, mainly through the use of open standards.

The Mars Rover program might be an exception - since it was done much more recently, very quickly from almost a standing start, involved many parties, and with a lower budget than usual.  So worth having this one on our list.

However, the area that stands out to me as being worth a close look is airline industry, in particular the jet engine equipment suppliers to that industry.  Like mining OEMs, they sell into a very competitive global market, with lots of different clients using much the same types of equipment.  Their clients have an imperative to do things at low cost AND low risk.  The way they have solved their data access problems seems to have been very effective.

For example, Pratt & Whitney and CSC worked together on a system for monitoring jet engines for a large variety of different civilian and military aircraft types.  The advanced monitoring and analysis they have done has led to significant advances in both maintenance procedures and reliability based design.  

As a result of developing such a monitoring system, Pratt & Whitney found they could manage the maintenance of the engines better than their airline clients, and so they now prefer to rent their jet engines as a service, including extending their monitoring system to handle data from the jet engines of other manufacturers.  

Both GE and Rolls Royce also have similar jet engine monitoring systems and services, so it would be interesting to understand how that industry developed a much more open platform for data sharing.  

As a result of these monitoring systems and the sharing of data, they have got into a virtuous cycle of using the data collected to continually improve both the design of the engines and the maintenance practices, and thus leading to more data being collected and analysed. 


Instead we seem to be stuck in an industry where the OEMs make a lot of their money by selling parts into clients with a break-fix reliability mentality.  Other than just keeping ahead of their competitors, what's the incentive for them to dramatically improve the reliability of their equipment?  No wonder the equipment dealers are more interested in this problem, as they often have the maintenance contracts.

Another problem in tackling the elephant, is that not having really done this before, most of us in the mining industry are perhaps more like the Six Blind Men of Indostan meeting an elephant for the first time.  We all have radically different points of view based on our own experience.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Greening the Mining Industry - Part 2

Green Design


There is no doubt that dealing with issues of sustainability is difficult. While there is a level of awareness among organisations of the coming need to achieve ‘sustainability’ goals, they are not yet sure of what governments may require of them, so it is difficult to plan responses. There is reasonable clarity on what the issues are: enhanced greenhouse effect, continental and global fresh water availability, toxicity, and eventually issues of ongoing availability of some resources. Planning for success in a market regime where external forces are poorly understood is a great challenge. Even so, a cursory analysis of the likely scenarios indicates that everybody will need to be reducing their greenhouse gas contributions, reducing their impact on the water cycle and reducing the inputs of toxic materials to the environment.

So what can organisations be doing and thinking about now to help them position themselves to be competitive in a world where their ability to comply with government regulations and to do business sustainably, may determine their ongoing existence?

Firstly, companies need to understand and accept that the world is changing, and that societal pressures will require them to respond. If we accept that there is a need to do business differently, the response needs to consider remediating for current operations, and adopting new practices for new operations.

For the mining industry, where particular operations may persist for more than 50 years, there are many current operations with long futures still ahead of them, and no doubt many planned operations will be operating well into the 21st century. Interestingly, many of the projected consequences of global climate change are expected to occur within that same timeframe.

Introducing the new systems and procedures to new operations will be challenging, but nowhere near as hard as retrofitting brownfield operations. The best time to position for success in greenfield operations is during the design phase. This article introduces some of the issues around incorporating sustainability requirements in the design phase. Remediating brownfield operations will be the subject of later articles – so keep an eye on future issues of Symbiosis.

Are we prepared?

In a survey conducted by PWC in 2008 (Table 1) less than 10% of resources industry CEO’s had a high level of confidence in their greenhouse emissions data. More that 50% had taken little or no action to address the issues.
Reporting of greenhouse emission will be required by the Australian Government for almost all mining companies commencing in the financial year 2008-2009. Clearly the level of reparedness for the upcoming requirements in Australia is low, and yet the time of implementation is very near!

What can you do?

Mining Companies need to approach the process of smart design in the following stages;

• Understand the issues
• Work out the information you need
• Simulate and design iteratively until the optimal design is achieved.

Understand the issues

I dealt with the high level issues of sustainability in the mining industry in issue n. Broadly speaking, the considerable interest and debate around the globe on climate change means proactive action is very important and mining companies will need to respond quickly and credibly if they are to retain their ‘licence to operate’. It’s nothing new, the mining industry has been responding to changing community attitudes for the last 3000 years.
Work out the information you need.

In order to respond to anthropogenic climate drivers, and government and community requirements to report on those responses, as well as potentially develop new markets, products and businesses, organisations need to identify what information they need to be collecting. A number of organisations have commenced this work. Firstly the Global Reporting Initiative , is one organisation (see Callout 1) that has widespread support and hasas well as a framework which is currently being used for many nations’ emissions reporting requirements. The ‘Mining and Metals’ sector supplement includes specific details of the information and procedures that should be considered. The Australian Government’s National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Act (NGER) provides specific requirements for Australia, and other jurisdictions should publish their requirements in due course.

Iterative simulation and design

The ability to optimise a process for any particular outcome is best achieved in the design of that process, before large expenditures on capital works and equipment make later changes very expensive. Adisa Azapagic of the University of Surrey has studied many aspects of this issue including sustainable development indicators and process design. In these works, Azapagic develops a methodology for considering sustainability issues in the design of chemical processes and further develops the ideas by translating that to the mining industry .

In order to do this, you require an intimate knowledge of the mining process and an holistic view that takes account of the affects of process inputs, as well as the downstream effects of process outputs. That is, it optimises the process not just within the process, but external to the process.

Most industries have a good understanding of how to design a process to optimise financial outcomes, indeed financial outcomes are usually they way that we decide on the viability of an investment. Unfortunately, environmental outcomes are usually considered late in the planning cycle, and certainly after the major design decisions have been made.

Other recent contributions to the literature detail how to measure sustainability outcomes in infrastructure projects and Mangena and Brent describe the application of a Life Cycle Impact Assessment framework in the coal industry . Finally, the development of a mining Life Cycle Assessment Model (LICYMIN) at the Imperial College London provides a solid basis for using the other tools to model a mining operation throughout its whole life (Figure 1).

Figure 1 - The mining life cycle impact assessment system and model boundaries. [after Durucan et al 2006]


These and many other works have defined the macro and micro level processes and the inputs and outputs of all stages of a mining operation. They explain how these data can be used to optimise sustainable design through a process of simulation in a systems thinking environment. Importantly, this allows these new decision making criteria to be included along with the economic criteria (which are also in the models). Modelling different scenarios in a simulation environment allows all aspects to be considered to provide the best possible outcome; for the company and for the environment. Most importantly, the case is made for the benefits of including sustainability at the design stage rather than trying to squeeze it in later.

With an understanding of how to include sustainability issues into the concept stage design process for a new operation, at both the macro process level (mining, processing, remediation etc) as well as the micro level (coal washing process, copper leaching process etc) and a solid grasp of the data that will need to be captured, mining companies can begin to plan for future reporting requirements.

Greening the Mining Industry – Part 1

Comment by Dennis Franklin


For the last 100 years, the mining industry has been responding to changing community attitudes about the environment and sustainability. The considerable interest and debate around the globe on climate change means proactive action is very important, In this article I hope to highlight some of those impacts, and in later follow up articles, I will discuss impacts and responses in more detail. I won’t reproduce all of the work that is being published, but I will point to some of the emerging trends and insights into the role and contribution of Information Technology (IT). In particular, I’ll be highlighting some of the areas where IT can help to support the industry’s response and management of “sustainability”.

Today, not a single project can proceed without an understanding of its impacts on the environment. Now the growing community interest on a global scale means that the mining industry, indeed all industries, need to understand their specific and general impacts on the global environment. The industry’s contribution is through emissions resulting from the mining process, and through the production of raw materials that contribute to the main causes of global emissions. Legislation to minimise those impacts is already being enacted or drafted in many jurisdictions. Even though the mining industry is an important contributor to the economy and our lifestyles, it is, by its very nature, an industry whose emissions will be subject to increased scrutiny.

Where are the impacts across the life cycle of a mine?

Most of the recent press on environmental impacts is about the generation of greenhouse enhancing gases. The main contributors here are Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Methane, and Nitrous Oxide . These contributions are different at different stages of the life cycle of a mine.

The use of fuels, power, and water and the possible introduction of contaminants have impacts that exist across the whole life-cycle. The obvious response to all of this is to use those resources more efficiently and so use less of them. Optimising mine operations through smart design during the concept and pre-feasibility phases of a project can produce significant offsets.

Ensuring that new technologies in mining equipment which lead to reduced fuel usage, more effective tyre wear, and automation and optimisation of their use through fleet management can deliver significant whole-of-life cost savings and can reduce carbon emissions per ton of product. Just as the public are moving towards energy efficiency in their homes through the use of energy saving lighting and appliances, so the mining industry can reduce its energy usage through smart selection of equipment and consumables.

The Build Phase

Perhaps the best time to affect the life-cycle impacts of anything is during the design stage. Minimising the embodied impacts of building a new mine can best be addressed during design. For example, the production of concrete has relatively low embodied energy (energy used to produce the material) but it tends to be used in large quantities . On the other hand, concrete production produces up to 3000 kg/tonne of CO2 and so the carbon contribution is significant.

In domestic applications, however, both of these issues can be traded off against the benefits that concrete slabs can provide. Good design turns concrete slabs into heat sinks that reduce the need for power usage for heating and cooling. So while the interactions are complex, there is a case for good design turning an initial high contribution to environmental impacts into a long term beneficial outcome.

Another example is the use of an in-pit crusher and conveyor to offset the needs for a large diesel truck fleet in an open pit operation. Emissions from the extra trucks is much greater that the carbon footprint of the conveyor system.

The same is true for many other aspects of mine design, mine planning and mining process design where a detailed understanding of the environmental impacts could contribute to a better long term outcome.

The Operate Phase

Good design can go a long way to minimising impacts from operational processes but there are ways to improve existing operations without major capital upgrades. These include better power management, optimising algorithms for mobile equipment, and almost any application of Lean Manufacturing techniques for reducing wasteful effort in the production processes.

The more significant issue during the operational phase of a mining operation is the end-user impact of the raw materials being produced. The obvious example is coal, the burning of which contributes a significant amount of CO2 to the atmosphere. While the argument about whether anthropogenic CO2 is the cause of climate change is controversial, the industry needs to take a position on this issue simply because the political landscape requires it. Besides, any rational approach to risk management would dictate the need to act on the risk anyway, regardless of the likelihood of the risk, simply because the size of the projected global impacts is huge.

The responses to the liberation of CO2 to the environment by burning coal and other carbon fuels tend to be technological. Now, many are researching processes that capture liberated CO2 and turn it into a form that can be stored for long periods, for instance Geo-sequestration. Sequestration seeks to inject CO2 back into the geological strata to remove it from the short-term carbon cycle. Research into these technologies is in its infancy, but most large mining companies and most governments are contributing funds to the research. Another approach is to offset emissions by parallel activities that remove CO2 from the atmosphere, such as reforestation. In time, the establishment of carbon trading markets will allow nett emitters to offset against the activities of others.

The Retirement Phase

The retirement phase of a mining operation includes all of the activities discussed with the life-cycle but offers some interesting opportunities for offsetting emissions as the environmental repatriation activities are progressed. Where appropriate reforestation of mine sites is progressed, carbon offsets should be claimable. Here are also gains to be made through the optimal dismantling of the infrastructure and the reuse of equipment. One option is the mothballing of operations until a time when the technology advances have addressed the problem, similar to the practice of mothballing operations during times of low prices. The threat of this possibility is enough to give the mining industry a strong motivation to be an active participant of the technology development.


The issues at question for the mining industry are not trivial, and the interrelationships between the natural processes are complex. Most of the research on the impacts is detailed and well understood but the necessary responses that need to be taken are not yet well researched. Even so, there are many activities that can be commenced, not just because they make environmental sense, but because they can make business sense as well. Already, in other industries, innovations that reduce energy use are being instituted because they save money. Smart design can help to deliver both energy savings and operational benefits; they are worth doing for their own sake.

How IT can cut Carbon Emissions

Wed, 15 Oct 2008 09:15:00 PDT

The McKinsey Quarterly article of talks about - How IT can cut carbon emissions

Greenhouse gas emissions associated with making and powering the world’s computers and telecom networks are growing fast. Despite efforts by technology manufacturers and users to make these tools more energy efficient, rapid growth in demand for computing and communications—particularly in developing nations—is creating a big carbon footprint.
The good news is that information and communications technologies can reduce far more emissions than they generate.

I agree with all of the comments that they make. IT, even though it generates some greenhouse and other gases, displaces many many activities that are far more GhG producing. A perfectly legitimate approach to a companies GhG footprint issues maybe to increase the footprint of the IT Department and overall reduce the footprint of the company. Of course, doing both at the same time is a valid option as well.

We need to be very careful about goaling IT departments to lower their GhG footprint.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Business Analytics in Mining

Recycled from a previous blog post...

I just saw this great article by Dr Graeme Lumly in the latest issue of 'Highgrade". He talks about the need for more and better analytics in the mining industry and provides an example.

The example is a clear illustration of what can happen when you don't really know what your process looks like. In an effort to change their bulk transport processes to prevent (or at least lessen) the amount of ore that is spilled, the mining company managed to do an amazing thing. The new process saved about $1 million in cleaning up spillage, but cost approximately $9 million in revenue. The change to the process led to less ore being transported.

This is obviously not a great outcome. It certainly argues strongly for better analytics that would help operators to define their current practices, and to model what any change to process might mean. Tying that to bottom line outcomes can clearly show whether a change is a good idea or not, clearly had the company in the example done so they might not have proceeded. I'm sure that eventually common sense would prevail as the revenue started to be affected and questions started to be asked.

The illustration begs another question about innovation. I didn't get it from Dr. Lumley's article, but did the company do a pilot of the process change. If they had they would have quickly determined that the change was great for the spillage problem, but not great for the financials!