Previous posts have examined some of the career paths available in mining. This post examines potential opportunities created by the emerging trend of mine site automation.
Automation is the new hot topic in the mining industry. A recent poll conducted by Mining IQ revealed that 77% of mining specialists think automation is a high priority, and 40% of these specialists say that automation is “now more important than ever.” A Google search will turn up dozens of current conferences on the topic, an indication of the pace at which mining companies are engaging in automated and robotic technology. But the subject of mine site automation stirs up controversy as well as excitement.
While mining companies are seeking mining automation technologies for the operational and financial efficiencies they offer, employees fear being made obsolete by innovations such as driverless trucks and trains. Remote monitoring and control of equipment allows miners to automate industrial processes like blasting, drilling, and transportation.
Efficiencies are gained through continuous, consistent operations, improved communications, and reduced infrastructure. Mining companies claim automation isn’t really eliminating jobs but rather creating new, different ones. Supporters maintain that while traditional entry level and field positions may be lost, personnel can be shifted into new roles monitoring and controlling the automated processes. If a driverless truck stops, for example, site managers are needed to coordinate mine communications to report the stoppage and dispatch an operator to check and manually restart the vehicle. Proponents also point out that mine site safety can be improved by removing personnel from dangerous environments and placing them in remote control rooms where they can operate equipment from a safe distance.
A new report issued by the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency (AWPA) suggests workers with specialized skills in remotely controlled and automated systems will find opportunities as the trend toward automation increases. For current employees, this means a trend away from lower-skilled jobs into more highly skilled technical jobs and therefore retraining and/or re-education. Other potential opportunities may arise in the areas of lab automation, information management, and data analysis. The need for rapid data capture and accurate analysis of sample data is one of the biggest challenges in mining. Timely sample analyses are critical to determine ore boundaries and drilling targets in order to focus on the highest quality deposits.
Modern mining companies looking to improve operational efficiency rely on sophisticated laboratory information management systems (LIMS) for quality control, increased productivity, data management, and compliance with product and environmental safety standards. Lab managers and technicians will be needed as LIMS expand to small and mid-tier companies trying to stay competitive. Employees skilled in data analysis can develop predictive models that help mine operations become proactive rather than reactive, a significant advantage when substantial investments are at stake.
Some industry experts caution that automation isn’t a one size fits all proposition; new mine locations, expanding sites, and very remote locations may be better candidates for the technology. Mine sites that have been in existence for decades will need to carefully evaluate the business case for implementing automated technologies to decide if, when, and where they best enhance productivity and reduce costs. What do you think about mine site automation technologies and what they mean for the future of the industry? Your comments are welcome.