At the core of these challenges is the commodity downswing – after the early 21st century boom, fuelled by the relentless growth engine of the expanding Chinese economy, global demand has significantly weakened. Not only has product innovation reduced the need for mining’s core materials, it has also identified new ways to reuse materials in the circular economy.

 

Other developing nations are not picking up the commodity demand slack from China, as many leapfrog conventional resource-rich industrialisation to instead become service economies. This picture is exacerbated by the increasing scarcity of high-quality ore deposits, forcing organisations to expand to remote and difficult-to-access new sites; over the last 15 years, the average cost of producing copper has risen by over 300 per cent, while the grade quality has dropped by 30 per cent.

While these trends threaten mining’s future prosperity, significant technological shifts could help mining to find new ways to navigate these challenging waters.

63%

of our mining respondents expect to achieve greater automation through their IoT deployments at some point in the future

At the core of all of these is digitalisation – a force which has upturned a variety of markets, but which, as this research demonstrates, has only just started to make an impact in mining. The intelligent implementation of digital technologies like IoT could transform mining, making it more productive, efficient, safer, sustainable, and profitable, and therefore better able to take on the challenges it faces.

While mining organisations have been slower on the uptake of automation and robotics than those from other sectors in this research project, the data indicates these technologies will become a more prominent part of the mine of the future. Indeed, some 63 per cent of our mining respondents expect to achieve greater automation through their IoT deployments at some point in the future. This reveals the way in which IoT networks with smart sensors will provide the foundation for a smarter mine of the future.

In order to operate in a coordinated way which adapts and reacts to the environment around them, these autonomous machines need to be able to interact with each other and understand what is going on in the mine. By deploying connected smart sensors in a network, IoT makes it possible to automatically pick up data from previously elusive locations and for this data to be communicated rapidly to other devices – sowing the seeds for a network of automated devices that adjusts to environmental conditions in real-time.

At a time when the comfort of the office is becoming a global norm, the mine remains a uniquely hazardous and inconvenient workplace. Automation offers a way around all the risks and expense inherent in employing people in these locations, while bringing the precision and bandwidth of technology to the coalface.

Mining can be a hazardous working environment

Mining can be a hazardous working environment

For example, Freeport-McMoRan is already using drones to create steeper slopes in its mine, reducing the amount of rock it needs to move to access materials. These drones can not only scan the mines from perspectives that are dangerous and near-inaccessible to humans, they can also instantaneously communicate any information they pick up. This makes for a more rapid and detailed analysis of the mine slopes without having to deploy workers to the mine. With machines becoming progressively more capable of acting with little manual intervention, a future where adaptable and autonomous machines carry out the on-site, operational tasks of mining while human employees work remotely looks probable and profitable.

Where does human intelligence fit into this vision of the future?

The digital revolution has created new ways for workers to interact with technology, meaning that human intelligence can be augmented with digitally-supplied data. For example, Virtual Reality (VR) can be used to figuratively transport a remote worker directly to the coalface, allowing them to bring their own experience to bear on a situation. Meanwhile, Augmented Reality (AR) can be deployed to ensure that relevant data is relayed to a worker in real-time giving them instantaneous warnings and instructions. However, with less than 10 per cent of mining respondents in our research possessing the strategic and management skills they require to make the most of IoT technology, mining companies will need to develop new skill sets if they are to embrace digital technology’s promise.

The future of mining ultimately lies in the capacity to fuse human creativity and experience with technology’s ever more sophisticated ability to collect, process, and analyse vast swathes of data.

— Joe Carr, Director, Mining

Those who do this skilfully will be able to overcome its current challenges through increased productivity and efficiency, and the redeployment of the human resources to more sophisticated roles as automated technology takes on more dangerous and data-heavy tasks.

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