Our sixth YOLK event is now in the books. We’ve previously covered digital disruption in transport and logistics, healthcare, finance and government industries, as well as the growing emphasis on product-led thinking

This time we dug deep into how the mining industry is harnessing the industrial internet of things and the associated challenges, opportunities and threats (h/t Charlie for the pun). 

Although there are several examples of WA operators implementing sensor technology and some automation into their exploration, excavation and processing operations, digitisation is considered a largely untapped opportunity. 

So what are the blockers to greater adoption? 

Disconnect between technology suppliers and mining operators

One significant barrier to rapid innovation is that it’s nearly impossible for technology startups to get their wares into the hands of big operators. While companies like Rio Tinto, BHP and FMG may have an appetite to integrate digital technologies into their supply chains, emerging technology companies can rarely meet the stringent procurement requirements or stomach the 90+ day payment terms that come with working with these organisations. So there’s supply and demand, with a lot of strong, restrictive red tape in the middle. 

Mining service providers could be the solution, as they hold contracts with the big providers and it’s in their own interest to improve efficiency and safety outcomes. However, they’ve generally stuck to their knitting and have been slow to innovate and digitise the services they provide. 

Even when technology suppliers have managed to overcome the barriers to working with the big operators, they’ve found it very difficult to get access to any performance data. Without two-way sharing of data, it’s challenging for them to continuously improve and optimise their digital products, which of course stagnates innovation. 

Automation is still limited in scope

Computers are very adept at monitoring and responding to stimuli, and the current applications of machine learning and AI are very algorithmic in nature. Case in point, there are numerous examples across the mining industry of ways sensors are used to do everything from detecting operator fatigue to monitoring wheel bearing wear and tear in transport trucks. 

Where current technology falls short is that computers aren’t yet able to make decisions as a human would. It’s easy for sensors to determine the 20% of operators responsible for 80% of the microsleeps, but how should they be handled? 

These limitations aren’t automation deal breakers. It just means that many processes and decision points are handled by robots and humans working together (cobots!). Which is a great segue to our final point...

 

Implications on the human workforce 

One major consequence of automation in any industry is the displacement of workers. Because of the current limitations in AI capabilities, we aren’t yet at the point where end-to-end operations can be handled without human intervention, but we still need to be concerned with retraining workers - particularly those in more manual, statistically dangerous roles. 

There are opportunities for people to develop and train AI solutions to play a greater role in decision-making by teaching them to handle the more mundane decisions based on learned responses. This is different to how AI learns today, which is by throwing tons of factual information into learning algorithms to develop simulated neural pathways that act like human recognition and decision-making.

Additionally, technology paves the way for rethinking the way we train workers. Organisations like Tap into Safety are pushing to nix the academic, death by powerpoint style training that has become the norm and instead honing in on using modern methods like gamification to improve information retention. 

In summary

Although the mining industry faces many barriers to digitisation and the rate of change isn’t as fast as many other industries, it’s clear there’s an appetite for innovation amongst the big players and a number of technology upstarts keen to provide it. 

Considering it’s an industry that doesn’t let kilometres of rock prevent it from reaching what it wants, something tells us they’ll find a way to break through and unleash the potential. Watch this space. 

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