Automation: the positive future for mining

Australian Diversified Engineering (ADE)

By Clive Gray, General Manager Director, Australian Diversified Engineering
Friday, 15 September, 2017

Automation: the positive future for mining

Automation is the latest trend in mining with the ‘cruise control’ setting for many processes now increasingly becoming popular. Many experts say automation is here to stay but as technology continues to evolve, what does this change actually mean to the future of Australian mining?

As an engineering company that’s core business is around innovating new, timesaving and indeed often automated devices for the resources industry we have seen a definite increase in demand as more companies are seeing the benefits that come from automated equipment on-site. Companies are trialling driverless trains and robotic drilling among many other automated solutions with a view to increasing safety and of course ultimately reducing costs. The use of robotic devices and remote-controlled equipment continue to provide safer and more efficient ways of operating but a less discussed and also very important advantage is that it can also often be the more environmentally friendly option.

It is reasonable that some in the industry are concerned about the impact of automation on future job prospects in what has long been considered a booming industry. However, it is possible for automation to be applied to select processes to add value to the work being achieved while still utilising skilled workers to ensure these technologies are being implemented correctly and safely. Because of this, it is no surprise that some companies are reluctant to commit large amounts of capital to still-developing technology. Instead, companies are opting for an easier entry point into automation technologies such as remote control and or even driver-assisted techniques to control mining machinery and maintain jobs. In other words, using these technologies alongside manned equipment and vehicles to enhance human work, as opposed to replacing it.

An example of mine automation is in the area of water spraying. Utilising automation technology as a part of the spray technology allows a mine to geo-fence its network of haul roads with various water application rate zones. What this technology does is extend the safety of employees by removing the hazard to water truck operators introduced by incorrectly selecting water application rates. The information needed to operate the system is gathered from haul road material audits, where friction mapping is used to determine appropriate water application rates. The use of this particular automation component does currently require manpower. A person is needed to manage the haul road material audits and update the water application rate’s geo-fence as the mine’s network of haul roads changes.

Naturally, the growth of automation will change the mining industry’s employment landscape, but this change does still require a strong human backing to be effective. It’s definitely not a matter of suddenly replacing thousands of workers with robots overnight. I expect these changes will be introduced over a long period of time in quite an organic way, as opposed to seeing major job cuts. I don’t believe total and complete automation is the way of the future, but as autonomous mining grows, there will be a need for people to upskill to maintain this integration.

Just as the introduction of spreadsheets didn’t destroy accounting jobs, automation certainly won’t destroy mining jobs, but will simply change them. Although we will see some roles being replaced with automation technologies, we will also see the expansion of new technology-related departments within the mining industry, which is exciting.

As more and more companies, seek to improve the productivity and safety in their mine sites, these innovative solutions are helping Australian mining companies successfully discover, process and transport minerals, safely manage haul roads and operate in an efficient manner.

Making sure engineers are trained in automation technologies ensures that mining services companies such as ADE are consistently at the forefront of industry developments and providing solutions to challenges commonly faced by the mining and construction industries. Gradually embracing automation technologies will create a safer and more efficient mining environment to ensure mining and construction companies can operate safely and efficiently.

Clive Gray began his career as an apprentice diesel fitter with his local shire council and 30 years later is a part owner and General Manager Director of Australian Diversified Engineering, a leading manufacturing and distribution company supporting the mining and construction industries and offering engineering services specialising in the design, fabrication and assembly of custom solutions.

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