With a Ph.D. in mining engineering, over 20 years of experience in the profession, and a Professorship at Western Australian School of Mines, Alan Bye has seen the industry from both the operational and strategic sides. He’s the perfect man to ask where mining is headed in the future.
— Please introduce yourself
I’m a cross-discipline resources engineer with a system engineering focus. I have been fortunate to experience hands-on work across the mining value chain and across the world on operations and major projects.
— How did you became a Professor of Digital Value Chains and MD at Imvelo.ai?
I have held a range of roles across mining businesses and R&D organisations. My two preceding roles were VP Strategy and Innovation at BHP and CEO at CRC ORE. I am passionate about improving the resources sector at a system level, addressing the productivity, social and environmental dimensions. My time is currently split between my role as Professor of Digital Value Chains at Curtin University and the MD of Imvelo.ai.
— From your point of view, what are the biggest threats to the mining industry in the future?
I think Eddie Obeng’s quote captures the risk facing the mining industry: “My simple idea is that the real 21st century around us isn’t so obvious to us, so instead we spend our time responding rationally to a world which we understand and recognize, but which no longer exists”.
Productivity, skills and license to operate are risks that we need to address as an industry. Regarding productivity, the multi-factor productivity of the Australian Resources sector has declined by 25% since 1990 and labour productivity significantly lags behind the broader Australian economy. In comparison to mining, global manufacturing has accelerated labour productivity four times faster through the application of technology and deployment of digital skills. Concerning skills, there is a skills shortage of both experienced SME’s and those with genuine digital capabilities. The trend in enrolments and graduations for mining related roles is also declining. And when we speak of licenses to operate – there is increasing social value expectations from our communities and stakeholders. Read the article →
The case for collaboration is compelling. It is essential that we as an industry collaborate more effectively within and across industries to build a stronger ecosystem with the critical mass to support the transformation of resources industries – improved safety, productivity and social value.
— What is the maturity level of digital systems or Industry 4.0 practices in the mining industry?
William Gibson’s famous quote – “The future is already here, it is just not evenly distributed” comes to mind. There are pockets of mining excellence across the world that are leading the application of Industry 4.0 and the adoption of digital technologies. However, in general, there is a more ad-hoc approach that is neither integrated nor systematic.
We need to shift from point solutions to integrated systems that are interoperable. The step-changes occur when technologies are integrated taking an system approach. The digital age is bringing the resources industries together with technology platform requirements common across mining, oil and gas, agriculture, forestry and space. This presents an opportunity to leverage cross-industry technology capabilities and accelerate improvement.
— Tell us about the workforce transition that is happening across mining?
We are seeing a shift in equipment operator roles to off machine tele-remote – one operator to many machines and ultimately, fully autonomous environments co-ordinated by a central remote operator. As we bring more technology and systems into the operations, we are seeing an increase in specialised maintenance roles and support services.
Specialist technical roles are shifting from operating sites to regional centres supported by sensors, data integration and automation. Increasingly, mining companies are recognising the value of their data and employing skills that can apply optimisation, ML and AI techniques to improve productivity and asset reliability.
— Where do you see the value of high resolution, 3D big data technologies? (i.e. satellite imaging, LIDAR, sensor-based core logging, geophysical technologies, and online sensors.)
Resource uncertainty remains one of the mining industry’s greatest challenges. For the most part we make estimates from small and spatially diffuse data sets. These technologies offer the ability to collect high-resolution 4D data, in real time and at all scales (microns to km2).
The ability to measure ore variability in real time at every handling point in the supply chain enables value-add by removing dilution, deleterious elements and managing geometallurgical variability. The sensors exist to do this and are improving constantly, so the next challenge is how to integrate them into the business process.
— What are the barriers for adopting these technologies?
Right now, systems are highly fragmented and application environments have a high cost of integration and low levels of interoperability. Furthermore, IT infrastructure is largely antiquated and this needs addressing. Similar to manufacturing in the US, and many governments, the mining sector has hollowed out its technical skills base. This combined with mining not being as attractive to graduates means that the current and future skills base is constrained. There are therefore fewer people within mining companies who understand how to apply these new technologies.
— What application do you see for the Orexplore suite of products?
The mining industry deals with a highly variable resource as an input into the extraction process. This variability destabilises the extraction process causing productivity losses. The cross-discipline data generated by GeoCore X10 provides insights in advance, enabling operations teams to manage the variability and improve productivity.
The resource to reserve conversion process requires competent persons to make judgements on modifying factors such as recovery and throughput, often with limited data. Orexplore will generate more data to better inform the definition of these modifying factors, significantly improving the confidence in reserve estimates.
Exploration geologists are constantly searching for the geological fingerprints, the DNA that defines economic mineralisation. GeoCoreX10 provides a forensic tool that enables geologists to identify patterns and relationships from huge amounts of multi-element data. These insights enable better targeting of exploration programs and increased success rates.
— What role do you see for automation of workflows, as well as ML and AI approaches?
Operating mines generate enormous amounts of data and very little is fully utilised. This overload of data will continue to grow and automation of workflows as well as the application of ML and AI techniques offer a means to leverage these vast data streams for operational improvement. They are however not silver bullets but rather sophisticated pattern matching tools that require skilled SME’s (i.e. geologists /metallurgists) to work closely with data scientists and mathematicians to ensure the tools are fit for purpose and are updated when structural changes occur in operating conditions.
— If we automated the data integration from these 3D big data technologies, what opportunities would be unlocked for mining companies?
Well for one, we would free up significant time that professionals spend dealing with raw data, rather than applying their expertise to actionable insights. With these data integrated we would have better visibility of the 4D resource uncertainty and the ability to proactively address these risks and opportunities.
— What trends and initiatives do you see in the industry in a sustainability perspective?
I like to think about these shifts at a platform or system level:
- Safety – removing people from high-risk work through technology
- Energy – shift from fossil fuels to electric green energy
- Communication – ubiquitous high bandwidth and low-cost communication systems
- Transport – From manual and mechanical to higher levels of automation and tele-remote
- Social – Increasing demand for transparency and equitable sharing of benefits
- Environmental – increasing accountability for the true cost of resource extraction
- Business Models – greater participation and benefit share with service companies throughout the value chain
— Who would you want us to interview next and why?
Michelle Ash, CEO Geovia, she is a highly respected thought leader in the resources industry on the application of new technologies.
— What question would you like to ask her?
How do we improve system integration and interoperable applications along the mining value chain?