Having witnessed 20 years of cultural and technological evolution in the resources industry, Dr. Jeannette McGill, head of Telstra Mining Services, is no stranger to disruption in the mining sector.
It’s the way companies respond to the pain points of disruptive technology in mining that will make or break their business, says Dr. McGill, who also serves as non-executive director at the Council for Geoscience.
IN:SIGHT sat down with Dr. McGill to discuss the forces of technological disruption and the need for long-term, cyclical planning in this unique and vital industry.
IN:SIGHT: How does the cyclical, boom-bust nature of mining play into technological innovation and adoption?
Dr. Jeannette McGill: The mining sector is fairly unique if you compare it with straight manufacturing, beverages, transport and logistics. It’s probably one of the more conservative industrial sectors out there. Because it’s conservative, it tends to be fairly slow to adapt to change, fairly slow to adopt new technologies. There are some very real reasons the sector is like this, primarily because it takes between two to five years to construct a mine. Mining has such long lead times and the amount of financial capital required to build a mine is substantial. So the risk is quite high.
Mining is cyclical, so you have these cycles where prices are good, then they drop off and demand decreases, so it’s a natural, fundamental economic cycle. In a capital-intensive environment with these long lead times, it’s right that you tend to be a bit conservative and don’t want to adopt technologies that are OK today, but halfway through developing the mine, they’re not going to be relevant anymore. This is why the mining sector is a bit slow taking up technology.
IN:SIGHT: The mining industry has traditionally made a big contribution to the Australian economy. What skills and technology settings are necessary for the industry to succeed today?
Dr. Jeannette McGill: As mining transitions into a far more technology-intensive environment, it will upskill and deploy more upscale skillsets. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are critical foundations of mining.
The question often asked of mining is around people in remote locations around the world who are impacted by mining but who don’t necessarily have access to STEM equivalent courses and schools and education opportunities. How do they survive in the mining sector?
Mining has been a very difficult sector to employ people into, but I think we can make use of a far broader skills base – people who wouldn’t necessarily see how their skills can be applied in the mining sector – so there’s an opportunity for growth and change along those lines. It won’t stop being a technical area, the issue is being able to tap into growth skillsets.
For instance, mechatronics – he convergence of mechanical and electronic engineering – is a subject that was never offered at universities globally, and now it’s one of the biggest areas of employment. This is what’s exciting about the provision of STEM skills: driving change, driving research, driving new opportunities.
“Critical game-changing technologies are going to emerge across the mining sector, creating both solutions and new pain points… The companies that find success will be the ones that can use these pain points to their advantage.”Dr. Jeannette McGill, Head of Telstra Mining Services, Non-Executive Director at the Council for Geoscience
IN:SIGHT: Communications technologies have underpinned some key growth sectors of the past decade. How are they impacting the mining industry?
Dr. Jeannette McGill: Mines are very dynamic, so things keep moving. The biggest driver for mining at the moment is, in fact, safety. Every single mining company has a safety imperative in their values as well as in every one of their presentations. It’s called zero harm. A lot of this comes down to communication and enabling work teams to understand where they are, what is happening, and taking advantage of the visibility that good communications enable.
Mines will become more efficient and drive the sector forward, particularly in Australia, where mining is so much a part of the gross domestic product and the country’s fabric.
IN:SIGHT: What technologies will be the game changers for mining over the next 10 years?
Dr. Jeannette McGill: Critical game-changing technologies are going to emerge across the mining sector, creating both solutions and new pain points. Mining companies tend to be quite siloed, so there’s always been the mining department and the processing department and the supply-chain department. With the integrating capabilities that come from information technology, as well as the operating technologies, these two paths are converging. The companies that find success will be the ones that can use these pain points to their advantage.
The reality is that sometimes mines have adopted technology for technology’s sake, but I very much view technology as part of a triangle – a critical triangle where all three angles need to be considered together. Technology is one point of the triangle, another is people and the third is process. When you’re adopting and adapting technologies, it’s about understanding the impact they’re having on process.
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