The future of work in the global resources sector
Australia's resource boom has transformed the country, accumulating valuable human capital, partially offsetting the collapse of the manufacturing industry. But how will the sector adjust to a new phase in the commodities cycle?
Professor Bre-Anne Sainsbury from Monash University’s Faculty of Engineering discusses the challenges and opportunities facing professionals in the global resources sector.
Q: How is technology transforming the commodities sector?
A: Innovation has always played an important role in the growth of Australia’s energy and mineral resources sector. But during the last mining boom, costs rose to unsustainable levels and so innovation is now critical for miners to maintain productivity and boost profitability.
Many mining companies remain at the early stage of the adoption curve, placing most of their innovation focus on optimisation of old techniques. But the past two years we are seeing the industry moving towards driving innovation to improve efficiency and safety, and adopt less cost-intensive practices.
One of the main innovation shifts are practices allowing employees to spend time adding value to the asset, while providing managers with the real-time data they need to make robust business decisions.
These include better digital workforce engagement through innovation in sensing, processing and responding. This can be achieved through the application of autonomous drone-swarm systems that are equipped with specialised sensing equipment. This equipment is integrated with Simultaneous Localization & Mapping (SLAM) technology feeding machine learning systems that are performing real-time data-analysis and informing Trigger Action Reponses Plans.
Using the same technology, there is also improved real-time remote asset management and efficiency in aligning work processes with energy availability (for example, turning off fans underground automatically when no workers are present). In addition, further capital cost savings can be made with 3D printing and modularisation of warehouse stock so engineering jobs can become design-focused.
Q: It’s claimed robots will replace many of our current jobs. Should professionals in the resources sector be worried?
A: The increasing mechanisation and automation of the industry is providing engineers with the time to once again problem solve and add value to the business. No longer tied to collecting and crunching data (as this is being done automatically), the engineer can once again concentrate on design optimisation of the mining value chain and developing community and workforce relationships.
Q: How have renewables changed the work landscape? What other trends should professionals be aware of?
A: There is no doubt the mining industry is undergoing a period of transition. The global move towards renewables has impacted the outlook for thermal coal. However, fossil fuels are likely to continue playing a critical role in the global energy mix for the next 50 years.
Sustainability is becoming a key demand from governments, customers, communities and other key stakeholders.
How can miners operate in more sustainable ways? This doesn’t just come down to environmental impacts, but more generally of the mining industry’s “social license” to operate in communities that are growing increasingly sensitive to the industry’s social, health and financial impacts.
Meanwhile, expansion into new and often remote locations as a response to increasing demand from growing emerging markets is another major challenge. This often means having to deal with unreliable power supply from the grid and uncertain power prices.
In most instances, grid-connected electricity needs to be supplemented with on-site generation, resulting in a dependency on diesel fuel. The more remote the mine, the more likely off-grid power solutions are required.
As a result of this, mining companies are evaluating greater use of renewable energy as part of a broader strategy to lock in long-term fixed electricity prices and availability while minimising exposure to regulatory changes, market pricing and external fuels.
In addition, the growth in e-mobility markets is providing additional opportunity for the mineral sector. For instance, Lithium battery demand is set to double by 2020 and in-excess of 100 e-mobility vehicles have been announced by motor companies in the past two years. That will drive a rapid expansion in rare earth minerals.
Q: Is there a way to future proof your career?
A: Miners are looking outside the industry to adopt best practices. This is being driven at the present time by interdisciplinary engineering that focuses on quality over quantity.
It is said that Generation Alpha born post 2010 (at a rate of 2.3 million every week!) will be the most transformative generation ever. Permanently connected through intuitive smart technology that crosses language barriers, they have the ability to transfer a thought online in seconds.
To survive and be sustainable, the Australian mining industry must embrace technology innovation through providing opportunities for the younger generation to lead this charge early in their career.
As an employee within the industry, adapting to innovation changes is critical. This may mean additional study to brush up on technology literacy and/or providing work-place training for your employees. It also provides an opportunity for diversification of your own skill-set and career.
Professors Bre-Anne Sainsbury and Edward Buckingham will present a master class, “The future of work in the global resources sector” jointly hosted by Monash Business School and the Faculty of Engineering in Brisbane on Thursday, 17 November, 2016.
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