Australia has a post COVID-19 reconstruction engine staring it in the face in the form of the mining equipment, technology and services (METS) sector which has experienced a demand surge during the pandemic.
The METS sector supplies everything from mining equipment repairs to mining related software and geological modelling consulting services.
The sector contributes $92 billion gross value-added income to the Australian economy per year and directly employs 300,000 people.
METS Ignited is the federally funded Industry Growth Centre covering the METS sector and chief executive officer Adrian Beer sees a large growth opportunity arising in the wake of the pandemic.
Mr Beer said while COVID-19 quarantine regulations had limited people movement and therefore mine production, it had caused explosive demand in other METS related areas.
“At one end of the spectrum COVID-19 in terms of lock-down of movement of people and services – particularly across borders – has limited the provision of those services to mine sites and has had significant impact on the supply of physical goods and services.
“Those traditional mining equipment companies have had a significant impact on their revenues.”
Other METS companies have seen their order books swelling through the pandemic with a dramatic increase in demand for automation technology, robotics and remote operations capabilities
“Those companies providing more modern services, those that have been at the front end of the adoption of technology, particularly around data analytics and automation have seen a rapid increase in demand for their services and have been unable to keep up with deployment of those services both here and abroad.”
The pandemic inspired business surge for those METS companies has come from a global rush to complete “the last mile” of automation to bolster production amid pandemic related constraints.
As an example, Mr Beer knows of three local METS outfits that have seen business flow in from Africa, South America and the US as a result of COVID-19.
Until the arrival of COVID-19, companies had been reluctant to invest in completely automating many of their operational processes.
“Now with borders constrained or regulations limiting people onsite, companies have decided to go ahead and automate the last mile.
“The phones are running off the hook for service providers who deliver that capability.”
Miners who had completed automation at one site as a trial now wanted to quickly expand the process to all their sites.
“They want it done yesterday,” said Mr Beer. Mines were asking providers to figure out how to do the job remotely due to pandemic restrictions and were willing to pay a premium for the work.
Providers were struggling to meet the spike in demand for digital mining capability.
“We did a survey a few weeks ago of those technology vendors and their biggest problem is working out how.
“The demand is there, just they just don’t know how to fulfil it,” said Mr Beer who pointed to the current phenomena as an example of how mining jobs will change with increased automation.
The age-old presumption of mining being about men in hard hats wielding picks and shovels, or even more modern jack hammers and explosives is fast changing under the pandemic.
“It’s rapidly accelerated the shift to that new digital footprint. It is a scramble to get there. Instead of 2030 its now needed by 2022.”
What is still in development is a set of interoperability standards for mining tech that works horizontally across a mine site and vertically over a multitude of sites and service providers.
Mr Beer said this was because the initial mine automation techniques were developed by a few big, tier one mining companies who wanted the technology for their own operations rather than industry-wide operations.
The commercialisation layer has been missing, Mr Beer said.
“The commercialisation of the technology is what we have to solve for. The technology problems have been solved and the research work is being done. It’s making the outcomes of that research and making the technology that has been developed commercially available.
“We need to shift from bespoke technology being able to automate a point of a process to building interoperable, open platform standards like what has been achieved in the IT sector, the power sector and most other industries.”
That said, Mr Beer believes Australia is a world leader in developing interoperable mining technology and processes.
“What COVID-19 provides us is that fantastic opportunity to commercialise the technical capability we already have but just haven’t yet harnessed.”
Given that mining mostly happens in regional Australia, Mr Beer believes there is a major opportunity for the regions, especially in skilling-up workers to do the more technical and data-centric jobs required to operate the mines of the future
“There has been a perception that autonomous mining will create these big control centres in capital cities.
“The least cost-effective thing you can do is build a large remote-control centre in a capital city where it’s the most expensive place to get the least experienced people, probably at the most expensive wages.
“The best thing you can do is upskill people in regional communities where that have the most experience and the most capability.”